Recognizing the Signs of Burnout
The holidays are a time when many people get overstressed; here’s how to help yourself
I admit it. I recently had a meltdown.
Between stress from finishing work for clients, I had all the Christmas stress: finishing painting crab shells (it's a Baltimore thing), decorating, writing cards, finishing shopping and wrapping everything.
ARGH! I was exhausted. I was anxious. And I was finding nothing "merry" about the season. I was burned out.
Believe it or not, burnout isn't new. As early as the 1800s, we were describing a phenomenon of burnout with the term 'neurasthenia' to denote the presentation of fatigue, anxiety, headaches, heart palpitations, elevated blood pressure, aches and pains, and depression.
We have a limited amount of energy daily. As a result, we become irritable and less tolerant when depleted or come close to draining it.
The American psychologist and philosopher William James had referred to it as 'Americanitis,' "specifically referencing the propensity of our busy western lives leading to the affliction," explains Dionis Kononov, D.O., medical director of the Senior Behavioral Health Unit, University of Toledo Medical Center.
Kononov further explains that we each have a limited amount of energy daily. As a result, we become irritable and less tolerant when depleted or come close to draining it.
"Dysphoria and anhedonia (lack of pleasure from parts of life that we used to find pleasurable) may develop. Apathy towards outcomes that we used to find important may set in. Physical fatigue may set in. [There is] increased desire towards sedentary activity," he says.
That's what was happening to me. I felt angry and sad. I was tired and overwhelmed to the point where I didn't feel like doing anything. And I'm not alone.
I felt angry and sad. I was tired and overwhelmed to the point where I didn't feel like doing anything.
Burned Out From Work
According to a recent report from Indeed, more than half of those who responded (52%) said they were burned out at work, and nearly two-thirds of them (67%) believe that it has worsened since the pandemic.
Gayle Carline, of Placentia, California, can relate. "I was a software engineer who was working on a huge project for a government agency. The project was a cool idea, but it was a large and complicated design with a lot of personalities working on it. And the customer was annoyingly arrogant, demanding and fickle," she recalls.
"I kept switching areas to work in, trying to find a place that felt exciting — or at least comfortable — and wondering why I wasn't having fun building new stuff anymore."
Carline also had two other stressors: her son was graduating from elementary school and would be home alone after school, and her mare was about to have a foal and she wanted to work with the baby.
Carline knew she was burned out one day after she had parked her car at work. "One of my team members knocked on my driver's side window to tell me something. I felt like I was spontaneously combusting — fortunately, I didn't lash out at him. But I made a horrid enough face that he apologized," she says.
"After that happened, I began sleeping in later and later, coming into work later — knowing I'd have to stay later — hating every inch of what I was doing."
Luckily, there are action steps you can take. But first, Kononov says that you need to acknowledge that you need a break.
"There is something inherent about our busy, work-focused culture that keeps us pushing and pushing. Leisure time and how we spend it can become taboo. We spend time trying to be more efficient with our jobs, but not with our breaks," he says.
"We need time to recuperate, we need time to heal, we need time to de-stress. Ask yourself this: when is the last time that you did something for yourself? The last time that you did something because you wanted to, and not because you ought to do it?"
Here's what I did: I vented to friends on Facebook, talked with my husband, cried, and then took a nap. When I woke up, I decided that Christmas didn't need to be perfect.
In addition, Kononov says that you need to take care of your physical, spiritual, and mental health as much as possible. "Do not neglect self-care. Acknowledge your own limitations and know when too much is too much," he explains.
"Sometimes this requires re-approaching as life changes and our circumstances do not allow us to continue using the coping skills we developed earlier in life, and we need to learn new ones."
In Carline's case, she had a frank talk with her husband. Then, finally, she had an idea: she wanted to take a leave of absence from work for a year to see if their family could exist on his salary alone.
During that time, she would write more articles for magazines (as she had already been doing and enjoyed), work with the new horse, and be home for their son after school in case he needed anything. Her husband agreed.
"I practically danced out of the building," says Carline, who was at work then. "It was nice to be able to try out the new lifestyle, yet have a safety net if I needed it."
A Better Holiday Strategy
Here's what I did: I vented to friends on Facebook, talked with my husband, cried, and then took a nap. When I woke up, I decided that Christmas didn't need to be "perfect," whatever that even was. So instead, I chose one thing I wanted to do — decorate.
I slowly finished shopping online, and had some friends volunteer to help me wrap gifts if I needed them. Everything else is going to wait until after the holidays.
I know it's not the end of the world if folks get their cards in January. But feedback from friends and my husband reminded me of it. So I'm now looking forward to having experiences — spending time with friends and family.
Carline learned from her experience as well. "I learned that I'm braver than I thought I was — to dive off the plank and away from that career, and I recognized that my life has always gone through phases," she says.
"I began as an art major, changed into a software engineer, and now I'm an author. What's next on my horizon?"