What Does it Mean to Burn Out?

At the end of the summer, I was forced to admit my depression had exceeded my control, prompting me to seek treatment for it. My life had become a blur of busyness and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. There was never enough time in the day. After a few weeks, my medication helped clear the fog from my mind and I was faced with a crushing reality.

I wasn’t just depressed, I was experiencing a burnout.

I had taken on too many things, stopped focusing on my own desires, and was no longer practicing self-care. There were so many commitments on my proverbial platter pulling me in an inordinate number of directions. My sense of being lost may have been because of the depression, but it wasn’t the sole perpetrator in my current state of being.

After pushing myself to the brink, I barely had enough energy to pull myself back from this self-inflicted burnout.

This term ‘burnt out’ seems to be used more frequently than ever, no longer being limited to workplace situations.

To burn out is to hit a point of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion cultivated by constant stress. This can come from a specific situation at work (ie being overworked, constant unhealthy atmospheres, etc), but it can also be caused by doing too much all at once. When you no longer enjoy doing those things, the culmination can make things worse.

In my case, there was already a lot of mental and emotional duress going on. Once I combined it with doing too many things all at once, a burnout became inevitable.

It can be hard to identify a burnout before it’s too late — sometimes you don’t even know it’s happening until you find yourself barely functioning.

According to Psychology Today, there are three telltale categories that identify a burnout. While each item doesn’t necessarily mean you are having one, combined they’re usually good indicators.

The physical ones were what manifested most prominently for me. These include:

  • Chronic Fatigue – Feeling constantly drained, tired, and fatigued, as well as a sense of dread regarding things you need to do.
  • Insomnia – Inability to sleep, constantly waking up, potentially being a persistent occurrence instead of random nights.
  • Forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention – This one is pretty straightforward. You lack concentration, forget things, and have trouble to complete tasks.
  • Physical symptoms – Racing heart, chest pains, dizziness, shortness of breath, headaches, etc. Basically, it can feel as if you are having a non-stop anxiety attack.
  • Increased Illness – Your body has a weakened immune system, so it’s a lot easier to pick up anything from anywhere.
  • Loss of Appetite – It’s easy to forget to eat because you just don’t feel hungry; eventually, the worse it gets, you simply aren’t hungry at all and can lose your appetite completely.
  • Anxiety – On top of the physical symptoms you may already feel that duplicate anxiety, you can also develop a constant sense of worrying or edginess.
  • Depression – You feel trapped, lost, and hopeless. It’s hard to find a sense of accomplishment in anything you are doing.
  • Anger – You may find yourself more prone to angry outbursts at home, and significant arguments at home and in the workplace.

Sometimes a burnout can include just some of these signs; often, it includes all of them.

It can be exceedingly difficult to pull yourself out of this, especially if you don’t entirely know which things in your life are creating it.

As I’ve been working towards starting fresh, more things have been revealed as causes. Much like everything else surrounding mental health, it’s a process. The more I strip away the things burdening me mentally and emotionally, the more I find the other obligations leeching at me.

One of the most important things I’ve come to realize about a burnout is it’s not just about the activities creating it. Often, there is something deeper going on–a root cause linking everything together.

For me, that root cause is the inability to say no. Especially in situations where I know if I don’t say yes, no-one will. Even if I don’t want to agree to do something, I feel burdened with guilt at the thought of saying no.

Rather than stepping back and acknowledging how something I may not want to do could affect me negatively, I convince myself it’s something I want to do. I make myself get excited about it, and I plan how I can do the best possible job at it.

But, when you end up trying to do too many things as best as possible, you can’t really do any of them to the best of your capabilities.

Getting out of that burnout you’ve created for yourself can be hard. The first step, as with anything, is recognizing it’s going on. Next, is taking a step back and evaluating everything. What things are you giving your time to that you can’t afford? What things are you pouring into that you’re not passionate about and that are dragging you down?

You don’t always need to remove yourself from everything you’re doing to recover. Start with the thing draining you the most and continue to assess as you go along. If it’s your job that is the biggest thing, take a temporary break from your other commitments until you can either find a new job or find a way to address what’s going on and fix it.

Don’t be afraid to set a ‘no’ goal for yourself. With everything that has happened in my personal and professional life over the past two years, I need to learn to empower my yes’s and enforce my no’s. I can’t learn to do that as long as I am saying yes to everything. In my case, I’ve set a ‘no’ goal of not getting involved in outside projects and commitments for a full year.

It doesn’t mean I can’t pick up the odd thing here or there (like doing an article for an annual publication I love).

What it means is learning to not overcommit myself; it means learning to evaluate everything I want to consider doing.

For me that evaluation means thinking about the following:

Do I have time for this commitment?
Is this commitment something I would enjoy or something I would hate?
Am I passionate about?
What would my reason be for doing this?

Asking these questions, or similar ones, can help you to cultivate a greater understanding of what things are worth committing too, and what things aren’t. They also help you make sure you’re not taking on too much — if you answer them truthfully!

What questions do you feel you need to give yourself to ensure you don’t end up burning out?

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