June 30, 2022 – Well into our third year of collective trauma, it feels like the hits just keep coming. Spring brought renewed hope that our constant vigilance over the threat of Covid might be waning, but inflation, gun violence, dropping stock values, and rising rents and mortgages have tamped down our hopes and plans for the future. Pile onto those pressures recent Supreme Court decisions (on guns, abortion, the environment—and the basic right to privacy) and it is no wonder we are all talking about burnout.
Burnout has real consequences: physical and emotional exhaustion; cynicism and detachment; and a general feeling of ineffectiveness and hopelessness. Many of us are experiencing these feelings, none more acutely than those who are nearing the last decades of their lives and those who are just beginning their journey into adulthood.
Those of us in our 40s and 50s have the advantage of a longer timeline toward retirement and a lot of life experience we can draw on to provide us with greater resilience. We have survived ups and downs and may be more equipped to believe a “bounce back” is likely, or at least possible. This is not to say that we are not also experiencing burnout, but our path to resilience may be shorter. All of us, though, have the ability to focus on what gives us joy and to hone in on what we have control over.
First we need to acknowledge the dangers of burnout and recognize the signs. When we are stressed, our bodies and minds go on the defensive, with three broad responses available to us: fight, flight, or freeze. All spring from fear and lack of control. Our ability to respond to threats is a wonderful gift of nature; it is why we have survived as a species, but this response is intended to be immediate and short-lived. Once the danger is over, our heart rates return to normal, and we can continue to move forward imaginatively with a sense of hope. Unfortunately, when the threats pile up as they have been and we feel we have no way of combatting them, our physical and emotional responses remain heightened long term. Short-term stress becomes longer-term burnout.
Unrelenting stress and burnout can be dangerous physically and psychologically, so the first step toward recovery is to recognize the signs. Emotionally we may experience anxiety, fear, shame, irritability and guilt. Physically we may experience exhaustion, headaches, body aches and pains, shortness of breath, and trouble sleeping. The consequences for how we function in our personal and professional lives can be damaging. Often we overwork or are short with others (fight). Sometimes we rely on drugs or alcohol or over-eating (flight) to cope. We may have a hard time concentrating or remembering (freeze). Far too often, we blame ourselves, which just begets a vicious cycle of guilt, shame, and hopelessness. Sometimes because we are so caught in the cycle of despair, we can’t even name what we are feeling.
“Unless you’re demented, you are likely to see a lot of darkness right now, [but not only darkness]….We only get one life, and one of our responsibilities is to enjoy it and savor it….There are more possibilities for light in your life than you realize.” -Mary Pipher, A Life in Light: Meditations on Impermanence
Journaling, sharing with someone else (especially with a coach or therapist), spending time in nature, and practicing gratitude are all methods for naming what is happening and possible antidotes to the poison of burnout. And there are so many other small things we can do to bring some light into the darkness:
- Be honest and kind to yourself
- Beware false optimism
- Move your body
- Get more sleep
- Take time off (everyday)
- Ask for help
- Connect with others and make time for yourself
- Pursue joy
- Ask yourself: What do I want? And then prioritize that.
When we are burned out, we often are stuck in a belief that we have no choices. These tactics for shaking loose the darkness of burnout are all choices we can make. Not trying is also a choice.