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Hard work is valued in every culture. But due to our well-intentioned zeal to “do it all” and “have it all,” many of us are living well beyond our stress response. Overtime, these stressful demands can begin to exceed our ability to cope with them, and we find ourselves headed for burnout.

“Do what you can, but always remember to have mercy in the process.” – Wayne Muller

A close friend of mine who is a dedicated, overworked, single mom recently decided to leave her upper management position for one that paid less, but was also less demanding. On the day that I helped her move out of her old office, she pointed to a funny paper on the bulletin board above her desk. The words at the top read: STRESS REDUCTION KIT and below the word was a circle containing three words in bold print: BANG HEAD HERE. As she took it down, ripped it to shreds and threw it into the trash she confided, “There actually isn’t anything funny about feeling burned out.” And then with a more hopeful tone in her voice, she offered, “I’m not giving up. I’ve just had enough. I owe myself and my kids a better life than this.”

Burnout saps our energy and often leaves us feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, unmotivated and disconnected. These feelings can undermine our relationships, our career passions and our health. But we can learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout. By paying attention to our needs through dedicated self-care, the harmful effects of burnout can be reversed. We can learn how to reclaim and restore a sense of balance, self-worth and well-being.

How to Look for the Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

Leadership expert and author, Richard Boyatzis believes that the word burnout is a misnomer. In his book, Resonant Leadershiphe suggests that a more accurate word for this condition should be Burn-Up. Like a chronic fever, burnout has escalating and debilitating physiological, mental, emotional, social and spiritual effects. He writes: “When we sacrifice too much for too long-and reap too little, we become trapped in what we call the Sacrifice Syndrome. Our bodies are just not equipped to deal with this kind of pressure day after day. Overtime, we become exhausted. We burn out or burn up. We slip into internal disquiet, unrest and distress.”

He explains that when we feel worn out but keep trying to push through, we can find ourselves at the mercy of our own volatile emotions and reactivity. These emotions then dictate and control our thoughts and behaviors in a downward spiral of self-neglect.

In her book, Fried: When you Burn Out and How to Reviveauthor Joan Borysenko, a medical scientist and psychologist, shared a personal account of her own struggle with burnout. She described her feelings this way, “I compare myself to an appliance that has been unplugged. Like Humpty Dumpty, I feel irretrievably broken. Something vital, perhaps my life force, seems to have gone missing. I’m emotionally exhausted and don’t give a damn about work or most people. I have nothing left to give and very little interest in receiving. I just want to be left alone.”

The symptoms of burnout can be confusing. Depression and burnout can overlap. They can also be experienced independently of each other. Consulting your family physician and/or a licensed counseling professional can aid you in understanding and addressing your symptoms.

It Happens to the Best of Us

It’s important to remember that burnout can happen to anyone. Experiencing burnout does not mean that you are weak or that you have failed in any way. The late psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, coined the term burnout in his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. He believed that no shame should be associated with burnout. To the contrary, he explained that burnout is a painful condition that good people experience overtime when they are trying to do and give their very best.

Through her pioneering research on burnout, psychologist and author, Christina Maslach, devised a standard test for burnout called the Maslach Burnout Inventory. It focuses on a cluster of three symptoms and how frequently they occur:

  • Emotional Exhaustion – Feeling drained and used up
  • Depersonalization – Feeling detached, uncaring and cynical toward self and others
  • Reduced Personal Accomplishment – Feeling progressive loss of confidence and competence

If and when we find ourselves losing energy, enthusiasm and confidence, we may be experiencing the ripple effects of burnout. It’s never too soon to take a closer look at how you are feeling, make time for yourself, set new priorities and seek support.

Steps for Restoring Balance

1.Slow Down

2.Observe Your Patterns

3.Take a Personal Inventory

When we feel overworked and undervalued, feelings of loneliness are inevitable. As we become more isolated and detached, we may also become numb to the warning signs of burnout. The healing process toward recovery and restoration is initiated as we take an honest look at the present state of our mind and body.

