Is It a Bad Day or Is it Burnout?

How to identify the symptoms and navigate your way through burnout.

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There’s a difference between a period of bad days, which we’ve all encountered, and serious burnout. Burnout is something that creeps up on you. Imagine a leak in your bathroom pipe that has been dripping unassumingly behind the walls for months or even years. One day, the pressure becomes too much, the pipe ruptures, and that water comes bursting through the walls with devastating results.

It’s when every day seems riddled with strife and anxiety until you reach that tipping point where all things seem futile and you find yourself at the point of giving up. To put it in simpler terms: Burnout is a bad day every day.

Look, bad days happen to everyone, and they can certainly snowball. A bad day can become a bad week. A few bad weeks can lead to a bad month. What makes a bad day (or collection of days) differ from burnout, however, is that you know in your heart you can bounce back. Even in these tough patches, you can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, and you can resume (albeit not always easily) your life and still derive enjoyment from it.

Genuine burnout leads to an inability to successfully function on a personal, social and professional level. It steals hope. It squashes motivation. It, quite literally, sucks the life out of you.

Burnout is not so kind. Genuine burnout leads to an inability to successfully function on a personal, social and professional level. It steals hope. It squashes motivation. It, quite literally, sucks the life out of you.

So, how do you know if you’re totally burnt or, perhaps, getting close? There are three telltale symptoms that almost all burnout sufferers find themselves facing:

Three Telltale Signs of Burnout

1. Emotional and physical exhaustion: People with burnout usually describe experiencing a complete lack of energy that manifests itself physically. Some are even diagnosed by their doctors with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Regardless, this troubled state results in a debilitating feeling of dread for what the day will bring, even on days when no major work or personal responsibilities loom. Basic tasks and, sadly, even things that would normally provide joy become chores. Surprisingly, though exhausted, people with burnout often have trouble sleeping to the point they develop chronic insomnia. This inability to rest and recharge makes it harder to concentrate and focus, which eventually shows up in physical forms, such as panic attacks, chest pain, trouble breathing, migraines, and stomach pains. These symptoms become so severe and disruptive that it becomes impossible to cope with the challenges (and even pleasures) of daily life.

2. Detachment and cynicism: Those suffering from burnout tend to become perpetual pessimists. They go well beyond seeing the glass as half empty. For them, the glass is totally empty and there’s zero reason to try and fill it. Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and an inability to accept consolation from others or connect to the empathy offered by others is commonplace. They retreat into themselves and resist socializing. Eventually, fueled by a desire to shut everyone out, they move to a state of total isolation and justify their retreat with a cynical approach to life, family, friends, work, you name it. The feeling of hopelessness transitions into one of helplessness and creates a default response to every suggestion in the vein of “what’s the damn point anyway”.

3. Feelings of self-doubt and ineffectiveness, lack of accomplishment: Sometimes people experiencing burnout are still capable of going through the motions. They still make it to the office. They still get the job done. They still join the family for dinner and handle the household duties. However, they do it in an almost robotic manner. There is no zest, no pleasure, and, therefore, performance suffers. They find ordinary tasks take longer. They procrastinate and invent excuses as to why they’re less effective. They get frustrated at things that were once easy and now seem overwhelming. Sure, they’re physically present and on some level functioning. But emotionally and mentally, they’re a shell of their former selves and are keenly aware of their inadequacy. This, as you can imagine, only perpetuates those feelings of exhaustion and detachment.

Now before you freak out and come to the immediate conclusion that you’re suffering from all the above, relax and take a breath.

We have all experienced one or more of the signs of burnout in our lives. In fact, they seem so darn familiar to us because in various degrees they are simply a part of dealing with everyday life and its stresses. Remember, the difference between a difficult period and burnout is a matter of a few degrees, a few drops from that leaky pipe behind the wall.

Maybe you’re having a bad stretch right now? That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re burnt out. I’d like to share a few stories from my own life that might resonate and offer up a few tips that can help you recognize and even avoid serious burnout.

A Personal Story About Burnout

My first experience with the creeping onset of burnout happened during the separation period in my first marriage. My ex-husband and I were still cohabitating with my toddler son while the divorce was being finalized. I was working full-time, active in my community, weathering a long commute to work and handling a pretty high-stress job. On top of this, I was trying to keep some sense of normalcy and civility in the home so my son would enjoy a healthy and nurturing environment. As you can imagine, this wasn’t easy while going through such a tense and uncomfortable situation. I found myself not eating right. I stopped meditating (something I swore I’d never do). I was going at an unsustainable pace and began cutting myself off from the friends and family who once filled me with so much joy.

Well, one morning I woke up to find that I could not see. I was completely blind in both eyes. My entire field of vision was nothing more than piercing white. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing what’s called a “white out.” What I did know in that moment was abject fear of never seeing my son again. After many exams, diagnostic tests and doctor visits, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition called Uveitis. My doctors were eventually able to treat the symptoms and I regained my vision.

