Tackling burnout day by day
There can be times for all of us when we feel like we’re on ‘that’ relentless treadmill, trying to keep all the balls in the air afloat, with little time for reflection or genuine downtime. Or for some this may become a more permanent state over time inherent in a particular job, studies, project or added responsibilities in the home. Either way it is important that we keep in check the impact of this unsustainable level of ‘doing’ on ourselves, our bodies, emotions, cognitive functioning and overall resilience.
Burnout can happen to anyone, leading to a combination of physical and psychological symptoms such as a lack of energy, aches and pains, poor sleep, gastro-intestinal problems, memory problems, joylessness and depression. Along with this life can start to narrow as we give up ‘optional’ things we enjoy, to invest all our energy in keeping afloat, keeping up our commitments and managing burnout symptoms. This results in our resources being depleted – what Professor Marie Aspberg refers to as the ‘Exhaustion Funnel’. Her research shows that those at risk of exhaustion and burnout are people who are highly conscientious workers and whose self esteem is closely linked to work performance.
Over time burnout risks depression and associated symptoms that reinforce suffering. Take cognitive symptoms of feeling depressed for example – these can include an over-generalised autobiographical memory – that is our minds lack the specificity to identify specific events, solutions, exceptions; a negative memory bias – for example a reduced ability to recall past positive experiences or solutions; and reduced problems solving abilities. In a sense, if we had an internal filing cabinet labelled “What to do specifically to feel better – based on past experiences” it would be locked.
Faced with this, what can you do? An important starting point is to pay attention to all your current daily activities in detail, checking the balance between nourishing, uplifting activities that replenish your mood and depleting activities that drain your internal resources and dampen your mood. This need not involve any dramatic changes to your week – it’s the small daily things that count: taking a particular route to work that you find pleasant, going to a certain café or coffee shop where you enjoy the surroundings, making time to have a swim or go for a walk, buying some flowers, eating particular foods that you feel nourishing, wearing a particular outfit that you like. Consciously re-addressing this balance every day by actively scheduling in positive events is key for the assent to a fuller richer life. Equally, doing new things spontaneously for the sheer pleasure of it can offer a powerful antidote to the narrowness and ‘seriousness’ of life when burnout is present. Look out for any internal resistance – like thoughts that tell you engaging in pleasant activities is somehow indulgent or frivolous, as this will only perpetuate burnout.
Dr Samantha Leaity, Clinical Psychologist at Become Psychology