Helpful questions for observation and introspection:

  • Are you feeling tired and drained most of the time?
  • Have you noticed a change in your appetite or sleep habits?
  • Are you experiencing feelings of helplessness, being trapped or defeated?
  • Do you feel a decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment?
  • Do you frequently have negative feelings and self-talk that may include thoughts such as, “Why bother?” “Who cares anyway?” “Why doesn’t everyone just leave me alone?”

Answering yes to any of these questions is not an indication of weakness and need not induce feelings of guilt. In fact, turning toward this recognition is a courageous, albeit uncomfortable, first step on the road to facing and coping with burnout. We must step off of the treadmill of exhaustion long enough to make an honest, personal assessment of our situation. My graduate school psychology professor put it this way, “We have to name it, before we can hope to tame it.”

Seek Support

One of the most debilitating aspects of burnout is isolation. When we feel spent and overwhelmed our inclination is to try to conserve what little energy we have by avoiding others. In order to counter this tendency, begin by consulting with your family physician. It’s also imperative that you let trusted family members and friends know how you are feeling. This will not burden them. It is likely that they have already noticed changes in you and are concerned. When you can share your vulnerabilities with others it serves to strengthen and galvanize those relationships with understanding, safety and trust.

In the book, Believe, world renowned peace activist, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke about the importance of allowing others to support us. He wrote, “If only we could learn to accept our inadequacies, our frailties, our vulnerabilities, we would not need to try so hard to push away those who really know us.”

Rethink What You Value Most

In her book, Keeping The Fire, counselor, consultant and author, Ruth Luban describes burnout as a “call” from one’s “core self,” an opportunity to return to one’s heartfelt values and priorities as a means of getting back into balance.

Set aside some dedicated time to gently explore the following questions:

  • What do I need less of in my life?
  • What do I want more of in my life?
  • What is it time to let go of?
  • What relationships are pivotal to my happiness and well-being?
  • What would I enjoy doing on a daily basis to de-stress, calm and center myself?
  • If my heart could talk to me, what would it say it needs most right now?
  • If I had only a short time to live, who would I want by my side and what would I want them to know?

Taking this time to reassess your priorities by honestly asking and listening to what your body, mind and spirit needs in present time is a vital and merciful component necessary for healing burnout.

Start with Simple Changes

BJ Fogg is a research psychologist and director of the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab. Through his innovative, Tiny Habits program, he demonstrates how to make small shifts in behaviors in order to successfully change habits. Burnout, by nature, seems so very complicated. Because we feel wiped out on so many levels, we don’t know where to begin. Fogg suggests remembering these three powerful words, “Simplicity changes behavior.”

Using his advice, we can build in baby steps of rest and nourishing comfort each and every day. Acknowledge your well-deserved need for less “doing” and more “being.” Naps are encouraged.

  1. Meditations on gratitude and loving-kindness increase contentment.
Related Video playFeeling Gratitude | Ornish Reversal Program


2. Choose exercises that you enjoy and set your body free.

3. Enjoy yummy, nutritious food as a healing medicine.

Enjoy More Playtime

The laughter and light-heartedness that results from more play time with people you love is indispensable. (See Ornish Living article, Why More Playtime will Improve Your Life)

Slowing down, accepting ourselves and our limits, and realigning our hearts and minds with what matters most to us will foster the self-compassion needed to love our burnout into nonexistence. Summon the inner compass of your intuition to gently guide you in setting reasonable, humane expectations for yourself. Overdoing is out. “It’s good enough” is in. Therapist, minister and author Wayne Muller offers this healing suggestion, “Do what you can, but always remember to have mercy in the process.”

What has helped you to recover from feelings of burnout?




Contributed by

Mimi O' Connor
Group Support Specialist

Hearts linked, together we heal…

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