Ordinarily, life can be pretty stressful. It would be naïve to think that we are not all currently under some form of stress. Trying to balance work-life, home life, family, friends, hobbies, and your health can get overwhelming at times - especially when life throws a curveball.
Now, take the usual stressors in life and mix in the added burden of a pandemic. New challenges have been introduced like working remotely, homeschooling, quarantine, and the removal of being able to shop freely, socialize, or see family. In addition, there is also the fear and anxiety surrounding the virus itself and how it may affect you or your loved ones. You may have concerns about your mental health, your physical health, or be worried about the health of your family and friends.
Finally, throw in the uncertainty about the future. What is the world going to be like post-pandemic? How do things return to 'normal.' Constantly adapting to tackle the consistent changes can be exhausting - leading to physical, mental, and emotional fatigue.
As the additional stressors build, if left unchecked, it can lead to emotional burnout. Do you know the signs of burnout? Regardless of the pandemic, it is useful to know how to recognize and manage emotional burnout because it can happen to anyone.
What is Burnout?
Let's start with burnout in its purest definition. The World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized burnout in May 2019. Their definition is as follows:
"Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
• feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
• increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
• reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life."
(Burnout an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases, 2020)
Prolonged high levels of stress cause burnout. As stress levels build, with burnout, you begin to feel helpless, hopeless, and demotivated. It is a state of exhaustion, both mentally and physically. Although this definition pertains to occupational burnout, there are other forms, including social, parental, caregiver, relationship, and emotional burnout.2
What is Emotional Burnout?
There is a lot less known about non-occupational-related burnout, which means that it can often be ignored or left untreated.2 Emotional burnout is a state of emotional exhaustion. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed -when stress becomes too much, and you feel unable to meet the constant demands of everyday life.3
Anyone who undergoes periods of long-term stress can develop emotional burnout. The stress might be from work, home, family, or a relationship. In many cases - a combination of different stressors is what leads to burnout. In difficult times, it's not always easy to notice that emotional burnout is setting in. However, there are signs to look out for, preventative measures you can take, and help you can get to overcome burnout. It is important to remember that burnout is reversible. It is never too late to make changes to your lifestyle to prevent or treat emotional burnout.
Signs and Symptoms
Emotional burnout leaves you feeling hopeless and emotionally drained. You may be experiencing emotional burnout if:
You see everything in a negative light - every day is a bad day
You feel like your activities are pointless, and no one cares what you do
You have feelings of failure
You feel constantly exhausted and experience regular illness
You have an inability to concentrate and have noticed changes in eating or sleeping habits
You feel overwhelmed and unable to cope
Your emotions are dulled; you feel hopeless, helpless, and disengaged
You ignore your responsibilities, have a lack of motivation, and stop putting effort into things
You have withdrawn from social situations
You rely on drugs or alcohol for comfort
Emotional burnout and stress are different. Stress is usually short-lived. Burnout is caused by excessive stress, but stress does not always lead to burnout. Chronic stress can contribute to the symptoms of emotional burnout leading to a physical response. You may experience heart palpitations, headaches, digestive issues and notice changes in your weight and sleep patterns. If stress becomes relentless, and you feel that there is no hope and no way out, you may be heading towards burnout.
Prevention and Management
Overworking, taking on too many responsibilities, and over-committing yourself are all lifestyle factors that can cause emotional burnout. It may be that you do not have any close support from family or friends and do not take any time to socialize, relax, or get enough sleep. Personality types can play their part too. Perfectionists, pessimists, high achievers, and those who feel the need to always be in control are all at higher risk of developing burnout. So, what can you do to protect yourself or help yourself if you are suffering from emotional burnout?
Trying to carry on with no change is not the answer. Recognizing that you are suffering from burnout is the first step to recovery. Sometimes that can be hard. Especially if you have already begun to remove yourself from social situations or you don't have a close support network. Our friends and family are often the ones who notice emotional burnout and reach out to help. Whether you notice you are suffering from burnout or someone else does, the first step is to acknowledge that you are not ok. Once you have acknowledged that, here are five top tips to help you on your road to recovery:
Identify your stressors and set realistic expectations. It's essential to figure out what it is that is causing emotional burnout. It might not be just one thing, but several factors. Reducing the high-stress levels you are experiencing is the key. Have you taken on too much? Can you delegate an activity to someone else? Do you need to have all the responsibilities you undertake? Is there someone that can help you? Try to cut down the stressors in your life rather than putting yourself under pressure to do more. Be realistic about what you can, and want, to fit into your day. Learn that it is ok to say no, and you do not have to 'do it all.
Develop a robust daily routine that includes self-care. Self-care, sleep, nutritious food, and exercise are all essential. Not getting enough sleep might be one of your causes of emotional burnout as it leads to fatigue, health problems, and low mood. Designate time to relax before bed to allow your brain to switch off in whatever way you enjoy; read a book, listen to music, or practice meditation. Pack your meals with nutrients to give your mood and brain a boost, and exercise regularly. Exercise is a natural antidote to stress, releasing feel-good hormones. Try to add these things into your daily routine, making them habitual.
Reach out to people close to you. Family and friends may not be able to fix the problems you are facing, but they can be great listeners and can alleviate the burden. Talking to someone close is a natural stress reliever. Try to surround yourself with people who will motivate and support you. This may feel difficult when practicing social distancing and following public health guidelines. Try not to let social distancing cut you off from your usual support mechanisms. Instead, find new ways to stay connected like a coffee over a Zoom call, a family chat What's App group or a regular phone call with your best friend.
Incorporate mindfulness, mediation, or gratitude practices into your day. Mindfulness is a practice that teaches you to open your mind to full awareness and be present in the moment. It has been proven to be beneficial in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and stress. It helps you to remove judgment from your thoughts and take control. Practicing meditation or simple relaxation techniques can help you to de-stress, take time for yourself, and think more clearly. Even simply practicing gratitude and focusing on the positive things in your life can make a big difference to how you feel on a daily basis.
Reach out for help if you need it. If you are experiencing burnout, and are struggling to see a way out, then reach out for help. For some people, reaching out to their close family and friends may be enough. However, for others, professional support might be the right option. Counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy can help you establish the root cause of burnout and how to deal with it. You do not have to face it alone.
In the current pandemic, many of us are experiencing new and enduring levels of stress. Whether it be balancing working from home and homeschooling, the stress of losing a job, or the worry about a vulnerable relative. Now, more than ever, it is essential to look out for signs of burnout in yourself and others. By knowing the signs, you can tackle emotional burnout head-on because it is reversible. By taking steps to make positive changes - you can recover from burnout and reclaim your life. Once you are in a positive place in your life, you can build your resilience against it happening again by taking care of your physical, mental, and emotional health.
1. Burnout an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases. Who.int. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases.
Published 2021. Accessed March 17, 2021.
2. Burnout. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/basics/burnout. Published 2021. Accessed March 17, 2021.
3. Burnout Prevention and Treatment - HelpGuide.org. HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/burnout-prevention-and-recovery.htm. Published 2021. Accessed March 18, 2021.