Burnout – 5 signs you’ve reached emotional exhaustion and what to do about it

Burnout is a term that’s used a lot nowadays, but what does it actually mean? And how do you know if you have it?

“Burnout is what happens when we feel emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted after being overwhelmed by the demands being placed on us over a lengthy period of time,” says Dr Gemima Fitzgerald, a Clinical Psychologist. “When we have insufficient resources to meet these excessive demands it causes stress. Stress, over a sustained period, can push us to the limits of our resilience and eventually, we can feel that we have nothing left to give. We feel burnt out.”

We need to understand what the typical signs of burn-out are in order to take care of ourselves, those we care about, and strengthen our resilience. Here, Gemima explains the five signs of burnout to be aware of. She also shares her advice for coping with these feelings.

Signs you’ve reached burnout

Feeling emotionally numb or distanced

Often when we’re burnt out, how much we ‘care’ is affected. At work, or at home, you may find that you just don’t care about things you used to. Compassion-fatigue happens when we are in ‘survival mode’. You just don’t have capacity to engage with things that you used to.

Emotional exhaustion

On the other hand, perhaps you feel overwhelmed by worrying too much about things that are outside of your control. Our personal boundaries can begin to blur when we’re burnt out, making it harder to say no, or make healthy decisions about where to place our energies.

You might feel that you can’t cope. This usually happens alongside a sense of hopelessness about the future and a loss of joy. Consequently, this affects motivation.

Physical symptoms

Burnout can and often does, manifest in our bodies. When we feel unable to say no, our bodies often find a way of saying it for us; forcing us to rest. Common symptoms are:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach pains/digestive issues
  • Sleep and appetite disturbances
  • Being tired all the time
  • Weight loss or weight gain

Cognitive problems

Chronic stress affects our brains. We are biologically primed to focus on threat. When we’re burnt out, it can be really difficult to concentrate on anything other than our worries.

You may have noticed that you have become more cynical, have reduced creativity, memory problems and poor performance at work.

Interpersonal issues

Relationships are often negatively affected by burnout. Maybe your tolerance for others has been diminished, you have less empathy and patience and feel more irritable.

Research shows that, when we’re chronically stressed, our perception of how good our relationships are is negatively affected. Also, our body image may suffer alongside our self-esteem, causing us to withdraw.

What helps burnout?

If you think you’re on the road to burnout, know that you’re not alone. Many people struggle with this at some point in their lives; especially now, during the pandemic. Have compassion with yourself and be gentle and kind in the way you talk to yourself (like you would towards a loved one).

Take one day at a time. Today you can cope. Today you are safe. Focus on things you are grateful for, however small. Also focus on the things that you can do to make yourself and the ones you love feel better.

I love the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can. And the wisdom to know the difference.”

Find things you can control

There are many things outside of our control right now. But there are some things we can do to keep ourselves safe and feel better mentally. Think of yourself as a mobile phone for a moment. What would you say your battery-level is? 90%? 70%? 45%? Or maybe you feel you’re in that last 10% of battery life? We all need to spend time recharging.

Recharge can be short. It may include a few minutes of yoga, walking, mindfulness, deep breathing or meditation. Or it can be longer: reading a book, spending time with loved ones, or gardening, for example. The important thing is that you have a think about what recharges your batteries. It will be different for all of us. Prioritise this as an act of self-care and self-compassion.

You may feel that others don’t understand, and maybe you’re right. After all, no one else knows what it’s like to walk in your shoes. However, having a sense of common humanity, in that what you’re feeling right now is a part of being human in 2020. Other people are struggling too and would empathise. Knowing this is really important in re-building your resilience.

Talking to someone about how you’re feeling; whether it’s a good friend, a partner, a family member, or a healthcare professional, really can help. For me, the phrase “This too shall pass” helps. You’ve got a 100% track record of surviving tough times and you will get through this too. Keep hope alive.

Read more articles like this