Still, it took losing my eyesight for me to finally acknowledge the fact that I was burning out.

However, here is what I learned since my diagnosis 13 years ago and as I’ve undergone continuous treatment: the onset of the disease was likely triggered by a prolonged period of stress (and eventual burnout). Autoimmune conditions are prone to flaring up with stress. In fact, in the years immediately following my diagnosis, every time I stressed out I would flare up and partially lose my eyesight again. It got to a point where I knew I needed to regain control of my lifestyle, diet, mindset, and surroundings if I wanted to ensure I could gaze upon my son’s beautiful face as he grew up. Fortunately, with the support of great friends and family and a return to my meditation practice, I was able to make real changes in my life. Still, it took losing my eyesight for me to finally acknowledge the fact that I was burning out.

Recognizing Early Signs of Burnout

If you learn to recognize the onset of burnout, you can minimize the effects and possibly prevent it: The second experience of burnout I’ll share happened in 2016 when I was the president of a mid-sized private firm with a few thousand employees. I was commuting close to three hours per day, was very involved in my son’s school and extracurricular activities, plus I had ramped up my political activism to campaign for the candidates and causes I held dear.  Fortunately for me, unlike my brush with burnout over a decade earlier, this time I was in a wonderful marriage that was supportive and loving. I had a daily meditation practice bolstered by an expansive and caring meditation community. I was far more in tune with my body and mindful of what it was trying to tell me. I first noticed the change at work. I began feeling unmotivated and tasks that used to take me a few hours were suddenly difficult to complete. At the end of each day, I left the office feeling as though I’d accomplished nothing significant.

I started to dread Sunday evenings and began to feel physically ill driving into the office on Monday morning thinking of the week ahead of me.

During evenings at home and on weekends, I would feel zapped of energy and any desire to do the things that once gave me joy. I started to dread Sunday evenings and began to feel physically ill driving into the office on Monday morning thinking of the week ahead of me. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take a two-week vacation in the summer with my family and head deep into nature. On the evening before my flight back to reality, after two-weeks of decompression, deep thought and spending the week reconnecting with myself and my family, I got so violently ill that I spent the entire night in the hotel bathroom just thinking about having to go back to my “old life.” I recognized that I was on the fringe of experiencing burnout and that my priorities in life were taking a backseat to a well-paying job.

I was ready to make a change, and, with the support of family and friends, decided to resign from my position, take a chance at fulfilling my dream of being a mindfulness teacher, and relish in the last few years that my son would still be at home before heading off to college. I resisted the black hole of burnout by recognizing it, knowing what the consequences would be if I got sucked in, and averting them by listening to my heart, my body and my mind.

How to Navigate Your Way out of Burnout

Speaking from my own experience, I highly recommend two things.

  1. Commit to a daily meditation practice of at least 10 minutes, twice per day. This will help you reduce daily stress, become more in tune with your emotions, and hear what your heart, mind and body are telling you. Second, if you notice the signs of burnout are particularly persistent and troublesome, take at least two consecutive days off to detach from work, family and other stressors (FYI, this is where your self-care community can step up to help you make that happen!).

    One of my non-negotiable habits is my meditation practice. When I get quiet, everything gets really loud – my mind, my body, my gut, intuition. Each part of me begins to give me feedback in these moments of silence and solitude.  I would strongly recommend making meditation a cornerstone practice in your life, one that you can lean on in difficult and overwhelming times.

  2. Take time for yourself when you can. This was my saving grace. If possible, find a place where you can’t do any work, take work-related calls or even check emails or texts. If being in nature brings you peace, immerse yourself in it. If you need a break from your family, find a way to make it happen. Sleep, nourish yourself with healthy food, read books or listen to podcasts, or maybe, don’t do a damn thing. If after those few days you don’t feel the weight lifted and are still dreading what lies ahead the next day, you very well might be suffering from burnout. If so, ask yourself if you’ve ever felt this way before; see if you can understand what led you to this point, and try to determine how long you’ve been feeling this way. Look to the past to understand if it’s just stress or if it may be more than that. If you think it may be burnout, or, even if you aren’t quite sure, it may be time to seek professional help, or, at the very least reach out to discuss your concerns with your inner circle.

It’s also important to remember that communities of care work both ways. There are others in your group who may be experiencing burnout. This is where you can step up. Check-in and connect with a friend you haven’t seen around in a while. Who knows, you just might be the one able to help fix that leaky pipe before it bursts.

And if I can offer one take-away, it’s this: Burnout doesn’t make you weak. It is possible to bounce back from burnout but you will need the help of others. You will need to commit to big changes but change, as you know, only needs to begin with one step.