How I'm Recovering From Burnout (The Non-Self Care Guide)
It’s Sunday night and it has been a week. I jumped into work on Monday, ended up in the ER Tuesday (everything is fine), was back in a new business pitch by Wednesday afternoon, coordinated my company’s summer party on Thursday, did my meditation teacher training on Friday, went to the UN Women Conference on Saturday and back doing work on Sunday because like a millennial - I. Can’t. Stop.
This is all of us. Between work and desperately trying to relax and doing laundry and worrying about our finances and trying to stay up on what the actual f*ck is happening to our planet and with our government and taking care of our health, and trying to explore different perspectives when every algorithm customizes a a feed that reinforces our own beliefs and gets us further and further from talking to each other (damn you Facebook!), and going to the gym, and curating our homes to be Pinterest perfect, and donating our time and money to charity, and good sleep hygiene and making time for family and friends and can someone please tell me what the heck TikTok is and why I need to care?!
Being a millennial is downright exhausting - how are we ever supposed to pick ourselves up off the ground and just exist without the anxiety that is permeating a majority of our generation? We receive more information on a weekly basis than our ancestors did in their lifetime. To name just a few factors, we got served an economy in turmoil, an earth that is literally on fire before our eyes, a centuries old equality issue that permeates race, gender, socioeconomic background and so much more - all of this we need to fight and figure out our lives around while trying to make it all look seamless and cool because #instagram.
No wonder we’re all burnt out.
I was so blown away by Anne Helen Petersen’s story in Buzzfeed about how we got to this point and recommend reading it all - it’s a long read but read it over time, and let it settle in.
Petersen makes a ton of incredible points but one that resonated with me most is that putting on a face mask and watching Netflix isn’t going to solve even the slightest bit of burnout. Don’t get me wrong, I love an epsom salt bath as much as the next girl, but is that really going to help me stop being a crazy overachiever who doesn’t leave enough time to just be? Sorry, Dr. Teals - I don’t think so.
“The most common prescription for burnout is ‘self-care.’ Give yourself a face mask! Go to yoga! Use your meditation app! But much of self-care isn’t care at all: It’s an $11 billion industry whose end goal isn’t to alleviate the burnout cycle but to provide further means of self-optimization. At least in its contemporary, commodified iteration, self-care isn’t a solution; it’s exhausting.” - Anne Helen Petersen
Since moving to LA, I’ve begun to realize the importance of not simply sustaining or trying to push out one more hour of effort to be able to deliver more, more, more in my life. Stepping out of my NYC bubble has greatly helped me explore what wholeness looks like instead of perfection. This past year I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to focus on self-love instead of self-care (the ultimate millennial solution to optimization).
It’s a really tricky concept - with self-care you’re trying to sustain for that big thing you’re working for: “I’ll get the promotion and then I’ll be able to relax” you say. “I just have to find the perfect partner and then I can chill out.” your friend says after her 4th date that week. “I need to lose 10 pounds and then I promise I’ll stop stressing at every meal.” your cousin promises. Here’s the thing though: there will always be something else.
Let me say that again: there will always be something else.
One more time, big and in bold, because it took me a solid 5 months to get this: there will always be something else.
Life will never stop being stressful. You’ll get promoted and then you’ll have a ton more work to do. You’ll find a partner but it won’t fill that part inside of you that wants confidence. You’ll lose then ten pounds and decide you’re not strong enough, or your hair isn’t straight enough, or your asshole not bleached enough (shout out to Bridesmaids) - you get the idea. This is the non-stop merry go-round we’re on and it is absolutely destroying us.
“Maybe my inability to get the knives sharpened is less about being lazy and more about being too good, for too long, at being a millennial.” - Anne Helen Petersen
We are exhausted and our bodies are too. I learned in my meditation course and from a very famous Harvard study that the mind has between 50,000-80,000 thoughts a day. These thoughts are either processed as “good” which activates the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system or “bad” which activates the “fight or flight” part of our nervous system. When your body finds a “bad” thought, your nervous system releases chemicals that tell you you’re under attack, being chased by a lion, in grave danger. It starts to mess things up, slowing digestion, firing hormones in high rates, and more. It’s great if you’re being chased by a lion but when you’re nervous your boss is going to yell at you, that response is doing nothing to help you. The chronic stress wreaks havoc and the worst part? We’re only aware of 1% of those 50,000-80,000 thoughts so we can’t even change them if we wanted to.
