How to avoid burnout, even in a pandemic

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Most of us have experienced burnout before, usually as a result of trying to do too much or trying to meet unrealistic expectations. We explored this in our blog How to prevent sports injuries and burnout.

Burnout is often associated with workplace stress or living a busy life. However, as a result of COVID-19 and extended lockdowns, there is a different type of burnout emerging.

However, whether burnout is caused by trying to do too much, or living through a global pandemic there is two key factors that lead to burnout.

Before we explain, let’s look at what burnout is, and how to know if you’re experiencing it.

What is burnout?

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.

Signs of burnout

Typical signs of burnout include feeling exhausted, empty, overwhelmed, helpless, moody and increasingly negative. Other signs that you’re experiencing burnout include:

  • Feeling unmotivated and less capable than usual
  • Feeling mentally detached and not excited or enthusiastic about anything
  • Loss of productivity 
  • Lower and poorer performance
  • Procrastination
  • Getting sick often or take a while to recover from illness
  • Wanting to throw in the towel or give up on your goals
  • Letting your exercise routine slip because it seems too hard
  • Engaging in emotional eating
  • Feeling like you’ve ‘hit the wall’
  • Feeling anxious 
  • Withdrawing from your support networks and want to hide
  • Experiencing physical symptoms like headaches, changes in appetite, nausea or lower sex drive
  • Feeling more emotional and sensitive
  • Having a low or depressed mood
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling like you ‘need a break’ or holiday

What causes burnout?

There are several reasons why people burn out.

They try to control things

As humans, we have a deep need to feel in control. We believe that being in control keeps us safe, causes us not to worry about things, helps us predict the future, and protects us from bad things happening to us. When we are faced with uncertainty, many of us feel out of control and try to feel in control by controlling the outcome of things.

Control shows up in a number of ways: 

Stress

Burnout is caused by prolonged stress. While there are some life events such as the death of a loved one or loss of a job that can cause stress, most of the time stress is a result of people trying to control things. However, needing to be in control of what’s going on around us, causes an enormous amount of stress and gives us nothing but a false sense of control, particularly when things are beyond your control. You can read more about stress in our blogs How stress and weight gain are linked and Why stress management techniques won’t eliminate your stress and what you need to do instead.

Perfectionism

Trying to make sure everything is perfect can be highly stressful which can lead to burnout. The need to be perfect is a form of control which is driven by fear of failure, fear of making a mistake, fear of being judged and fear of not being good enough — which all stem from lack of self-worth. You can read more about this in our blog Why you’re not losing weight despite being perfect.

Imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is believing you’re not as competent as others think you are. It’s a nagging fear of being ‘found out’. This habit can lead you to work longer, harder and do more than is necessary to avoid being exposed as a fraud. Once again, it’s a behaviour designed to control other people’s opinions of you. You can read more about this in our blog Why imposter syndrome will ruin your whole life.

People pleasing 

Trying to keep everyone happy by putting other people’s needs or desires before your own is a sign of low self-worth and fear of what other people think of you. By putting other people’s needs first, you’ll never have time for yourself and you’ll always be running on empty. You can read more about this in our blog Are you ‘too nice’? Why people pleasing is making you overweight.

Putting timelines on things

Another form of control is putting timelines on things. For example, many people put a timeline on their weight loss, when they will be promoted, when they’ll buy a house, etc. When things don’t line up with their proposed timeline, they end up feeling discouraged and they lose hope. This is particularly the case when you’re waiting for something to happen.

Pandemic burnout

At the time of writing this, millions of people are suffering of burnout as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The burnout isn’t caused by the pandemic, or from doing too much. It’s caused by trying to control the outcome of the pandemic. People are trying to control when they will come out of lockdown, when they can send kids back to school, who is and isn’t wearing a mask, who is and isn’t being vaccinated, and who is and isn’t abiding by stay-at-home orders. 

Because people can’t control their situation, they are waiting for things to ‘go back to normal’ and to come out of lockdown. We are coming up to nearly 2 years of living with rapid change and uncertainty where people are using emotional energy to control things that are beyond their control. They are also pinning their hopes on deadlines that they have no control over. However, every time one of these ‘deadlines’ passes and they remain in the same situation, they lose hope. The longer you spend waiting the more hope you lose, and the more hope you lose, the closer you are to burnout. This explains why so many people are experiencing burnout during a pandemic, even though they are not especially busy.

Regardless of whether it’s this pandemic or the next one, trying to control an uncontrollable situation and setting timelines you have no control over only leads to burnout.

