Preventing Burnout: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

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a row of match sticks burnt from top to bottom

Preventing Burnout: The Ultimate Beginners Guide

 

Today I’m going to show you how to help prevent mental health burnout from start to finish. And yes, this guide is even for those who are already experiencing burnout right this moment.

I remember when I first began learning about my mental health. I’d go from learning about stress, burnout and search for answers for what I could do about this tough stuff.

The whole process itself can be exhausting and disappointing when you can’t find what really works.

And in this ultimate beginners guide I’ll do what I can to cut out all the noise and rabbit holes I went down and show you exactly how to prevent mental health burnout.

Burnout Overview

What is burnout, exactly?

Consider burnout as stress, but chronic. Burnout can be defined as a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion due to being in this prolonged state of stress.

For example, let’s say you work full-time, have two children, and go to school all at the same time. Juggling this type of life, as well as other similar lifestyles, can easily lead even the strongest of people to burnout.

This isn’t to say that experiencing burnout means you can’t handle what’s on your plate. It could mean that it’s time to put some strategy into place so you can maintain some balance.

Getting back to preventing burnout, good questions to ask yourself is when is enough, enough? How can I prevent burnout? How do I even know I am reaching that point? How can I keep doing what I am doing without crashing?

Answer: By paying close attention with reflection, processing, and taking action. Of course, dozens of other steps are involved, but we’ll work with this three-prong process.

Now that you have an idea of what burnout is, it’s time for me to give you the full breakdown so that you can really tackle ways to help prevent burnout.

 

Step 1: Reflection: Figuring Out The Signs

Your first step in preventing burnout is actually knowing what some of the signs are. I may not know the exact signs you experience, but there are plenty that overlap with most people.

Because the fact is, unless you’ve got a complete handle on life—which can be rare to come across—it’s going to take some hard, worthwhile work to get the healthy point of burnout prevention.

Okay, let’s get started by highlighting all the areas involved with burnout:

1. Physical

2. Emotional

3. Mental

 

Each of these areas combined gather human experience. It’s important to attempt to make sure they are accounted for the purpose of maintaining good mental health wellness.

Now, let me show you specific signs that may appear for each area.

Physical Signs of Burnout

cartoon outline of flexing muscle

Insomnia

In burnout’s early stages, you may notice that it’s a lot harder to fall asleep, maintain sleep, and may even wake up earlier than expected. With insomnia, this can occur a few days out of the week—which unfortunately adds up—and even when you’re extremely exhausted, you still have trouble with sleep.

Other similar signs of insomnia:

irritability

  • increased forgetfulness
  • decreased focus
  • lack of concentration
  • mood swings
  • behavioral issues
  • incoordination
  • relational issues

Chronic Fatigue

You may also experience a sense of heaviness, lethargy, and lack your normal level of energy throughout the day. Early stages of this may feel like you’re just tired, but ongoing burnout can exaggerate this overtime. This can look like a sense of dread when thinking about the days looking forward to can really stop a good quality life.

Other similar signs of chronic fatigue:

  • muscle pain
  • joint pain
  • feeling dizzy
  • sleep problems
  • changes in heartbeat

Appetite changes

Like depression, burnout has the potential to rapidly decrease or increase appetite. Decreased appetite can look like skipping meals, or eating much smaller portions. Increased appetite can look like more snacking throughout the day—usually with foods that might not be the best for us, too.

Other similar signs of appetite changes:

  • increased nausea

Increased Illness

Due to lack of sleep and depleted energy, your body may be more susceptible to different sorts of illness. Your immune system can weaken, and make you more vulnerable to colds, the flu, or other medical problems that are immune-related.

Emotional Signs of Burnout

outline of face smiling

Anger

In the beginning stages of burnout, anger may look like increased tension or irritability. Later on, this could lead to explosive outbursts in multiple environments (e.g., home, work, etc.). 

More extreme stages of anger could also lead to verbal and physical altercations with others.

