Continuing from part one in this three-part series on burnout, this second article dives into the practical aspects of how to get out of burnout. And you may be in for a few surprises.
Before discussing how to escape burnout, let’s first consider how people present, and where they go to get help. Perhaps not surprisingly, burned out people most commonly present to their clinician with symptoms of mental and physical exhaustion, impaired performance, and anxiety and/or depressive symptoms. Given the presentation, it makes sense that traditional advice comes in the form of rest, taking time off work, getting more sleep, eating well, and exercising regularly.
Being advised to take time off, rest, and take care of oneself initially lifts the huge burden felt by those experiencing burnout. Feelings of anxiety and overwhelm are immediately replaced with feelings of relief and lightness. However, these lighter feelings last only a couple of days before giving way to the return of overwhelm, anxiety, and defeat. And the intensity with which those feelings return is usually wholly unexpected and unanticipated. In fairly short order, rest becomes unrest. It’s at this point that many burnout sufferers find themselves turning to Netflix, food, alcohol or other substances for comfort. Additionally, they can find themselves franticly cleaning their entire homes, gardening, repotting house-plants, or rearranging their closet.
And there is a reason for this.
The feelings associated with burnout – anxiety, panic, overwhelm, helplessness and hopelessness (collectively ‘defeat’) – are instigated by the primitive brain. One of the most effective, though not sustainable, ways to quiet the primitive brain is to do something. The primitive brain tells us to run, to escape danger. Therefore, in its most basic form, doing something satisfies the primitive brain insomuch as it accepts any kind of activity as a form of running away.
When activity begins, the primitive brain loosens its hold on your emotions and fairly quickly, you start to feel better. This is the very reason that anxious, stressed people throw themselves harder into their work and often become trapped in a cycle of using work as a means to avoid anxiety. However, once a person is advised to rest and take time away from work, the opportunity to ‘buffer’ by overworking is removed. People then turn to what’s on hand to make themselves feel better. Most commonly, those things are watching television, eating, drinking alcohol, and engaging in a slew of household chores.
Therefore, while rest seems to be the answer to overcoming burnout, it can actually take you deeper into the abyss.
So, if rest is not the way out of burnout, what is?
The key to escaping burnout is to over-ride your primitive brain by putting your pre-frontal cortex – the rational, logical part of your brain – in charge. This isn’t something that can be achieved with rest. It takes effort. Counterintuitively, the way out of burnout is with conscious thought and deliberate action.
Here’s how to go about it.
Give yourself space to think and plan.
Conscious planning engages your pre-frontal cortex. If you’re taking time away from work, use that time as space to plan. No matter how small and insignificant your plan may seem, if it is consciously designed, you will put your pre-frontal cortex back in charge. Once you’ve written your plan, read it and see how it makes you feel. If you feel overwhelmed or confused, then your plan is not specific enough. If you feel energized and positive, you’re on the right track.
Follow your plan.
Perhaps obvious, but there are numerous plans that are made and never executed. Each morning, revisit your plan and begin following it the second you get out of bed. In the throes of burnout, you are likely to feel completely overwhelmed and paralyzed. Executing your plan, small step by small step, will unfreeze your brain and create accomplishments. In no time at all, you will feel positive and energized by being able to accomplish something, no matter how small. Even the tiniest of steps will have a disproportionate effect on your mental well-being, your energy, and your enthusiasm.
Acknowledge your accomplishments.
At the end of each day, review your plan and your accomplishments. If you’ve achieved only a fraction of your plan, simply adjust tomorrow’s plan to be less demanding. Be prepared to fail and adjust accordingly. If you’ve achieved all that you planned to achieve, enjoy the positive thoughts that will flood into your mind and the subsequent feelings you experience.
Declutter your space.
Piece by piece, day by day, declutter your home and working environment. A cluttered space is the sign of a cluttered mind. Organize your space as you organize your mind and you will find that each has a direct effect on the other. An organized mind equals an organized space. The reverse is also true.
Think from a place of abundance, not scarcity.
The effects of this practice are dramatic. When we think from a place of scarcity, we feel rushed, overwhelmed, and stressed. Thinking from a place of abundance leaves us energized and excited. For example, rather than think “If I don’t achieve my plan, I will have failed”, think instead, “Sticking with this plan is going to take me to guide me out of burnout.” The former will cause you to feel stressed and defeated before you’ve even begun. The latter will allow you to enjoy the journey as you work towards your desired outcome in a relaxed, unrushed manner.
The way out of burnout is to work on your mind and the physical effects will follow. Take small, daily, incremental steps to put your pre-frontal cortex back in the driving seat, and you will build confidence and courage and propel yourself back to health, productivity, and success.
Tina Cantrill RN, MBA, CPC
Tina Cantrill is a coach and trainer for burned out healthcare professionals. She teaches them how to lead, and how to take care of themselves first, so that they can love their work again.