Lack of self-awareness

Lack of self-awareness is another reason why people end up burning out. People who suffer from burnout lack awareness around a number of factors:

Their threshold 

Everyone has their limits on what they can and can’t cope with. For example, some people may only need 7 hours of sleep a night while some may need at least 9 hours. Some people may be able to work 40 hours a week, while others can cope with only 30 hours a week. Unfortunately, many people don’t understand what their thresholds are. This means that they wait until they are tired, sick, or feeling burnt out before they stop and take a break. 

What drains them

A lot of people feel tired and burnt out because they aren’t aware of the things that drain them and therefore keep engaging in these things. For example, many people have toxic relationships (e.g. family, friends, work colleagues) who take more than they give, which leaves them feeling drained. However, if they aren’t aware of how these relationships make them feel they will continue to engage in them, or not set boundaries around how much time they spend with these people, which will lead to burnout.

What energises them

Similarly, many people are unaware of the things that energise them and make them feel good. For example, walking or spending time outside in the sun or in nature are known to be natural energisers. However, if you’re not aware of what makes you feel good, you can’t consciously do more of these things to fill your cup.

Not knowing when they are empty

People run on empty for a long time before they realise. The only reason they end up stopping for a break is because they fall sick, or become so exhausted and worn out that they just can’t keep going. They ‘hit the wall’. 

But not resting and refuelling your tank when you need to can lead you to all kinds of problems. It’s a bit like driving across the Nullarbor Plain. Do you refill your car with fuel when you see a service station or do you wait until the tank is empty? Of course, you fill up when you can, because you know that if you wait until you run out of fuel, you may be in the middle of nowhere with no service station in sight, and then you’ll be in all sorts of problems.

Lack of structure 

Burnout also occurs when you don’t have structure to your weeks or a system to follow. For example, if you don’t prioritise yourself and schedule things that fill your cup and help you rest and rejuvenate (e.g. regular exercise, walking, getting enough sleep, eating well, etc.) then you’ll end up spending your time doing things for other people, always lurching from one thing to another, engaging in things that drain your energy.

Lack of a system

People often feel overwhelmed and stressed because they lack a system. A system is a way of working, organising or doing something that follows processes and plans in order to achieve a goal. In simple terms, a system shows you what you need to do at any given time. Without a system, you end up feeling overwhelmed, overthinking things, doing too much or doing things that don’t help you move towards your goals. All of this increases your stress levels and your chances of burnout. You can read more about the importance of systems in our blog Why a weight loss goal is bullshit without a weight loss system.

Lack of healthy social support

It’s one thing to have a support network around you but quite another to ensure it is a healthy support system. As we mentioned earlier, toxic relationships can contribute to burnout because they drain your energy. On the other hand, healthy support networks empower you, support you and fill your cup. 

Lack knowledge on how to get out

A lot of people suffer from burnout because they don’t know how to get themselves out of the downward spiral that leads to burnout. Instead, they keep going around in circles, hoping (or waiting) for something to change.

Stages of burnout

It might surprise you to learn that there are actually 5 stages of burnout. They are:

  1. The honeymoon phase — This usually occurs when we start something new like a job for example. You may experience some level of stress, but you already expected to. In this phase, it’s common to be productive, enthusiastic, have high energy levels and feel overly optimistic.
  2. Onset of stress — In this phase, stress increases and you’ll be aware that some days are more difficult than others. Your optimism may wane and you may begin to experience some of the common symptoms of stress such as fatigue, anxiety, irritability, lack of sleep and lower productivity.
  3. Chronic stress — This third phase of burnout involves you experiencing high levels of stress frequently. You may feel angry, panicked, pressured, out of control, resentful, and begin relying on substances such as alcohol to relieve stress.
  4. Burnout — This is the burnout phase where your symptoms become more critical. You will find it increasingly difficult to cope and you may notice symptoms like headaches, chronic stomach or bowel problems, self-doubt, a pessimistic outlook and a desire to hideaway.
  5. Habitual burnout — This means that the symptoms of burnout are so embedded in your life that you will experience significant ongoing physical, emotional or mental health problems, including depression.

What’s very common with burnout is that it moves from a behaviour to a habit. You can read more about habits and behaviours in our blog Habits versus behaviour: know the difference. 

What starts out as a stressful experience, soon becomes overwhelming burnout and then habitual burnout, and this happens because people don’t have the skills and tools to solve their burnout problem, by addressing the reasons they became burnt out in the first place.

The difference between stress and burnout can be summarised in the following table:

In other words, prolonged stress turns into burnout, while prolonged burnout turns into poor mental health.

How to avoid burnout, even in a pandemic

So now you know what’s causing your burnout, how do you avoid it?