Other similar signs of anger:

  • headache
  • grinding teeth
  • stomach ache
  • increased heart rate
  • tension in neck, shoulders, and chest
  • shaking or trembling
  • sweaty palms
  • feeling hot all over

Depression

In the beginning stages of burnout, you may feel mildly sad, irritable and helpless. Continued feelings of burnout can increase the traction of sadness with experience of hopelessness, loneliness, and feeling guilty. 

In its worst form, thoughts of suicide may even appear such as thinking the world would be better off without you.

Other similar signs of depression:

  • losing interest in meaningful things
  • increased/ decreased appetite
  • changes in sleep
  • anxiety and irritability
  • fatigue
  • changes in weight
  • trouble with concentration
  • unexplained physical problems

Anxiety

Mild symptoms such as being keyed up, on-edge, or worry may appear in the beginning stages of burnout. The further burnout goes without intervention, the more intense your symptoms may get.

Anxiety could become serious to the point where it interferes with engaging with others, your job performance, and other aspects of your personal life. Also, there are a lot of things you can do about anxiety, too.

Other similar signs of anxiety:

  • increased heart rate
  • trembling
  • sweating
  • inability to sleep
  • difficulty controlling worry
  • restlessness
  • rapid breathing
  • gastrointestinal issues
  • increased avoidance

Mental Signs of Burnout

outline of brain

Poor Performance

You may notice that you’re not as productive as you used to be at work, and even with household chores. Burnout can look like leaving work earlier than usual, neglecting projects, and adding more to your to-do list which seems impossible to complete.

Other signs of poor performance:

  • difficulty working with others
  • showing up late to work
  • violating company policy
  • calling in sign more frequently
  • procrastination

Isolation

In earlier stages, you may notice decreased socialization and find no issue with it; however, unhealthy symptoms can look like shutting others out for longer periods of time than expected. Later on, you may find yourself becoming irritable when others want to connect with you.

Other signs of isolation:

  • avoidance of others
  • closing door more often
  • detachment from social gatherings

Loss of Interest

Similar to depression, burnout can make some of the most meaningful activities seem meaningless. Earlier stages of this look like spending more time doing mindless activities such as endless scrolling on social media or spending hours on end watching TV shows. In later stages, you may have a heavy sense of decreased motivation to want to do anything at all.

Other signs of loss of interest:

  • low energy
  • low mood
  • procrastination
  • giving up early on projects
  • pessimism

Step 2: Processing: Making a Strategy

infographic of stages of burnout

Now that you know some of the signs of burnout, it’s time to make a game plan so that you can begin problem solving today.

But, before we jump into this, it may be beneficial to know what exact stage of burnout you may be in. You’ll notice that each stage will highlight many of the signs previously said.

Let’s begin with the assumption that you are feeling the pitfalls of burnout right now. Here are some stages of burnout to pay attention to:

Stage One: The Honeymoon Phase

When good people undertake new tasks such as a project, job, or relationship, it’s common to experience high levels of satisfaction.

You’re in the beginning stages of a new adventure, which is especially important to be aware of. With these new ventures, there may be some anticipation as to when stress could kick in. It’s completely normal to feel this.

It’s pertinent to implement healthy coping strategies, which we will get to, in this stage. I do believe one can keep the honeymoon stage ongoing after practicing positive habits.

Other signs of the honeymoon phase:

  • high job satisfaction
  • high optimism
  • increased productivity
  • higher energy levels
  • positive perception
  • ongoing creativity

Stage Two: Stress Onset

In the second stage of burnout, you may notice your energy levels waning. Stressors that were anticipated are beginning to make a few days out of the week much harder than usual.

Earlier, you read about the signs of burnout: physical, emotional, and mental. These are the areas that are in their beginning stages of being affected during stress onset.

Other signs of stress onset:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Memory Problems
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

Stage Three: Chronic Stress

The third stage of burnout can feel like stress is now a daily obstacle. Symptoms of stage two may become more intense, days become longer, and now all you want to do on weekends is sleep.

