If you are exhausted, beyond irritable and have zero passion for anything anymore, there’s a likely culprit: Burnout. Many of us are familiar with the concept as it relates to our jobs, but according to an April 26 report on Forbes.com, burnout is an all-time high across people’s work and home lives. It is at alarmingly high levels for women, especially mothers. The report cites Deloitte’s “Women at Work 2022: A Global Outlook” survey and states that “the disruption caused by the pandemic as well as shifts to the ‘new normal’ of work are taking a heavy toll on women.” Even remote workers who are able to better control their work-life balance are battling classic burnout symptoms, including energy depletion, trouble getting started on projects and tasks and feeling as though your mind is going in 1,098 directions. There is hope, especially if you catch burnout before it starts to plunge you into more serious mental health issues and adversely affects your physical health.
New Orleans-based licensed clinical social worker Dodie Powers provides mental health counseling and says that burnout is the result of chronic stress.
“Collective stressors that we face are going to contribute to burnout,” Powers said. “In Louisiana, not only COVID-19 but also the constant stress of hurricane season and crime has caused a heightened anxiety. General uncertainty begats anxiety.
“These are real fears. They aren’t intangible fears. So having that history of the hurricanes the uptick in personal violent crime coupled with the two-year long pandemic, which upended everyone. You are operating in these high cortisol levels, and they never abate. If you are talking about burnout, you have ‘x’ amount of emotional bandwidth to cope with stressors in life. So, the more stressors you have the less bandwidth you have to deal with work.”
Christina Andrini, 500-hour experienced registered yoga teacher, ayurvedic counselor and founder and CEO of New Orleans-based Jai Bhakti Yoga Foundation, said a good place to start is to ask what stress looks like to you.
“Quite possibly, you are looking at it when you look in the mirror,” according to Andrini in an email. “The people around you, and the environment you are in contribute to the amount of stress that the body naturally receives and somehow needs to find a way to alleviate. Routines turn into habits that form an impression in the psyche leaving us to operate on automatic while layering more responsibility to stimulate that part of us that is seeking a change all to alleviate stress. In a busy week, you may be spread so thin that the thought of ‘me time’ is on the ‘bucket list’.”
What can we do to get in front of chronic stress before it makes us chronically ill? The following tips and advice from Powers and Andrini, as well as other sources and resources are a good start. Note that for some of us however, it might be time to schedule a few hours of therapy or make an appointment with another healthcare professional. Either way, while these suggestions may not be the cure for burnout, this is a good place to start.
“I’m a big proponent of the pause,” Powers said. “Stop, step outside of the situation and see how [to] best manage it. A big part is recognizing it. Once you are aware, you are better equipped to deal with it. It takes a lot of motivation to carve out the time to address something that’s so pervasive and prevalent in your life. It’s so hard to see in the moment when you are in the thick of it. With any emotion — anxiety, depression — people become comfortable with it, and it becomes more fearful to change. It’s very hard to come to it on your own. That’s when you either start having physical manifestations of anxiety — heart racing, heart palpitations, stomach issues that are exacerbated by a constant state of stress, back pain, eating disorders — and that’s the red flag, or you have family that says, ‘look at yourself.’ Additional red flags are trouble sleeping, ruminating, catastrophizing thoughts — up in the middle of the night thinking about all of the things that could happen, feeling as though something is ‘off,’ angry all of the time or crying all of the time and emotional apathy, which is the inability to experience any happiness or joy or any emotions.”
“Go to bed by 10:30 p.m. at the latest,” Andrini wrote. “This is a bit challenging for the busy body, but it is important to not skimp on the rest. You will be at your peak when you are well rested and able to accomplish more while doing less. This is when your brain and body are being refreshed through dreaming and sleeping states, removing the ‘brain dirt’ while retaining the important points.” Andrini, and countless other experts and research studies, also says to power down before bed. “Do not use electronics or blue-screen devices one hour before bed. The blue light stimulates the brain and keeps the mind awake messing up the sleep patterns of your internal natural clock that operates on circadian rhythm. When this happens, your sleep is disturbed contributing to insomnia, waking up during the night, and brain fog in the morning. Set the alarm an hour before bed so you are not tempted to look at it. Turn on the do not disturb or can’t receive notifications now. Take this hour before bed to read a book or magazine, practice meditation or do that yoga class you have been putting off. This is a great time for any calming practices. Your inbox will always be full, and people are going to follow and unfollow you all day, so put it down and don’t worry about it.”
