A prelude: My own experience with burnout
They say that teaching is the best way to learn, and I want to say upfront that this is something I have not personally mastered. I am teaching it here because I have studied every single angle of burnout. I can cite more clinical studies, give you more proven protocols, and list out more books and articles on the topic than you’d even believe. I’ve helped dozens of clients through burnout, and their recovery is inspiring! Yet, putting these things into practice is, for me, a lot easier to say than to do. I’m continuing to grow in my own stress management, and it’s something I work on and think about Every. Single. Day. But I’m not there yet. In fact, I was Google searching for a specific quote about teaching and learning, and I stumbled upon this one, which is perhaps more accurate for my own journey: “A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.” (Mustafa Kemal Ataturk). To be totally transparent, this is what I have done in many cases … consumed myself to light the way for others. I care so much about my business and my work and my clients, and pour so much of myself into them all, that often I physically suffer.
Let me pause by saying this is not a “woe is me” blog post. Yes, I realize that my situation is incredibly privileged, and I am so, so grateful for this. I have had no abuse, divorce, job loss, or other major life trauma. I set my own schedule and am my own boss, so I am truly the one to “blame” for this (though I don’t believe in blaming yourself, but I do take responsibility!). This situation, and healing from this situation, is 100% on me. Brendon Burchard said, “burnout is almost always a choice,” and I am owning that choice. It is ME not willing to set boundaries and take care of myself that has caused this.
And let me also say LOUDLY that stress and burnout are not badges of honor. For a while, I thought that overworking was a badge of honor. For the first 8 years post-college, I would almost brag about working 90-hour weeks (but not share that my body was literally breaking down because of it). Now, I may cite my overworking tendencies, but trust me that I am not proud of this, nor do I want it to continue. I am continuously working on my own mental ability to let it go, striving to work a “normal” 40-50-hour work week between mostly higher ones, and to take a weekend off here and there. I am continuously building in breaks and things that restore me personally – taking walks in the middle of busy days or taking a morning off of work. And I truly do envision a time when I might work 20-hour weeks and be fully OK with it. But this process takes time, and I am on the journey.
I personally believe that being vulnerable is a sign of strength, even when you’re sitting in a chair of expertise and teaching. Workout schedule and consistency? I’ve got that mastered. Food prep? I’m your girl. Eating plenty of veggies and a 90+% health-supporting diet? I’m consistently there. Productivity? Goal setting? Positivity? Continuous learning? Morning routines? Coaching techniques? I gotcha. But burnout and stress management … while I’ve coached SO many people through it successfully, I’m right here in the boat with you. Although sometimes I’d like to be a superwoman-robot, I’m human, just like you, and I’m a work in progress, just like you.
Let me be even more vulnerable and share some of the impact that burnout has had on my physically. I share about this regularly in my corporate wellness presentations, but somehow, sharing it here feels a bit scarier. Still, I think it’s worthy of letting you know that burnout is not just emotional, but has serious, long-lasting, physical repercussions. The briefest overview I can give you of my personal physical repercussions is this list:
- Hormonal chaos (At 27 years old, a doctor said I had lower hormones than any POST-menopausal woman she’d worked with … I lost my period for 5 years … I’ve been through the diagnosed standards of menopause 2 times … I still have significant hormonal irregularities)
- Digestive issues (I’ve experienced alllll the digestive things, from leaky gut to food intolerances to SIBO to IBS, and they all stem from stress)
- Memory loss (despite not having an actual trauma, I was diagnosed with a mild form of PTSD because there’s a period of about 2 years in which I literally recall next to nothing)
- Medication (I was on anxiety medication for 12 years. I think medication has huge benefits for many people, and if I were in a crisis situation, I’d go on it again. Please do not judge yourself for being – or not being – on medication. For me personally, anxiety medication was a band-aid that helped me patch over – not heal – the real issue, and for the past 6 years, I’ve been happier without it)
- Metabolism issues (let me just tell you … cortisol MESSES with your metabolism and makes you gain weight even when you’re “doing all the right things.” It’s a beast!)
And last part here … while I say all of those were “in the past,” I’m still very much dealing with them. Just like many people, I let the pandemic throw me for a loop, and dove right into overworking and overexercising and undersleeping and generally not taking care of my stress. And it showed. I ran a cortisol (the “stress hormone”) test on myself in June of this year since I knew I was off, and I was stunned. A reference range for free urine cortisol in the morning is 7.8-29.5 micrograms per gram. Mine was 122. This is serious and came with a reemergence of many of the symptoms I described above. I’m still working through what medically caused it to get so high. But I am confident that, like I have before, I will get it under control and start feeling better and better. Stress management can be hard for hard-charging Type-A people, but it IS worth it.
What is burnout?
So, let’s take a step back. What is burnout in the first place? From this article, “Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.” In my words, it’s such an all-encompassing feeling of overwhelm that you find it hard to be productive, happy, or act like yourself, even when you really want to. It is estimated that burnout will occur in 4-7% of adults over their lifetime.
A few symptoms of burnout include:
- Difficulty being present; your mind is constantly racing
- Difficulty being happy in relationships or your job
- A sense of “I’ll never get it all done”
- Forgetfulness, brain fog, or difficulty concentrating
- Losing sight of what’s important, your goals, and your perspective
- Unexplained fatigue, muscle tightness, or general feelings of being unwell
- Frustration and irritability
I’ll note here that, while they are often used interchangeably, I’m intentionally not using the term adrenal fatigue. I believe adrenal fatigue is a real thing (here’s more), but it can be a controversial issue in the medical community, the beliefs behind what is happening are changing, and honestly, I think it’s probably a spectrum. So, if you think you relate to some of the symptoms below, there’s no harm in following some of the suggested protocols, whether your cortisol is technically out of whack or not. If you do want to run a test, you can work with a medical or holistic professional (I can order them for my clients). I recommend a diurnal urine or saliva test, taken 4x throughout the same day.
