Do you find yourself feeling completely exhausted no matter how much sleep you get? Do you feel trapped, helpless, and unappreciated? Have you noticed that your self-esteem has lowered, and that you feel pessimistic all the time, especially when you watch the news or read social media? These symptoms might sound vague, but if you feel that they are familiar, you may want to do some research on burnout. As described by the website 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. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.”
Most often, burnout is caused by work, but the word “role” in this definition can mean anything you align yourself with, such as housework, schoolwork, or even participation in a cause. More recently, the extensive use of social media and the 24 hour news cycle can also bring on symptoms of burnout. It can occur in a situation where a person loses their sense of self. They feel that their responsibilities make it impossible to practice any kind of self-care, and they close themselves off to opportunities to break away from the source of their stress. Symptoms of burnout can include:
- Physical signs such as exhaustion, trouble sleeping, frequent colds/illnesses, head and body aches, and change in eating patterns
- Emotional signs such as feelings of failure and self-doubt, feelings of defeat and helplessness, negative and cynical outlooks when before there were positive outlooks, and loss of motivation
- Behavioral signs such as withdrawing from responsibility, using food, alcohol, or drugs as a coping mechanism, increased isolation, and procrastination
Recently, the confluence of the COVID19 pandemic and the intense anti-racism protests taking place across the country may make people more susceptible to burnout. In a 2015 study it was shown that human rights activists were particularly vulnerable to burnout. That same study found that activists who didn’t keep their symptoms in check were far more likely to leave the movement about which they once felt so passionate. But activists who did manage their burnout symptoms were able to stay in the movement longer, working to end the inequalities that originally motivated their activism.
Burnout is difficult to overcome, but there are steps you can take if you begin to feel or have already have symptoms. One of the most important ways to prevent burnout is to take the time to find value in your work. Even the most mundane office job, the most boring school assignment, or the most grating chore has meaning and value in life. We all live interconnected lives--people rely on us in our roles, and our jobs matter to them. Take the time to remember the people whom you are helping in your own role. That being said, also take the time to grow a life outside of the role that is the source of your stress. The first step of true self-care is participating in activities that get you away from the stressful centers of your life, engaging parts of your brain that would otherwise go unused. Find a hobby that you love and dedicate time every week to it. Some simple starting points can be:
- Reading, any genre, any level of difficulty, any topic that makes you happy. Try to pick books that have nothing to do with your job. Find genres that help you temporarily escape the stress centers of your life. Your brain is a muscle and you need to exercise it just like any other muscle. If you struggle with reading, don’t be afraid to start with shorter, simpler stories, or listening to audio books as you read along. The important thing isn’t the type of book, but rather just that you are taking a break from the stressful parts of your life.
- Reach out to others. Family, friends, and coworkers--you have people in your life who care about you and want to speak to you. Having burnout can sometimes make you feel too exhausted to be with others, but if you plan a relaxing activity--dinner, watching a movie, or a walk together are all good starting points--you’ll begin to feel more energized and happy.
- Get off your phone. This is so important--being on social media, reading the news all the time, and getting constant notifications can cause burnout. Turn off your phone, leave it in another room, and do an activity that has nothing to do with technology.
- Take breaks. Changes from daily routines are the key to keeping symptoms of burnout in check. Whether you take a week off from work, or an afternoon out of the house, a change of scenery can help bring fresh perspectives to your work, and they allow you to recharge and relax.
The COVID19 pandemic is an incredible source of stress on our lives. To turn on the television and witness the latest in a series of long standing racial injustices and conflicts that have come to a head at the same time can exacerbate this stress. Many people may have thrown themselves into their work in order to distract themselves from the pandemic. Others are compelled to march -- often in challenging situations -- to express their deep feelings about racial injustice. These actions may open people up to symptoms of burnout. Taking care of yourself is the first step to managing stress during one of the most stressful times in recent history.