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