What is burnout and how you can start putting out the fire.

Have you ever felt like this?


Or this?


Those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. Everyone has them. Even kids like Alexander.

But, when those days stretch to weeks and even months or longer, you may be at risk for burnout.

What is burnout?

The term was coined in the 1970s by American psychologist, Dr. Herbert Freudenberger. He used it to describe the experiences of people in “helping” professions like doctors, nurses, and his fellow psychologists. He suggested that the effect was caused primarily by prolonged exposure to high levels of stress coupled with a high achiever’s personality. In 1980, along with Géraldine Richelson, Dr. Freudenberger co-wrote Burn Out: The High Cost of High Achievement. What it is and how to survive it. He quickly realized that this experience wasn’t unique to health care professionals and, in 1986, co-wrote another book (this time with Gail North) entitled, Women’s Burnout: For the Woman Who’s Made Commitments to Everyone But Herself. 

Since then, the term “burnout” has not been distinctly defined but most of us understand its meaning. The website HelpGuide.Org uses these words: “emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.”

I just know that it feels SH*TTY!

Research suggests that there are at least 3 categories of burnout. While this reseach is based on people suffering from work-related burnout, the concepts apply across the board.

  1. Overload burnout: results from taking on too many tasks or trying to complete each task to “perfection”, causing a sense of exhaustion and overwhelm.
  2. Boredom burnout: results from feeling underwhelmed with, or uninspired by, your life. These are people who may feel that their life lacks purpose and may disengage.
  3. Worn-out burnout: feeling depressed, wanting to give up in the face of the stressor. People with this type of burnout may feel unrewarded by their tasks and, while they may have a goal, feel unmotivated to achieve it.

What are the signs and symptoms

Since there is no agreed upon medical diagnosis, and each person is affected by stress differently, the signs and symptoms of burnout are variable. Most people suffering from burnout report feeling

  • incredibly tired and drained, unmotivated
  • overwhelmed and overloaded,
  • disengaged and detached from family and friends,
  • stuck or trapped in their life,
  • difficulty concentrating, increased forgetfulness
  • negative, cynical, and resentful.

Many people in a German study also reported physical symptoms such as stomach pains and digestive problems.

There is a lot of overlap of symptoms with depression, anxiety, and other stress-related disorders. So, what makes burnout different?

According to the HelpGuide article, while burnout leaves sufferers feeling emotionally drained, people who are stressed tend to be emotionally overreactive. Stressed people tend to feel a sense of urgency and hyperactivity in relation to the stressor. Whereas, in burnout, a person reacts with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

Additionally, the authors of the German study suggest that people who are depressed have a global detachment from things and people in their lives. They feel sad, lonely, and disengaged. On the other hand, people who are burned out can still find excitement and pleasure in their lives when they change their environment. For example, people with job burnout are able to laugh and socialize with friends on the weekends.

If you know me or have browsed through my about me page, you will know that I suffered terribly from burnout.  It affected not only my mental health, but also my physical health. In addition to feeling sad, isolated, overwhelmed, and exhausted, I developed reflux, lost weight, and suffered a miscarriage. My stressor predominantly came from feeling isolated and out of my comfort zone as a stay-at-home mom in France compared with my life as a genetic counselor working outside the home in the US. When I took my son to social events in our town or met up with friends, I would cheer up. But, upon returning home, I would feel tired and disengaged again.

There are, of course, a list of solutions that I could have applied at the time if I had been able to stop and think proactively. But, I didn’t do that. I couldn’t. I just felt, in the moment, like life was spinning out of control. I wished I could hit a pause button. I wished I could put my index fingers together like Evie used to do on Out of this World and everyone and everything around me would just freeze. (I even tried it on several occasions but it never worked!)

Evie could freeze time to help get herself out of trouble in the 1980s TV sit-com Out of This World.  (Photo from Pinterest)


What causes burnout

If you do an internet search for burnout, you will find most articles talk about job-related burnout. Much like Dr. Freudenberger described, burnout is often caused by work-related stresses such as:

  • long hours,
  • excessive workloads,
  • working in a chaotic or high-pressure environment,
  • feeling of little or no control over tasks,
  • lack of recognition

Basically, feeling overworked and under-appreciated. Many of us have felt or are currently feeling this way. Whether we are healthcare providers, sales & marketing professionals, or stay-at-home parents, it often feels like we add more things to our to-do lists than we check off.

But some people who have the same job do not suffer from burnout. We cannot ignore individual and lifestyle causes of burnout such as:

  • being a perfectionist
  • wanting to be in control
  • difficulty saying “no” when asked to help or take on more responsibilities
  • being a work-a-holic and/or limiting self-care time
  • not getting enough sleep
  • lacking a support system or network of friends/family who can help
  • history or family history of depression or anxiety disorder

What can you do to reduce burnout (or prevent it)

The first thing is to get help if you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself or someone you care about. Without help, it can get worse. As the song goes, “We all need somebody to lean on.” You are not alone and you do not have to face your pain in isolation.

While you are waiting for your appointment with your life coach or your therapist; or waiting for your best friend to finish work or the babysitter to arrive so you can go out for a relaxing night, here are a few quick tips to help reduce your chances of burning out and to start your healing.

  1. Set aside time in your day to slow down and relax. I like to do this in the morning to set a calming tone to my day. But any time of day can work, as long as you make it a priority and follow through. I actually block this time out on my calendar and treat it as an appointment so I won’t miss it. Whether you choose to meditate, exercise, take a shower, or read a book, just turning off your phone and shutting down your computer daily can rest your brain.
  2. Let your creative juices flow. Coloring books for stress reduction are big these days and there is actually scientific evidence for it. Studies have shown that being creative – whether coloring, knitting, painting, etc – actually lowers blood pressure by having a calming effect on your mind.
  3. Have a feel-good playlist. Music is another great and creative way to reduce stress and prevent burnout. Pick music that makes you smile, that reminds you of happy times. I recently downloaded a playlist of the Top Hits from the year 1990 for my birthday party. From MC Hammer to Paula Abdul, Wilson Phillips to NKOTB, I could not help but smile as I recalled memories from high school. And, even after all these years, I remembered most of the lyrics and actually found many of the ones that resonated with my teen angst were still inspirational to my almost-40 year old self. (see: Wilson Phillips’ Hold On).
  4. Sleep more. It is when we are asleep that our brains reset, regulating our hormones and refreshing our energy supply. Without enough sleep, our bodies must operate at a higher baseline level of stress. It’s like trying to write with a ballpoint pen while upside-down: it’ll work for a while, but pretty soon, you’ll be cursing yourself while your rip the page or break your wrist trying to get the ink to come out.
  5. Learn to say “no”. This is a really hard one for me but SO important. Before saying “yes” to a request for your time or help, ask yourself if this is really a task you want to do or if you are just saying “yes” to please the other person. While saying “no” can be hard, 9 times out of 10, you’ll think about it longer than the other person will.

You can also visit my sanity savers section for more tools and ideas.

Feeling burned out can be debilitating but it is not a permanent state. With support, patience, and courage you can restore your balance, regain your energy, and feel better. Remember:

imageedit_3_2105681225Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.

– Helen Keller

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