Other signs of chronic stress:

  • Chronic Exhaustion
  • Irritability with Others
  • Physical Illness
  • Resentfulness
  • Social Withdrawal From Others
  • Feeling Out of Control
  • Inability to Sleep
  • Ongoing Sluggishness
  • Decreased Sexual Desire

Stage Four: Burnout

This is the stage where things can get critically serious. It may feel impossible to do business as usual throughout your day when reaching this point. You may want to seek out professional help to begin intervention so your symptoms do not intensify more.

Remember, in the next portion of the article you will discover actionable ways you can tackle to help slow down or prevent burnout.

Other signs of burnout:

  • Neglect Personal Needs
  • Relationship Dissatisfaction
  • Doubting Yourself Often
  • Emptiness
  • Pessimistic Outlook on Life
  • Chronic Headaches
  • Migraines
  • Avoidance of Social Gatherings
  • Obsessing with Problems
  • Outbursts at Work

Stage Five: Chronic Burnout

Being at the final stages does not mean this is the point of no return, but it’s definite that intervention needs to happen. This stage is particularly troublesome as burnout may have reached normal status—it seems impossible to ever recover.

There is hope, but staying in this stage too long can bring on a series of emotional problems, physical ailments, and serious mental distress. It’s time to take care of yourself.

Other signs of chronic burnout:

  • Intense Hopelessness
  • Helplessness
  • Inability to Enjoy Activities
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Intense Isolation
  • Suicidal Thoughts
  • Chronic Pain
  • Induced Illnesses

Now that you know the signs of burnout, figuring out what stage you may be in, it’s time to take some action.

3. Taking Action: Find Peace Again


Regardless of what stage of burnout you may be in, it’s possible to get back to stage one again—the honeymoon stage.

Even for those who are not necessarily having burnout symptoms, what we’re about to cover can be beneficial no matter what.

We will begin with the first set of strategies to help work through burnout.

Strategy One: The Four R’s

The Four R’s have been around for a long time. This set of actionable steps can be achieved starting today due to their applicability.

We are starting here because not only has this worked in my own life, but each client I work with tells me the Four R’s gets the job done, with ease.

infographic of preventing burnout

 

The First R: Reading

For some, reading is the way to go in order to recharge. Maybe, not so much to learn but to have a mental getaway from the stressors leading to burnout.

Reading has a way to help prevent burnout by tapping into your creative side—we want to achieve flow. Take advantage of the power in reading a good book, story, etc., where you can escape every now and then.

Here are a few examples of how to get started:

  • pick up a fictional book
  • read stories that require free thought
  • don’t overthink and enjoy the content
  • stay creative in your thought process

The Second R: Running

Exercise is easily overlooked while your mind may be preoccupied with work, stress, and immediate crises.

Your mind may first attempt to convince you that you don’t have time for this, which is a major lie stemming from a mind on burnout.

Taking a walk or going for a jog has a way of working through daily stressors. Use some of your time for yoga, light stretching, or even lifting some weights. You can’t go wrong with this process.

Here are a few examples of how to get started:

  • check with your medical doctor before doing anything strenuous
  • start off slow; perhaps, a brisk walk
  • work your way up to doing this a few times a week
  • mix it up and try calisthenics, or weights
  • soon enough, exercise will be a go-to coping skill

The Third R: Retreating

Having that special spot to getaway to is something to cherish. Retreating every so often is a great way to remove yourself from added stressors you may usually tackle all at once.

It’s common to say “But I don’t have the money or time” when it comes down to retreating, and that’s okay. You’ve just got to get a little creative with this one.

Maybe there’s an area where you live that gives you that feeling of freedom. Try not to overthink it and add onto burnout: planning doesn’t need to be a complete burden.

Here are a few other examples of how to get started:

  • Get a towel and lay out in the sun
  • Go to a nearby park and hang out
  • Transform your backyard into a paradise
  • Create a savings account only for retreating purposes
  • Whatever you do, involve either complete silence or good music

The Fourthish R: Writing

 

Retreating may give you that physical sense of retreating, but writing can also be a mental adventure.