REFLECT AND MEDITATE
Andrini recommends starting with a five-minute morning affirmation practice. “I practice meditation two times a day for 20 mins each,” she wrote. “This is where I am able to filter out the day or prepare for the day ahead. The Dali Lama once said, ‘if you are very busy, meditate for one hour.’ We cannot save the world, without saving ourselves first. By taking just five mins a day to sit and be still, you give yourself and the nervous system, time to regenerate and refresh. There is a lot we are going through and a lot we are going to do. Followed by the consequence of the choice. Having a meditation practice liberates you from the outcome and keeps you from attaching to emotions. It’s like cleaning the slate. Meditate for five mins before getting out of bed. Meditate for five mins after your lunch. Your coffee time is your ‘you time.’ Sit with your warm coffee mug in your hands and have gratitude for each sip. Drink it in one sitting and not while running around. Look out the window or just sit and be.”
“In managing anxiety, I like to talk about flow,” Andrini said. “It’s the idea of recognizing an emotion and letting it flow through you. The analogy I like is anxiety is like a drop of red food dye. In a cup of water, it takes over but if you drop it in a flowing river, it has minimal effect. One other [effective technique] is deep breathing exercises to decrease the feelings of fight, flight. They really work.” If you aren’t sure where to start with breathing exercises, the Insight Timer app (insighttimer.com) has thousands of breathing (and meditation) exercises in its free version. The Calm app and Headspace also have a lot to offer in their free and paid versions. Andrini also recommends Alternate Nasal breathing. “Cover your right nostril and inhale the left, then switch, cover the left nostril and exhale the right,” she said. “Inhale the right, cover, and exhale the left. Continue this for up to five minutes and the entire nervous system returns to balance.”
“Carve out time to do things that bring you joy,” Powers said. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in things and not make that time for yourself. Listening to music, taking walks, doing yoga, reading a book — whatever it is. People are so busy, partly because they are so avoidant. I suggest that you make a chart of your day and make sure you have scheduled things that give you joy, like playing with your dog. The more you can do that the more you can address burnout. Be intentional about carving out that time.”
“One underlying thing to give yourself permission to be happy and live your best life and give self-compassion and kindness to yourself,” Powers said. “I always tell people this is your one life, so look at it and figure it out and be the best person you can be. People don’t want to look back and wonder “Why didn’t I allow myself more joy and happiness?” People struggle with destructive thought patterns which are product of their upbringing. Realize that you’re doing the best you can and the best you can is good enough. Look at what you can do. Give yourself permission to try things and see if they work. Remember, everyone is going through this. Experiment. Music really speaks to people. Of course, you can’t underestimate sleep, exercise and healthy eating. Use trial and error to find what works for you to see if [an activity or strategy] gives you joy. Then carve out time to do it. It’s not just doing these things its reflecting. Giving yourself permission to try new things and realizing that they might not work is part of the process. Everything is a tryout. Even general concepts you can start splitting hairs. Like yoga: There’s yoga with music and yoga with philosophy. The key of giving yourself permission to try these things that aren’t always going to work is you’ve provided space.”
Nurture Through Nature
According to the University of Minnesota Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing’s “Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones. It may even reduce mortality, according to scientists such as public health researchers Stamatakis and Mitchell. Research done in hospitals, offices, and schools has found that even a simple plant in a room can have a significant impact on stress and anxiety.” Time spent in your yard, at one of New Orleans’ countless parks, preserves or nature trails, at the New Orleans Botanical Garden or at a local nursery, such as Urban Roots with its added bonus of goats, chickens and other farm animals and wildlife, is guaranteed to lift your soul.
MOVEMENT AND EXERCISE
“The dreaded words,” Andrini said. “‘How am I going to make time to go to the gym on top of everything else I have to do?’ You don’t. When you get out of bed after you meditate for five minutes and before you do anything else, take another five minutes to do some stretching, maybe lunges, arm lifts, side bending or 20 crunches. I do a quick five-minute yoga flow to get my breath flowing, my fluids moving and my heart pumping so I can wake up before making my way down to the coffee pot. This also builds over time, and you will see results within two weeks with just 20 crunches, 20 squats and five minutes of yoga, a day.”
DO NOT SKIP MEALS
“Your body needs to be replenished with nourishment throughout the day,” Andrini said. “Eat the proper foods for your unique physiological composition, known as a dosha in ayurveda. [This] keeps you balanced and performing at your optimal [level]. Meal prep to save time, but do not store for more than 24 hours [to ensure freshness]. Use a [thermal container] to keep meals warm on the go. Start [your day with] warm water or room temperature water for easier digestion. Add ginger, turmeric and a dash of lemon or rose water to remove [overnight] buildup in the intestines. Consult with your doctor first before trying any new diets. Kitchari, [a nourishing legume-based soup or stew], is a quick meal to make and fun for the entire family. You need only make one big batch to enjoy for two days.” According to Andrini, there is a free membership option on her website jbyfnola.org that includes recipes for kitchari as well as other quick meals for you and your family.
Learn More About Burnout
Mindful.org’s four-part Burnout podcast is described as a “hopeful, clarifying, and solutions-oriented series will help us all develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be living with burnout and offer a roadmap and online community for a different (productive, but joyful) path ahead.” The podcast includes an ebook, meditations and other helpful tools.