Burnout is the graphic term used to describe a state of being that includes both mental and physical exhaustion. Although not a formal diagnosis, burnout has come to be widely accepted over the last 40 years as a valid descriptor of a real phenomenon. Those suffering from burnout feel that they no longer have the resources or energy to keep doing what they have been doing and especially at the same rate they have been doing it. While they may desperately still want to, they no longer feel able to. They are spent. This can leave a person feeling depressed and alienated.
Signs of vulnerability to impending burnout may be evident some time before it happens. The last person to recognise and accept this is usually the person who is at risk. The trap many such people fall into is to keep doubling down on the very approach to life that is causing their problem. There are parallels with addiction and indeed they may resort to coping strategies, such as using substances, that put them at risk of that problem. What used to work now only produces distress due to an increasing sense of powerlessness. But it is hard for the person to accept this despite the evidence of harm.
People who burn out are generally those who resist the idea of slowing down, taking it easy or letting go. An individual’s lack of self-awareness about the vulnerabilities inherent in their personality have a part to play in the onset of the condition. They may not see the hold that certain internal demands have on their approach to life. Perfectionism can contribute to burnout, as can an uncompromising urge to achieve success at all costs, or an inability to allow anything that might be perceived as weakness or failure. A sense of invincibility, acquired during times when everything is going according to plan, is a danger signal. A narrowing of interests and a tendency to social isolation is another risk factor.
As in so much of life, balance is key both to the prevention of burnout and to recovery when it happens. It is essential to identify where there is an overemphasis on one area of life at the expense of others. To build and then maintain good reserves of energy, self-care cannot be compromised. The mental and physical system has to be in good shape to deal with what is asked of it, whether those demands on its resources come from outside or inside. This requires ongoing attention to fundamentals such as good sleep, healthy eating and drinking and regular exercise. Time should be set aside for relaxation, as well as pursuits and interests that do not come with insistently stressful demands.
Burnout can feel like the end of something but it also offers the opportunity to reset life’s priorities.