Most people tell me that writing can feel like work, and I’d have to agree. But, this type of writing is a way for you to escape the symptoms of burnout.

Rather than having a set prompt or directions to follow, simply write with a sense of freedom by removing any and all types of planning.

Here are a few examples of how to get started:

  • Grab a pen or pencil
  • Get some paper
  • Write “You’re Free” on the top of the page
  • Begin writing anything that comes to mind
  • DO NOT edit any ideas you write out
  • Remember, free writing is rule free

Strategy Two: Do What is Meaningful

A big question I’m often asked is, “What is my purpose in life?” A go to answer usually looks like: “To find meaning.” Not an ideal answer, but I do think it gives a lot of room to think.

When sifting through ways of how to fight against or prevent burnout, the actions of performing meaningful tasks always seems to come to mind. And for good reasons.

Doing what is meaningful isn’t a one stop shop sort of thing where you will hit the lottery at your first try. It’s going to take a lot of searching. Think of it as an adventure of many long term goals rather than a single objective.

Give

Ever gone out of your complete way to help out a family member, friend, or even a stranger? If so, you may already know what it feels like to do kind gestures for others.

Often, people tell me it’s an unexplainable feeling when they take a moment to give something of theirs as a way of helping others.

Giving can be a meaningful activity whether it involves donating time, money, effort, wisdom, or anything that has the ability to make you feel as if you did something special. This feeling has the power to put burnout to rest sometimes.

Here are a few examples of what giving looks like:

  • Donating to nearby Goodwill/ thrift store
  • Giving blood
  • Cooking a meal for others
  • Tithing to your church
  • Mentoring someone
  • Teaching someone something
  • Volunteering
  • Wishing someone a good day
  • Making a homemade gift

Connect

If there’s one thing many of us can agree on is that human beings were made to connect.

Burnout has a way of poisoning this process over and over by telling the mind that “you need to stay distant and isolate, it’s for the best.” This is just not the case.

Nowadays, research tells us that as time goes by, people are connecting less with others. The number of people we say we are close to are less than we can count on one hand. These are not good numbers.

But, there is hope. And many others are realizing there is hope, too. I believe mental health in 2020 is skyrocketing and will only grow with time. This means more resources to get connected.

Here are a few examples of what connecting looks like:

  • Contact local support groups
  • Connect with a church
  • Have purposeful dialogue on social media
  • Find a ZOOM buddy
  • Volunteer at nearby shelters
  • Join a recreational sports team
  • Start a club
  • Smiling and saying hello to others
  • Become involved in neighborhood watch
  • Walk your dog with other walkers

Travel

It’s really something else when you have the ability to change your scenery. I’d say it’s about 50/50 for those who enjoy travel and those who do not.

Whatever the case may be, traveling somewhere else that takes you out of your element has a way of recharging your spirit and can help redefine meaning.

Distance doesn’t necessarily need to be the prime focus when it comes to traveling. Perhaps, meaning is developed when you begin to take a decent look at your surroundings and appreciate the present moment.

Here are a few examples of what travelling can look like:

  • Having a secret spot to visit in town
  • Taking a trip to nature
  • Flying to another country
  • Driving to another state
  • Taking the train to a randomly selected city (I have personal done this)
  • Going to a new place in your town
  • Taking a different route to work
  • And yes, you can also use your imagination with this one. It’s worth it.

Laughter

This is my go-to meaningful activity. I attempt to watch at least 30 min to an hour of stand up comedy a day.

Laughing can do wonders for you. If anything, it’s probably saved me from many moments of getting stuck in my own head considering what life can throw at you.

Laughing has a way to help the mind and body time travel away from burnout symptoms. It’s not so obvious to me why we laugh to begin with, but it’s both meaningful and healing if you let it.