Relinquish control

Most people think they are in control but this is just an illusion. None of us ever have full control over anything. The only way to avoid burnout associated with trying to control everything is to focus on the things you can control and completely let go of the rest and surrender to what is. 

For example, the people who can cope with the pandemic and life in lockdown aren’t waiting for the lockdown to end, worrying about what other people may or may not be doing, or pinning their hopes on vaccination dates. The people who cope are the ones who fully surrender to the reality of their situation and no longer fight it. They have accepted that the ‘old normal’ is not coming back and a ‘new normal’ will take its place. This means they aren’t feeling burnout, are able to cope with uncertainty and change. They also have the energy to do meaningful things throughout their days. To find out how to let go of control, read our blog How to feel in control when everything is out of control.

Reduce stress

Prolonged stress is what causes burnout so you need to reduce stress in your life. Despite popular opinion, while stress management techniques can put stress on hold for a while, they aren’t the long-term solution. The only way to permanently reduce your stress levels is to remove the things in your life that are causing you to feel stressed. We explain this fully in our blog Why stress management techniques won’t eliminate your stress and what you need to do instead.

Work on your habits

If you find it hard to rest and refuel before you reach empty, and you’re suffering burnout, chances are you also struggle with habits that keep you doing too much such as perfectionism, fear of judgement, imposter syndrome and low self-worth. When you can learn to let go of the need to be perfect, worrying about what others think, and increase your confidence and build your self-worth, you’ll automatically stop engaging in the things that cause burnout and you’ll live a more balanced life. Read our blog How to build your self-worth so you can lose weight for good.

Increase your awareness

Learning what your thresholds are, what drains your energy and what fills your cup is vital. The way to become aware of your threshold is to collect data on how you feel when you do particular things. For example, if you know that going out twice on the weekend leaves you feeling tired for Monday, set a boundary that you will only go out once on the weekend. If working 6-7 days a week leaves you exhausted, then set a boundary around how long you work. If a particular person leaves you feeling drained, set a boundary around how much time you spend with them. We explain how to do this in our blog Forget diets and food rules. Try this weight loss tip instead. You can also find out more about the importance of collecting data in our blog Lose weight fast: The secret code to weight loss.

Structure your week and follow a system

Once you know your thresholds it’s important to learn how to structure your week, so you can get through all you need to, without expending unnecessary energy. Master the art of regulating your energy output by putting yourself first, doing things that energise you, and avoiding things like toxic relationships that drain you or things that don’t really matter. You can read more about the power of structure in our blog Two things your weight loss plan must include.

Systemise your week so you know exactly what to do and when to do it. This will take away the guesswork and the overthinking, and it will help you avoid doing too much and becoming too busy. 

Surround yourself with the right support network

Surround yourself with the right group of people. Toxic relationships, people who take and never give, and people who complain all the time will only drain your energy levels. Look for people who encourage you, support you, empower you and who are willing to tell you uncomfortable truths because these are the ones who will help prevent burnout. You can read more in our blog Why you need a weight loss support network to succeed.

How DATSTM Program helps 

The DATSTM Personal Coaching Program (habit, mindset and weight loss) is grounded in habit and mindset change. This means that it will help you identify the habits that cause you to burn out. Once you know what habits impact you, we give you the specific action steps you need to overcome them so you’ll never suffer burnout again. Our program also teaches you how to create more structure in your week, and how to let go of control. We give you the knowledge, systems, tools and skills so you can deal with any situation that comes your way, lose weight for good and gain the body, confidence and lifestyle you want. And our system means you’ll be able to stay consistent, even on your worst days.

In summary…

  • Burnout is a problem for many people.
  • Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
  • Typical signs of burnout include feeling exhausted, empty, overwhelmed, helpless, moody and increasingly negative.
  • Burnout is caused by a number of factors including trying to control everything, lack of awareness, lack of structures and systems and surrounding yourself with the wrong people.
  • When you become aware of your thresholds and learn to rest before you reach them, you’ll reduce the likelihood of burnout.
  • Burnout has 5 stages. What starts out as a behaviour can quickly become a habit.
  • Prolonged stress leads to burnout, while prolonged burnout leads to poor mental health.
  • When you learn to let go of control and completely surrender to your situation, you won’t feel burnout.
  • Working on the habits that cause you to try to control your outcome is the only way to let go of control and banish burnout forever.
  • Our DATSTM Personal Coaching Program will help you identify the habits that are contributing to burnout.
  • It will give you the precise action steps you need to take to address these habits so you never have to feel burnt out again.
  • Our DATSTM Program gives you the knowledge, systems, tools and skills to give you the body, confidence and lifestyle your desire, even on your worst days.

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