What to Do When You’re Burnt TF Out
A weird combo of overwhelmed and apathetic can leave you fried. Here’s how to rekindle your flame.
Picture this: You go to light a candle that has a usable chunk of wax left, but the wick is totally worn down and won’t catch the flame. If you’re feeling like that tapped-out wick — you’ve got the wax, or the skills to work hard, but the spark won’t catch — it’s safe to say you’re dealing with a solid case of burnout. The good news is that you have the power to get yourself out of it, even if you can’t see your own wick at the moment.
You may think of burnout as a phenomenon that’s tied solely to school, your job or something else that demands a ton of mental attention. And it definitely can be, especially if you’re on a tight team with a tall to-do list.
But this all-too-common consequence of never getting (or taking) a break can creep into other areas of your life too, says licensed clinical mental health counselor Tasha Holland-Kornegay, PhD. An overly intense or repetitive training schedule can run you ragged, especially if you aren’t seeing improvements. So can going through the same routine every single day, especially when nothing new is on the horizon (side-eyeing you, 2020).
“Burnout can feel like you’re in a constant, never-ending state of exhaustion.”
It’s worth knowing that burnout doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s a slow, ahem, burn that intensifies over time when you don’t address stressors or soul-sucking monotony, says psychologist Morgan Levy, PhD. Here’s your guide to spotting burnout in the making and stopping it before you become a melted-down mess.
What burnout isn’t…
- Simple stress. Stressful situations come and go — think a big deadline or an intense few weeks of training before a tournament or event.
- Fleeting fatigue. If you’re able to take breaks that leave you feeling refreshed when you do come back to the grind, you’re probably not at the total-burnout point yet (sweet).
- Actual depression. With burnout, you can still imagine the situation improving if a certain thing happened, like a break from your usual training or someone joining your team to help with your workload. You’re also able to take steps toward making yourself feel better, like reading this article. “The big distinction to make is that burnout is a temporary state, sometimes a crisis, but not a sustained mental illness,” explains Holland-Kornegay.
Just FYI, unaddressed burnout can morph into depression and anxiety over time, research shows. If your weariness is starting to feel more like hopelessness, it’s time to seek professional help ASAP. “A therapist can also help you see what patterns you’re repeating that might be contributing to burnout,” explains Levy.
What burnout is…
- Total emotional drainage. Instead of at least starting off energized, you might find yourself dreading the day from the get-go. “Burnout can feel like you’re in a constant, never-ending state of exhaustion,” explains Levy.
- Zero motivation. You’re phoning it in at work or during workouts (or maybe you’re not showing up at all). Even when you try to apply yourself, you can’t concentrate and end up making rookie mistakes.
- Numbness. The problem with burnout is that the break or change you need to feel better just. Isn’t. Coming. After a while you get used to the grind and become detached from the outcome or results, says psychologist Adrienne Meier, PhD.
- Body pains. The combo of intense stress, poor sleep and constant tension can actually start to make you feel weak and achy, says Levy. That’s especially true if your burnout is coming from an overly aggressive fitness routine.
In short, burnout is more than just deep physical and mental exhaustion. It’s exhaustion plus listlessness or detachment that comes from believing nothing’s going to change. That sense of uselessness can leave you feeling negative, cynical and straight-up stuck. As a result, your self-esteem can start to tank, and you start trying even less. “All of this can lead to decreased performance, which can lead to an even lower mood,” says Levy. Uh, negative feedback loop, anyone?
Reignite Your Flame
Recognizing you’re burnt out is the first step toward solving the problem, so high fives to you for getting there. Now that you know it’s time to make some changes, start here.
- Define what’s draining you.
For a week, commit to writing down everything you do and how it made you feel, suggests Levy. (Set an alarm to jot some notes once or twice a day so you don’t forget.) “You might start to notice a pattern of when you’re feeling your worst. There might be one activity in particular that triggers a spiral of negative emotions,” she says. If it’s something you can nix or scale back, do so (duh).
- Be more mindful.
Focusing on the present moment — even for a few minutes — boosts awareness, helping you tune into the physical and emotional cues of burnout, notes Levy. When you notice those, you can concentrate on nurturing your mind and body (through any of the activities below) instead of dwelling on the sources plaguing you. That alone is freeing, she says.
- Set boundaries.
When you’re truly burnt out, “Your gas tank is empty. No amount of revving will get you back to where you want to be,” says Holland-Kornegay. That means you have no choice but to slooow down. Let others know what you are and aren’t able to do. “The most actionable place to start is keeping work at work,” says Holland-Kornegay. If you’re remote, that might mean using a dedicated laptop just for your job, or committing to not answering emails or texts after a certain time at night. If you’re feeling overburdened with training, promise yourself you won’t push past a certain effort level for a while, and stick to that. And listen to your body to decide how you’ll move each day.
- Find ways to refill your bank.
Making time to relax isn’t giving up. It’s just acknowledging your 100 percent normal need to refuel, points out Holland-Kornegay, and refueling is the most productive thing you can do. Schedule regular active-rest days for a chill hike or yoga class. Take a mental health day (really, though). Or just commit to going to bed early enough that you can log the seven-plus hours of sleep your body and brain need to recharge.
- Add moments of joy.
Love a perfectly crafted latte but brew your own coffee to save money? Or miss getting lost in a book, something you haven’t picked up in weeks because your mind is so fried by nighttime? Start making time for those pleasures whenever you can. Joy helps us feel connected to ourselves and the world beyond all the BS going on in our own lives, allowing us to feel more hopeful, says Holland-Kornegay. And it can reignite your spark when you’re feeling depleted.
Hopefully, you’ll experience even more joy when you finally see yourself light up again — and an even better feeling when you remember that you hold the power the next time things start to feel dim.
Words: Marygrace Taylor
Illustration: Mojo Wang