Here are a few examples of what laughing can look like:

  • Watching stand up comedy specials
  • Looking up random jokes on the internet
  • Laughing when you make silly mistakes
  • Enjoy light heart conversation
  • Short binge of funny videos

Imagine

Some of the best ideas came from the process of imagination. It may seem like there’s not too much left to discover, but you’d be very surprised at what you can create.

Using your imagination has the ability to open metaphorical doors as a meaningful activity. The sky’s the limit here.

Here are a few examples of what imagining can look like:

  • Thinking of your ideal self
  • Inventing something new
  • Making music or short stories
  • Making up a new game
  • Creating new efficient habits
  • Developing a new app
  • Publishing an book or e-book

Prayer

Prayer has been a meaningful activity for many people for centuries. Many see the action of prayer, the process during it, and sometimes the outcome as meaningful.

The activity of prayer has been utilized for those who follow a specific religion, spirituality, or those who are even skeptical about prayer in general.

It’s fascinating how prayer is used as both a meaningful experience and even in times where life circumstances of uncertainty hit a tough point.

Here are some examples of what prayer can look like:

  • Breaking out religious texts and praying
  • Setting aside time in the morning for prayer
  • Utilizing yoga and meditation for prayer
  • Creating a sacred space for prayer
  • Using long drives for prayer
  • Laying underneath the stars and praying

Strategy Three: Pluses and Minuses

Ever heard of a pros and cons list? Think of pluses as pros and minus as cons.

Pluses and minuses isn’t some new discovery or process, but I think it’s easily forgotten, and we do it all day everyday without realizing it.

This second strategy has the ability to put burnout symptoms into a formula to help strategize so that you can win the day.

Pluses (+++)

Consider pluses as the areas that will more than likely benefit you in the process of preventing or battling against burnout.

It’s good to also be mindful that if there’s already too much on your load, maybe start with the minuses area first (see next paragraph).

Let’s first take a look at some pluses as we’ve uncovered many of them already:

  • Reading
  • Running
  • Retreating
  • Writing
  • Give
  • Connect
  • Travel
  • Laugh
  • Imagine
  • Pray
  • Or anything else you feel can give you life again

Minuses (- – -)

This may be more of your cup of tea if there’s too much on your plate already. Or, if you think there are more negative habits than positive habits in present practice.

If deciding to begin the process of minusing items out of your routine, it tends to be best to do this one at a time. We’re definitely not about giving in with the removal of anything and everything.

The one item at a time strategy seems to fit best here. Microsteps people.

Let’s take a look at some examples of the minuses now:

  • Over/ Undersleeping
  • High processed food diet
  • Intense isolation
  • Overt pessimism
  • Extreme irritability
  • Overpacked schedule
  • Lack of hope
  • Not speaking up
  • Putting others needs first before yours
  • Or anything else you feel takes life away from you

Here’s what it can look like on paper if you’re wondering. Better yet, I’d suggest getting a calendar so you can see your progress:

With each day that passes is another opportunity to continue what you did yesterday, or begin another healthy plus/ minus decision.

The goal here is to find your balance again. You weren’t necessarily born straight into burnout. It developed over time which means it can also be dismantled.

It can all start in one day.

Last words

I encourage you to take what you’ve read today into consideration. Right now, you may be the only person looking out for yourself. And if that’s the case, you’ve got to focus on self-care.

As you may have already experienced, burnout has a way of creeping up on the most hardworking people. It doesn’t make sense that we work so hard and forget that we can no longer go on if our personal autonomy breaks down.

Let today be your first step in understanding where you’re at in your process of burnout. You may be on the cusp of it, or completely in the chronic stages of it.

No matter the case, use this guide as a template to help you battle with burnout symptoms, or share with a friend you think could use a little extra assistance. I’ve tried my best to be as thorough as I could so you don’t have to spend hours on Google searching for all of this.

 

Jacob Kountz

Jacob Kountz

Jacob is currently an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in Bakersfield, Ca.

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