So how do we change it?
We rewire the brain- strengthening the connections to the good pathways and training the ‘bad’ pathways to activate during truly bad times. This starts with self love - investing in this process to bring yourself from the brink of burnout to a place you can be happy. This is major work and it seems daunting to start but I promise it’s worth it. I am in no way, shape, or form an expert here but I wanted to take the time to address the 5 biggest questions around recovering from burnout I had when I started the process.
5 Biggest Questions on Recovering from Burnout
ONE: How do I know if I’m burnt out or experiencing warning signs of burnout?
The warning signs of burnout can mask themselves as many different symptoms including:
Everything feeling like a really big deal
Feeling disengaged, cynical, or depressed
Change in appetite
Actual burnout is even more noticeable, it looks like:
Complete inability to cope with emotional changes
New autoimmune issues
Extreme anger or sadness
Difficulty with memory and recall
Apathy or distancing from situations
High blood pressure
Chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, and panic attacks
GERD/reflux and other gastric issues
There are many more symptoms but these are just a few to help you identify if you might fall into one of these categories. The first step is to recognize it and make a game plan. If you can take a day off, go on vacation, or even steal a few hours in the morning or evening to get a plan together, that dedicated time can make all the difference between actually making progress and jumping back on the burnout wheel.
TWO: What’s the difference between self love and self care when recovering from burnout?
Self care is doing a face mask and binging The Office when you’ve had a tough day at work. Self love is setting the boundaries at work to not feel like you need to retreat to a TV world in the first place.
Both are equally valuable in life but if you really want to start recovering from burnout, that self love practice needs to become just as common as your self care one. Self love means cultivating a sense of gratitude and acceptance toward yourself exactly as you are with no judgement or need to change a thing. It’s the magic that makes you feel powerful, confident, and in control - and it’s worth saying, it’s not that easy to cultivate.
Self care sustains. Self love replenishes. Self care optimizes. Self love opens. Self care is surviving. Self love is thriving. Self love means recognizing the parts of your life that are contributing to your need for constant self care and stopping what’s not working for you - even if that means going against what you believe is the “right” path. This can mean decreasing workload, letting go of friends, or choosing not to accept that new shiny offer.
THREE: But won’t people think I’m lazy? What if the opportunities I’ve been working for go away?
If people think you’re lazy because you’re setting boundaries and investing in your health then they don’t deserve you. If you’re at a company that gives promotions based off of hours logged and family dinners missed, it might be time to think about switching companies (if you have the luxury to do so, I realize not all do). If you’ve tried to talk to friends about needing more personal time or not always being the problem solver and they still won’t listen to you, maybe it’s time to seek people who will support you for you. This is uncomfortable to do at first but gets easier the more you do it and it feels so. freaking. empowering.
To be clear, I am not telling you to go out and quit your job with no backup plan or do something financially crazy or become a recluse. I am saying that maybe if an opportunity goes away because you have decided you don’t want to live the burned out life, perhaps that opportunity wasn’t the best for you. Notice when perceived judgements and opportunities make you anxious - your body is telling you something important.
When you discover that you are worthy of so much more than you ever thought, this incredible magic happens where you start to define the world you need and let the pieces that weren’t serving you fall away and then better opportunities come to you.
FOUR: What are quick and easy things I can do to combat burnout?
There are none. I know, I know - that was the hardest part for me to wrap my head around too. But seriously, recovering from burnout takes a lot of dredging through the mental shit that got you here in the first place, exposing yourself to the discomfort around acting in ways you typically wouldn’t, and making the effort every single day.
It’s so tough because you’ll read this and say, “I’m too tired, that sounds hard - where’s my Kiehl’s hair mask?” and I 100% did that more than a few times. Think about it this way, you’re exhausted now. If you don’t put in the work today to make major changes in 6 months, 2 years, 10 years imagine how much more tired you’ll be. Imagine how much chronic stress will have built up in your system releasing a cacophony of symptoms. Chip away a little bit every day and you’ll get there.
