Burn-out is a such popular word nowadays. People use it to describe various mental and physical symptoms: being depressed, overly stressed out, exhausted, apathetic, anxious, lacking motivation, feeling hopeless, feeling trapped, etc.
We might be on the verge of it for many years, but we never question it. Instead we defend ourselves by saying this is how my life is, this is how I am, I can’t imagine living any differently.
Is the power of habit and the structure of our identity really so firm that even when our body and mind are sending alarm signals (do something about it!) we choose to ignore them and continue leading our lives in the same way?
If we want to recover from burn-out, we need to be honest with ourselves. The situations we find ourselves in might have been unfavorable and difficult, but the main causes lie within us; hence, the first battle we need to deal with is the internal one.
And if we want to prevent it, we need to know enough about ourselves.
If it has already happened to you, then the only thing that you can do is learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again
1. The lesson starts with reflection and learning
It was because of work demands. My partner was too needy. The children were misbehaving. I just had to be there. There was nothing I could have done about it. And so on.
Nobody would deny any of these. However, the end result is down to a combination of factors influencing your choices, behavior, and priorities.
Look at the beliefs that govern your life and put you in the roles that you are performing. Consider what it is that you need to do, how you should be, what your responsibilities are, how you need to be with others, etc.—there is a role and a set of beliefs for each area of your life.
Nobody can force us do something if we don’t give our consent. Our inner and outer worlds interact; our expectations of ourselves collude with external demands.
We can exert control over and manage ourselves, but rarely the environment.
So, let us grab this “negative experience” as a chance to learn about ourselves and the unconscious motivations that have been directing our actions and choices.
2. What you need and where your limits are
You had been going against yourself for some time. Your resources of energy and resilience were being swept up in a tide of inner and outer demands, of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’. Consequently, the overwhelming emotions and turbulent thoughts became louder and louder, and you boarded a downward spiral.
Had you noticed the tipping point and how dangerously things were getting on top of you, you could have stopped the train from derailing.
But, life is about learning. We are all in the same position; nobody is born with complete self-knowledge; we “meet” and discover ourselves by twists and turns.
And repeating the lessons is part of the process.
I am still discovering new things about myself, perhaps because it is inherent in us that we are constantly changing, or perhaps because our psyche is formed of numerous layers which mean the self-exploration process rarely ceases.
Even if we could know ourselves at least well enough to stop our fall in time, that would be sufficient.
I have recently felt this in my bones, and with it came a true understanding (never too late to learn and change ????) of how limited our life energy is.
I am an entrepreneur and currently the main person in charge of raising two small kids while my partner works abroad. I have come to realize what a stress-inducing situation I am in, one comprising challenges in various areas of my life.
First, there is my business. Even when I’m not physically working, it still occupies my mind. I have realized that it is not the actual number of hours that I spend working but the “weight” of that work upon me that gives a more accurate estimate of my used energy.
Second, both my relationship with the kids and my long-distance partnership take an emotional toll on me, so that I need more time to relax, release my emotions, and re-establish my inner equilibrium.
Third, I have recently come back to my home country to live and was ignorant of the fact that this would be a substantial change that would require my attention and energy.
Thus, my overall conclusion was that my level of stress was pretty high and that I had taken insufficient action to counter-balance it, not exercising or practicing self-care enough. Having now implemented a regular routine that allows me to mentally and physically unwind, my balance is back.
My tool and solution number 1 was to be aware of my stress level and the usage of my energy. Number 2 was that I consciously inserted enough time for myself into my daily habits to regularly recharge my batteries and purify my body and mind.
Accept what has transpired
Don’t create another internal battle by denial, self-accusations, or minimizing the importance of your symptoms—not only is it futile and contrary to reality, it will also add to your stress.
In fact, if you do you are much more likely to prolong or repeat burn-out.
Many negative and self-disparaging thoughts might surface: I am not good enough, I should have done x, I am not strong or competent enough, if I were different this wouldn’t have happened to me. All of these reflect the assumption: there is something deeply wrong with me.
No, there is not.
Each of us has our own psychological limits in terms of how much internal and external stress we can take.
Beyond that point, our system will crash.
The “burned out and exhausted part” of us has a story to tell. It knows why we have arrived at this point and what it needs to recover. Its wisdom is precious and essential—it is an advocate for our well-being.
Other parts of ourselves—those parts that seek recognition, attention, praise, success, pity, etc. during our life of “meeting our own and others’ demands”—will object and try to convince us that once we get enough rest we will be back to “normal.”
Our identity is forged in our beliefs, habits, obligations, and daily routine; it might not have been formed consciously and with an awareness of the possible threats to our health, but it is who we are.
Hence, it is natural that we resist change.
