Has an overly stressful environment left you feeling anxious, fatigued, and uninspired? If so, you’re not alone. In fact, according to one survey, the majority of us are feeling stress and burnout.
Addressing stress and burnout is important. Unfortunately, there’s a significant level of stigma that comes with it, which often inhibits those who suffer from taking action. The result is that people make a few very common and unnecessary mistakes when managing the stress in their lives.
How you choose to deal with these feelings can be either transformative or counterproductive. Here are a few ideas that will help you when dealing with stress and burnout, avoiding unnecessary mistakes, and help you find your path to stress-free recovery.
It’s Just a Little Stress, Right?
We’ve all had to deal with stress at some point. Stress is an evolutionarily important survival mechanism. It generates a burst of energy that floods the body with chemicals like cortisol and epinephrine. It triggers the flight-or-fight response and can help energize, motivate, and even boost task performance under certain circumstances.
Stress is also meant to serve as a warning system. We’re not meant to live in a flight-or-fight state. A constant rush of energy within our bodies leads to burnout over time.
And in today’s social and economic environment, burnout is all too common. A recent Indeed survey found that 52% of respondents are feeling burned out. How serious of a problem is burnout really?
There’s a stigma surrounding burnout that dismisses its gravity. Perhaps it’s simply an avoidance tactic. But we know that physical side effects of burnout are real, like headaches and muscle pain. It causes our mental health to suffer. Studies show that burnout can even be a risk to our overall survival. That same study also showed people suffering from burnout tend to be more cynical and have poorer professional performance.
Burnout is a problem and a common one. If you’re ready to effectively address your condition, start by acknowledging these common mistakes in dealing with stress and burnout.
1. Ignoring the Symptoms
Rome wasn’t built in a day. But it also didn’t fall in a day. The same analysis can be applied to burnout. The condition takes time to develop when we don’t act on the plethora of warning signs our bodies throw at us. These include:
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Headaches and physical pain, like muscle aches and sore joints
- Poor appetite
- Falling ill (more often than usual)
- Feeling defeated or hopeless
- Lack of motivation
- Feeling disconnected from ourselves and the world
If you can relate to several of these symptoms, ask yourself how long ago they started. We can feel surprised by a burnout diagnosis, even though the signs were there all along.
Contrast burnout to how you might act if your leg was visibly broken. Would you just carry on, ignoring the pain and symptoms? Most likely not. Burnout is a threat to our overall health and deserves to be treated no differently than if you were suffering from a broken leg.
If you’ve been ignoring your burnout, focus on the three A’s. Acknowledge it. Accept it. Act on it.
2. Waiting for the Environment to Change
Stress and burnout are products of your environment. Your environment can be a physical place, like a place of employment, or the emotional space you occupy.
A work environment is often the source of burnout. Workplace stress is estimated to cause 120,000 deaths a year. It likely costs the US economy in the $100s of billions every year (though a hard number to pinpoint).
When you find yourself often complaining about your workplace environment, whether due to poor leadership or stifled growth, lack of work-life balance or lack of clarity, discrimination, or office politics – you are likely in a toxic environment. Trust your instincts (if not the symptoms). Doing nothing and waiting for someone else to fix it is not a (good) strategy.
Work towards changing your environmental circumstances, either by improving it or leaving it.
You could focus on improving communication and collaboration at work. Or coming up with a productivity schedule that gives you more family time. In severe situations, improving your environment could mean a career change. Talking to a therapist, ideally covered through insurance, is an easy way to gain perspective. Talking it out to a good friend can be cheaper (and possibly easier).
Ultimately, workplace burnout boils down to leadership, and if that is out of your control, all the Bandaids in the world won’t heal your wound. You can leave a destructive environment and drastically reduce your stress as a result.
3. Reacting the Wrong Way
Coping with stress comes in many forms. We often turn to methods that only temporarily treat the symptoms of burnout (like anxiety) instead of focusing on the causes (like toxic environments).
Some all-too-common examples of poor coping tactics include:
- Drug or alcohol use
- Emotional eating
- Avoiding work
- Unhealthy sleep routines
- Anger and lashing out
These are reactive responses to secondary emotions caused by burnout. Many of them include escapist tendencies, which can even include constantly changing jobs.
A better approach is to focus on proactive responses. Embrace healthier coping methods, like exercise, wholesome eating, therapy (for your body or brain), and a bit of meditation to boot.
Take your time when responding to negativity. When a stressful situation or feeling begins to set in, focus on staying calm. Breathe. Count. Try letting go of your personal attachment to an issue. This responsiveness isn’t only about how you react to others, but to yourself as well.
4. Repeating Old Habits
Recovering from burnout once doesn’t offer lifetime immunity. Humans are creatures of habit and you could find yourself right back where you started, fueling another burnout flare.
Here are a few bad habits that we have that only worsen our stress levels and bring us closer to burnout:
- Stress eating
- Poor time management
- Social media overload
- Not keeping work at work
- Forgoing sleep
- Beating yourself up
- Staying busy but not productive
- Overextending yourself
- Drinking too much alcohol or caffeine
It’s better and easier to stop burnout from happening in the first place rather than tackling a relapse. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
According to research, here are some of the best burnout prevention tips.
Exercise regularly: You don’t need a gym membership to make exercise part of your routine. Studies have shown that just 30 minutes of exercise 3 times a week can have a positive impact on our stress and anxiety levels.
Set boundaries: Differentiating our workspace from our home space – can be especially difficult these days when working remotely. Focus on setting strict boundaries that let your body and mind know when it’s time to work and when it’s time to relax.
Take time to disconnect: You really can watch a movie without checking your email. Try it. On a regular basis. Heading into nature is a proven cure to disconnect while helping to reduce stress as well.
Eat a balanced diet: Studies have found links between poor diets and high anxiety levels. Swap out some of the junk for more wholesome ingredients and see if you notice a difference.
Commit to a healthy sleeping schedule: Just like a poor diet, poor sleeping habits can leave us more prone to stress. Focus on not just getting enough sleep but on developing a healthy sleep routine.
Break Free from Burnout
When your mental and physical resources have been depleted, burnout sets in. And, despite its name, burnout doesn’t burn out on its own. Instead, it spreads like wildfire to all areas of our lives. The good news is that we have the tools to put out the flames.
Whether you’ve been dealing with stress and burnout for weeks, months, or years, there’s always hope for recovery. There’s never been a better time than now to focus on the three A’s.
Act on it.