It’s no surprise that most high achievers experience burnout at some point. Whether it’s grad school, the grind of menial work, or even a high-powered career, in one form or another, when these intensity drivers stop being a part of your life, you will find yourself stuck in a bewildering new position. In order to know how to recover from burnout, you first need to understand what it is and how to recognize it.
The truth about burnout, according to experts
It happens to a large part of the population. You’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed and at times unable to cope. In fact, a Gallup report from 2020 revealed that an insane 76% of people experience burnout at some point. That’s more than three-quarters of the population, proving just how prevalent this is. This number has been on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic and it will likely only get worse. This is because we’re all experiencing much more chronic stress, making it harder to take everything in our stride.
It manifests physically. You may not mentally realize that you’re struggling, but your body picks up on those signs more quickly than you’d think. According to Amelia Nagoski, co-author of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, “burnout manifests as illness.” Because of this, you can’t just get over it with one night of good sleep or by taking the day off. “So just like it takes a long time to recover from a broken bone or severe infection, it also takes a long time to recover from burnout. There’s the period where you’re really wounded, the period where you’re working to bounce back, and the period where you’re not quite back to normal, but you’re definitely not in crisis anymore,” she told Oprah Daily.
There are many symptoms that come along with burnout. If you’re experiencing burnout, chances are you feel physical and emotional exhaustion no matter how restfully you sleep at night. Nagoski says it’s like “being overwhelmed and drained by everything you have to do, and yet, somehow still feeling worried you’re not doing enough.” However, you should also be on the lookout for sleep disruptions such as having trouble falling or staying asleep, mood changes such as feeling more irritable, getting sick more often, low libido, and getting sick more often.
How to recover from burnout
Accept it. This is the best first stage. You don’t have to force yourself to heal overnight. Nothing will come of that. The best thing you can do is look yourself in the mirror and realize you have so many things that you are fulfilled by in life. Just because one aspect of how you used to define yourself falls through, it doesn’t mean that everything has changed. Find one thing to control and hang onto, to claim. This will help anchor you through the process of change and growth. It will mean you will be less defensive and more able to engage in acceptance. Burnout is scary and way more common than you think, and it’s also been a long time coming.
Don’t put a timeline on it. If you’re anything like me, the first impulse of any historically high achiever is to perfect things or improve things. To push yourself to gain new insights and be seen to be strong and powerful. I know that when I heard that it could take two full years to recover from burnout, the first thought I had was that I could do it in half that. Or less. It comes from a combination of negative thoughts that stem from dismissing the severity of our own problems as well as rushing through life without enjoying it.
Find hobbies. It can help you unwind if you find something physical or material like knitting or writing. Something entirely new that you can’t replace or convert into the competition. It’s much healthier that way and you don’t need to judge yourself constantly. Low cost hobbies allow you to experience more growth and maturity.
Replace your drive. Finding a new place to find yourself during burnout Is really hard. When you previously held all of your value with academia or arbitrary metrics, you can’t just leave that hole. You have to replace things that are important to you. One way or another. It gives you a real sense of community and drive to have things that you can get better at and improve at. We still need that function, but when you relearn it by starting slow and knowing what you want to get out of it, you can develop a more sustainable relationship with your sense of purpose.
Don’t expect perfection. You can’t control everything. That’s what caused all the problems leading up to this burnout because you couldn’t mediate a healthy relationship between work and progress. By being kind to yourself and ensuring that you know yourself you don’t get swept up in other people’s standards of what you’re meant to be doing.
Understand that recovery isn’t linear. You know more than most that trying to track each day the same and make yourself feel like you’re in control is the hardest thing. Make whatever progress you can. Take each day by day and progress won’t look the same every day. Sometimes it will be getting out of bed. On other days it will be socializing all day and still have the capacity to make more plans. On those days, you will see the light. It will always be there, you just have to see it in unexpected places like in your relationship burnout.
Find a friend in a similar position. You will fare so much better when you know you’re not alone. We’re all human in that respect, we need community. You are kinder to yourself when other people are in the same boat, undergoing the same journey. It also means that when you are burning out, you can share resources and talk about research that you’ve done. Two heads are better than one, even burnt-out ones.
Talk about burnout syndrome more. Talk to your mother, your grandfather, and your baby siblings. All these people – however unexpected – will have insights into how to address or stop the rot of burnout. It is a symptom of high levels of stress and anxiety sustained over a long period of time with very exacting, crippling consequences. Don’t blame yourself. Give yourself a chance just like you give everyone else one.
These are just a few ways that you can be more intentional and balanced as you negotiate your burnout period and get yourself back on track. It’s all about learning better habits so that you can regulate yourself going forward and get back in the game.
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