How will it be afterwards? Who will I become? What will my life look like? These legitimate questions will raise apprehension and anxiety.
You will feel the emptiness and discomfort associated with moving into the unknown. But being prepared in advance, and knowing that everyone who undergoes a major change or is about to transform his or her life experiences similar emotions, is comforting.
There is no way back. Embrace the change, because it will bring the relief. Let go, take time to mourn your former identity (if you feel the need to), and adapt to the transition…
You have not lost your identity; it will simply be upgraded to a healthier, more balanced, and contented you.
3. Don’t maintain the same lifestyle and mindset
There is a simple calculation you can apply to check the extent to which your lifestyle is either balanced or on its way to self-destruction.
(your amount of expendable energy) – (obligations and activities) + (time for renewal and regulation of body, emotions, and thoughts)
My philosophy is that life should not be about suffering, constant demands, pressure to prove to ourselves and others that we are worthy enough, or feeling obliged to take care of others to the point of neglecting ourselves.
We are enough as we are, here and now, with all our flaws and tiredness. And we deserve to live a calm and balanced life.
Our reservoir of energy has a limit. We have the right to decide how we will use and renew it, and consequently, to feel well, healthy, and resilient.
Our minds are devious; they can perpetuate the same type of functioning but in a different context. The program of shoulds and musts now shifts to the area of self-care, where we feel obliged to perform a set of activities that will supposedly be good for us.
How can something that is supposed to soothe us, be demanded? I am not saying that doing one or two things regularly is not beneficial, but rather that we need to listen to ourselves and not simply force these things on ourselves.
The activity we do should be chosen through contact with ourselves, by listening to our bodies and emotions, and prescribed according to how we feel in the moment.
The prerequisite is to start feeling oneself.
The good side of the story: keep yourself out of reach of burn-out
Know your “stress” limits and consciously manage investment in, and revitalization of, your energy
I have learned to sense how situations and human interactions affect me; whether they drain or amplify my energy, or at least keep it steady.
I speak of energy as an entity consisting of mental, physical, and emotional levels. All aspects of our functioning are intertwined and co-impact each other; if the balance of one of these levels is disturbed, the other two will reflect this negative change and our energy as a whole will decline.
For example, if I am preoccupied by worries about my business, my mind will produce anxious thoughts and my body will become tensed, and as a consequence I will feel fear, sadness, self-pity, etc. I can intervene on any of these three levels in order to calm my emotional, mental, and physiological stress:
I observe and detach myself from my thoughts; I interrupt their flow by shifting my attention to another subject; I immerse myself in one activity.
I monitor my breathing for three minutes; I visualize cleansing my body; I am just mindfully present.
I acknowledge and allow feelings to be; I release the emotional tension by expressing feelings constructively (I speak about them, write them down, I cry, etc.), or I discharge them through the motion of my body (e.g. through all types of sports)
Notice the first warning signs
This is a really efficient method, because we cannot be in touch with ourselves every minute of the day. We just cannot. We can, however, recognize the first tensions. I am again referring to the three levels of functioning mentioned above.
In fact, I would add a fourth one, which is behavior.
Frequently, what we do and how we behave can be a valid indicator of stress. For example, I may not be aware of being stressed out, but when I retrospectively analyze changes in my behavior I can see that I was stressed.
Some people are better at sensing and understanding themselves through their thoughts, others through their body; it isn’t important where you start from, as long as you are able to identify and define your alarm signals.
My warning signs that I am approaching a high stress level: I tend to rush (behavioral level), my mind produces thoughts about what I still need to do and what is going to happen tomorrow, in one week, etc. (mental level); I feel irritable and anxious, and have less patience with my children (emotional level); and on the physiological level, I experience digestive problems or the eruption of an allergy.
It has taken me a while to realize all this, but it is worth it. To know oneself is an ongoing process, but once we know ourselves enough, we can manage our mental, emotional, and physiological balance. We can take precautions and halt stress before it comes into full-blown effect; and, we can understand how to rejuvenate our energy and put ourselves back into equilibrium.
Mental hygiene should be part of your daily routine
Twenty minutes at the end of the day, a few times per day for a couple of minutes—take time to feel and sense yourself, even if you’re in the middle of rushing around.
It is without doubt a necessity. You are in the driving seat, so you can opt to stop the engine or turn onto a road with serene scenery.
Listen to the wisdom of your body. It knows exactly what is happening. It will help and guide you towards harmony and balance. Next time you are confronted with a choice of whether to do this or that, or you think that you must do something, ask your body, and listen to its response.
We live far too much in our heads and so distanced and alienated from our core (bodily and emotional) self which is perfectly aligned with the the laws of inner balance.
Go through the day at a pace that is comfortable to your body, and you will be out of reach of burn-out.