FIVE: What are your biggest recommendations for starting to recover?
I love a good acronym so here’s my recommendation:
Be Curious: Start by being curious about yourself and how you react to situations and the feelings behind it. You can’t start to tackle burnout until you know the why behind it. A few questions that might help to get started:
When do I feel most tired/burnt out? (At work, with friends, with partner)
What negative reactions are occurring in my body when I feel stressed or anxious? (Stomach pains, headaches, heart clenching)
When do I feel self conscious or not enough in my life? What feelings or memories come up when I think about that?
What am I working toward? What is the real reason I’m working toward it? (Passion, validation, purpose, outside pressure)
A therapist is a great way to get started with these questions and getting introspective - either a CBT or Rogerian therapist is best for this work. If you don’t have the money or time, try starting here with one prompt a day or week.
Understand the Root Causes: Examining the intrinsic factors of your burnout is important but understanding the extrinsic factors contributing to your feeling of exhaustion helps to put it all into context. It gets you out of the “why me” comparison trap and your brain can logically assign a reason for the way you feel instead of spiraling. Here were a few helpful reads/listens for me to do this:
Listen- Burnout to Breakthrough
Reset Boundaries: This one has been the hardest for me. When you’re giving 120% in every area of your life, you literally have nothing left for yourself. Are you always the one your friends call to vent? Do you constantly take on more projects at work to move toward the promotion? Notice where a boundary needs to be drawn to make you feel like you have enough space for you.
It totally feels selfish at first but it turns out, it usually helps both you and the person you’re setting boundaries with. The venting friend, without you as a crutch realizes she needs to go to therapy or solve her own problems. The office realizes they need to hire someone else instead of throwing extra work on you. When you set boundaries, 9 times out of 10, those lines you put down provide a guide for people to walk toward more meaningful change.
I want to be clear I’m not telling you to say '“screw it” to all your relationships and say no to everyone - but save that boundary crossing for the times it really matters - the big project that will get you noticed, the friend that really needs your undivided attention, the partner that could desperately use your brainstorming power. You’ll have more energy for these important moments. Start slow, here’s a guide.
Notify Your Doctor: Like I said before, burnout can wreak havoc on your body and you can set all the boundaries in the world but if your b12 levels are off you won’t feel better. Talk to your doctor about how you’re feeling and ask for tests to check that the burnout hasn’t affected anything major. Here are a few common side effects: low b12 levels, hyperactive thyroid, migraines, back pain, heavy periods. Get checked out so you can fix any of the underlying issues. For me, my testosterone levels were through the roof and I couldn’t begin the rest of the work until this part was fixed.
Own Your Sense of Control: Burnout a lot of the time can result in a lack of a sense of control. This is where eating disorders, OCD behaviors, and anxieties can come in swinging - they’re compensating behaviors to regain a sense of control. Feeling that you’re in control at work, at home, and in every aspect of your life can help you feel ownership over your life, which in turn can mitigate burnout.
It can be really tough when there’s so many factors we can’t control, but focus on what you can control that’s productive and beneficial. This is something I’ve been working on with my therapist quite a bit. For example, when I’m in a situation where I feel sick and don’t have the usual comforts of my home, I can spiral out with anxiety - but focusing on breathing and the tools I do have with me really helps to regain that sense of control. Here’s a few other tips.
Uncomfortable Is The New Comfortable: Do more of what pushes you out of your comfort zone. Being comfortable is great but it reinforces our brain running the same way it has been which contributes to burnout. Pushing yourself to do one thing a week that makes you uncomfortable (ask someone new to coffee, go to an event by yourself, etc.) can really help break out of the burnout cycle.
Talk to Others: Burnout can be completely isolating - especially to find people that see it as an issue rather than recognize it as a sign of hard work. Seek out those who are supportive of you and talk to them about struggles you’re going through (a therapist is a great start). Share what you’ve done that has worked for you - we all deserve a chance to live a well balanced and happy life!
From one burnout junkie in recovery to another, this is a journey worth taking. It’s hard and constant but your health and happiness are at stake - and it can be kind of fun too. Sending lots of healing vibes to you all and please DM me on Instagram with any additional questions.