A few years ago, there was a viral article on Buzzfeed about how millennials have become the burnout generation. To clarify, the article didn’t say that millennials are “burnouts”, it just asserted what many of us already know: the pace of modern life is setting us up to feel like failures. Between soaring debt, job insecurity, and productivity demands that aren’t in line with reality, even before 2020 happened, many folks were feeling the pinch and speeding toward burnout.
What is burnout, though?
According to HelpGuide.org, “Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.” Some definitions of burnout suggest that burnout is mainly experienced in work contexts, but burnout can be the result of overwhelm and stress in any area of life.
Here are some symptoms of burnout to look out for:
- Constant exhaustion
- Becoming ill more frequently than normal
- Aches in the body, like headaches or muscle aches
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Feeling like a failure
- Feeling hopelessness
- Feeling a lack of motivation
- Less satisfaction in things you used to enjoy
- Withdrawal + isolation
- Using substances like drugs or alcohol to cope
- Becoming irritble with others
In the years since that article, burnout has become a popular topic in wellness spaces, which is promising because it means we’re starting to see a shift in the way people think about burnout. There are more scientists studying burnout and its effects on mental and physical health, and the more they study, the more we learn.
In past generations, people certainly felt burned out. Probably often! They also probably had fewer resources to deal with it, and there was less understanding of how burnout can be harmful in many areas of life. There has been a slow but steady decrease in mental health stigma over the last few decades, and even though there is still a long way to go toward eliminating the stigma altogether, this shift has led to less shame around admitting when you need help.
And then 2020 happened!
This year has been a textbook recipe for burnout.
Loneliness. Too much work and too little play. Tough conversations with loved ones. Little to no outside connection with people outside of your household. Limited options for activities that rejuvenate you. The constant fear of getting sick or getting someone else sick. The shock and horror of watching over a quarter of a million people die in 10 months. A stressful election cycle. Natural disasters. Police brutality and citizen uprisings. This year has been extremely difficult from start to finish, and if you’re feeling burned out as a result, you are in good company.
It might seem like being stuck at home for 10 months is not enough cause for burnout, but think about it: we haven’t just been stuck at home. We’ve been living through a global trauma for 10 months, and many of us are still expected to work as if life is “normal.” We’ve also had to deal with increased virtual demands for our time, which means that many of us end up staring at a screen for hours and hours on end, even when the workday is done.
Technology has certainly led to incredible advances for humanity, but it has also created a culture where everyone is always on.
We are constantly connected, not only to our friends and families, but to everyone around the world with an internet connection. Whether we like it or not, especially with the rise of working from home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more folks are finding it hard to draw the line between work time and personal time. Just because you have the option to check your email at any time doesn’t mean you should be expected to work at any time.
The thing about burnout is that it’s always going to come around once in a while.
However, there are things that we can do to prevent burnout from happening regularly. The best thing you can do to prevent burnout is to radically change your relationship to rest and self-care. You are your own best advocate when it comes to burnout – what can you do that will leave you feeling well-rested and refreshed? Everyone is different, so everyone will have a different approach to dealing with burnout.
Here are some common strategies people use to prevent burnout:
The gym might be closed right now, but there are still opportunities to move when we’re stuck at home. Exercise doesn’t need to be a punishment, it can be a way that you honor your needs and care for your mental health. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with changing the shape of your body or punishing it for not looking the way you think it should. If you find exercise triggering, or you are having a hard time finding the energy, think about where you can start small. Can you walk around your block? Can you turn on your favorite playlist and dance around a little? Even cleaning your space can get your blood pumping enough to provide endorphins, which can go a long way toward reducing stress in the moment.
Rest, rest, then rest some more.
Burnout is a result of too much stress and not enough rest. One way to prevent and treat burnout is to get the amount of rest that you actually need, not the amount you think you need. And mindless scrolling sadly does not count as rest – rest needs to be something where you are fully able to disconnect. Humans need a lot of rest. We’ve been made to feel like we only have time to get a few hours of sleep a night, but that is a recipe for disaster. Sleep is one of the most important biological functions we have, as it gives our minds and bodies time to recover and repair. What has your sleep schedule been like? Are there ways you can clean up your sleep hygiene? This means things like no screen time before bed, going to sleep at the same time every night, and making your sleep environment conducive to restful sleep.
Also, it’s important to note that you don’t need to rest solely to make you feel more productive. In their book “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle”, scientists Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski write,
“It’s true that rest makes us more productive, ultimately, and if that’s an argument that helps you persuade your boss to give you more flexibility, awesome. But we think rest matters not because it makes you more productive, but because it makes you happier and healthier, less grumpy, and more creative. We think rest matters because you matter. You are not here to be “productive.” You are here to be you, to engage with your Something Larger, to move through the world with confidence and joy. And to do that, you require rest.”
We’ve talked about boundaries before, but if there’s anything 2020 has taught us, it’s that boundaries are essential for relationships. Setting boundaries is a way to keep relationships going and to care for yourself at the same time. Some people don’t like when others set boundaries, but remember that you’re not doing it for them – you’re doing it for you. It feels terrible to disappoint people we care about, but boundary setting is an important life skill. If you have no boundaries, you may start feeling resentful of people and that can be damaging to your relationships. Do some research and decide what your boundaries are about COVID-19 and how you will be protecting yourself and others. It might also be worthwhile to set some boundaries about how and when you will communicate with others, if you’ve been feeling pressure from people. If it helps, write out some scripts for when you have those conversations.
Focus on “good enough”
This year has been so hard, and you don’t need to make it harder by putting pressure on yourself to be perfect. No one is perfect, and trying to be is a losing battle. It’s okay to just be getting through right now. Things can be “good enough” instead of “perfect”. You don’t need to hold yourself to your old standards when the reality of life right now is different.