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How to deal with burnout

Reviewed by Mary T. Johnson, RN, MSN

Two candles burning out.

It’s Monday morning. You’re sitting at your desk in a daze, getting ready to start yet another long workday. 

The projects and tasks keep piling up, but you can’t seem to motivate yourself to get things back under control. It’s as if your brain has put the brakes on responding to any goals or deadlines whatsoever. 

You can’t tell if you’re stressed out or maybe depressed. You know something is wrong, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. 

When the light at the end of the tunnel disappears 

Humans can endure an incredible amount of mental and physical stress over short periods and still do what it takes to succeed. Knowing there’s a light at the end of the tunnel—the finish line, a reward, a rest—is what keeps us going. 

When we’re put under extreme amounts of stress for long periods of time, however, we become exhausted or “burned out.” If there’s no end in sight, everything seems to lose its meaning. 

Is it stress or is it burnout? 

There’s a difference between being stressed and being burned out. Think of stress as overengagement. Burnout, on the other hand, means being disengaged. 

Burnout feels like you’ve checked out of your life emotionally and have nothing left to give. This severe and chronic condition goes beyond feeling overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated, or fatigued. You might even experience physical effects like muscle tension, headaches, or digestive problems. 

You can tell burnout from stress by considering whether that light at the end of the tunnel is there. People who are stressed know that everything will be okay once the source of their stress is taken care of (or has passed). The light is there and it’s getting closer, despite their challenges in the moment. But if you’re truly burned out, you can’t see the light at all. 

Signs you may be dealing with burnout 

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t go to sleep feeling stressed, then wake up the next day feeling burned out. It tends to creep in over time. 

Psychologists Herbert Freudenburger and Gail North have identified 12 distinct stages of burnout.1 Here’s what they look like, according to Freudenburger and North’s model: 

  1. Extreme ambition: Your goals seem unrealistic (and probably are). 
  1. Excessive work or achievement: You push yourself to do more, no matter what. 
  1. Self-neglect: You fail to meet your own needs. 
  1. Victim mentality: You blame other people or your circumstances. 
  1. No time for anything else: Your life revolves around work, caregiving, or whatever else is at the root of your ambition. 
  1. Denial: You’re convinced that you don’t have a problem and continue to blame others or your circumstances. 
  1. Withdrawal: You feel a sense of meaninglessness and pull away from others. 
  1. Behavioral changes: You experience more negative emotions and react to other people in a hostile way.  
  1. Depersonalization: You feel detached from life, like you have no control over anything anymore. 
  1. Despair: You feel an inner emptiness or sense of anxiety
  1. Depression: You feel hopeless. 
  1. Physical or emotional exhaustion: You feel so fatigued or in pain that you might need medical treatment. 

Since burnout is gradual, the symptoms can sometimes go unnoticed. Some of the most common symptoms of burnout include: 

  • Physical or emotional exhaustion 
  • Frustration, impatience, and irritability 
  • Difficulty focusing and concentrating 
  • Loss of motivation to work toward your goals 
  • A sense of hopelessness or meaninglessness in things that were once important to you 
  • A desire to escape reality 
  • A desire to isolate from others 
  • Difficulty with your relationships 
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Increased susceptibility to illness 
  • Use of food, drugs, or alcohol to cope 

Who gets burned out? 

Burnout is often related to work or caregiving, but many other factors can influence it too. Academic obligations, relationships, family issues, social pressure, information overload, sleep problems, poor work-life balance, high expectations, and psychological instability can all contribute to burnout.  

Burnout is especially prevalent in health care workers,2 but it can show up in almost any profession. Social workers,3 lawyers,4 and teachers5 are a few other types of professionals who are at a higher risk of experiencing burnout. 

Most of these roles involve one or more of the following: 

  • Heavy workloads 
  • Long hours 
  • Minimal control over workloads, tasks, or deadlines 
  • Lack of clarity with job expectations 
  • Tedious and/or monotonous work 
  • Having to perform in high-pressure situations 
  • Exposure to dysfunctional environments and/or people 

Certain traits and characteristics can also make people more prone to burnout, regardless of their job. For instance, burnout can come from: 

  • Being an overachiever or workaholic 
  • Being a people pleaser (or saying “yes” to everything) 
  • Being a perfectionist 
  • Being pessimistic or cynical 
  • Lacking close, supportive relationships with friends, family, or colleagues 

How to deal with burnout 

If you recognize that you’re in the early stages of burnout, or if you want to prevent burnout altogether, here are some actions you can take: 

Talk about your concerns with family, friends, colleagues, or a therapist to help yourself gain perspective and explore coping strategies. When someone isn’t available to listen, try self-talk or journaling to help you express your thoughts and feelings. 

Get enough sleep to let your mind and body properly recharge. Make sure you also stick to a regular bedtime and wakeup time, optimize your sleep environment, and create a healthy routine for winding down before bed. 

Eat nutrient-rich foods to help keep your mood and energy levels up throughout the day. Vitamin B12, for instance, plays an important role in metabolizing serotonin, which is a chemical that helps regulate your mood. 

Exercise regularly to help reduce anxiety, depression, and negative moods. Exercise can also boost self-esteem and cognitive functions such as thinking, learning, and judgment.  

Maintain a life outside work by taking advantage of vacation time or longer summer days to help yourself recharge. If you’re self-employed or a student, use “time blocking” to maximize your productivity, which involves dividing your day up into blocks of time to tackle specific tasks. When not working, be sure to unplug from your work.  

Set boundaries that allow you to say “no” to other people’s requests as necessary. Healthy boundaries are important for managing your time and your energy.  

Get support so you don’t have to do everything on your own. You can help manage your workload and your relationships by asking for help. 

Be gentle with yourself 

Keep in mind that if you’re in the later stages of burnout, taking extended time off is unlikely to resolve the issue on its own. If your professional and personal lives are suffering, consider talking to a therapist so you can get to the root of your burnout and work together to develop an appropriate plan of action. 

Struggling with burnout doesn’t mean you’re incapable of dealing with life’s challenges—it just means you need a new strategy that helps your find a healthier balance. There’s always light at the tunnel.

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.