How to recover from burnout
Ok, let’s say you have burnout, or you think you might have burnout. What’s the simple fix for burnout? There isn’t one, sadly. Burnout isn’t something you can recover from quickly or easily, unfortunately. My clients that dive all in (meaning, taking time off of work and other commitments, committing full-time to recovery) often get back to normal in a few months. I have recovered in the past, but as referenced above, it’s something I continuously stay mindful of, because it’s easy for me to slip back into the cycle of burnout. In some ways, it’s taken me over 13 years to recover, and I’m still not fully there yet. But the progress I’ve made (even considering the recent blip!) is INCREDIBLE. My friends and family will tell you I’m a much better version of myself now than I was 10 years ago!
Throughout my personal journey, my research, and my client work, I’ve discovered 20 tactics to help recover from burnout. Buckle up, here we go!
- Sleep. Sleep is the BEST way to promote physical and mental recovery, and will be a critical tool towards healing from burnout. Here, I mean both more sleep on a nightly basis (in 2020, I’ve committed to at least 7 hours per night, and it’s made a huge difference … I used to be at 4-5!) and periodic “catch up” nights (those nights of being in bed for 10 hours every once in a while are SO valuable!).
- Exercise smartly. When you’re stressed but not all the way to burnout, exercise of any kind is a great stress management tool! However, once you’re actually in burnout, it can backfire. Simple walks, yoga, gentle movement, and strength training are always great. But in burnout, I highly recommend cutting back on the intense, chronic cardio. This is probably the hardest part for me. In 2019, I did 2 Ironmans, and was at 20 hours of cardio at the peak of my training. I love challenging myself with running and all forms of cardio. However, when I got those results back, I did 6 weeks without any running (LOTS of strength training, walking, and yoga!), and am easing back in with daily 1-2 mile runs to warm up for strength training, regular long walks, and sporadic long bike rides.
- Set boundaries. For many of us that find ourselves in burnout, this is very difficult. We’re people pleasers and high achievers for the most part, and that’s what got us here. But setting boundaries is critical for recovery from burnout. This means different things for different people – it likely means setting limits on work hours, learning how to say no even when it’s hard, and delegating to others.
- Ask your body what it needs. Again, burnout is so individual, but your body knows the answer and will tell you if you listen. Does it need rest, healthy food, pampering, crying, time in nature, connection, creativity, or stretching? Listen to it, and try to build in time to make it happen.
- Find ways to spark joy and create psychological detachment. Psychological detachment is creating intentional space away from what is fueling the burnout. For many of us, this can be really hard! (I’ll fully admit, I’m almost always thinking about work – on vacation, when sitting on the patio with my husband, when getting ready for the day, when trying to fall asleep … but being intentional about not thinking about it is important). Ideally, we will do this without our phone, too. Great ways to find psychological detachment are yoga, deep conversations, or fun, new activities – it’s a great time to try a new hobby!
- Hug. This one seems silly, but it’s real! Hugging is a great way to release oxytocin, which is a hormone that can counterbalance cortisol. I usually wake up before my husband, but as soon as he wakes up, we have a long hug every morning! You can also get oxytocin by cuddling with animals or even giving yourself a hug.
- Deep breathing or meditation. Meditation is a HUGE help in recovering from burnout, because it helps engage your parasympathetic nervous system and helps ground or center you. More on the benefits of meditation here.
- Choosing positivity. Burnout can make even the most positive people feel negative at times, but choosing to focus on the positive is incredibly impactful. Several of the steps in my morning routine are designed to help with this; you can read all the steps here.
- Reduce screen time. Most of the things we’re doing on screens (social media, work, checking news) can rile us up emotionally, and the blue light from the screen can contribute to physical stress as well. I write all about blue light and how to manage exposure here.
- Regain a sense of control. This HBR article sums it up so well. Basically, the author shares that taking ownership of your situation and feeling empowered about your recovery contributes to emotional and physical improvements.
- Think about WHY you’re pushing so hard. Many of us feel like we’re on a train that’s going at full speed … but where is the train going? And do we realize we can choose to step off the train at any time? Sometimes, there’s a reason to push (a big work project coming up, a wedding, you name it), but if we’re pushing all the time, it helps to ask why … and often, we’ll realize we don’t have a great answer.
- Eat healthy foods. Obviously, I’m all about this one, and this was the one that required least effort or change for me. But the effort to eat healthy foods becomes even more important in burnout. When we’re burned out, our blood sugar is already wonky (that’s the technical term), so anything that has the potential to set it off (e.g. anything that turns to sugar quickly in the bloodstream) has an even greater impact. If you ever wonder why I am SO careful with my diet, this is one of the main reasons why! If you’re just starting out, focus on getting plenty of veggies (a lot more than you think you need!), plenty of high-quality protein (around 30% of your daily intake), adequate healthy fats (very soothing for the brain!), and not skimping entirely on the carbs (while things like bread and cookies will get your blood sugar rolling, there is a need for carbohydrates from things like berries, whole grains if you tolerate them, and other fruits and starchy vegetables in moderation). Basically, we’re aiming to reduce inflammation, provide adequate nourishment to a body that is burning through a lot of nutrients trying to manage stress, and keep blood sugar stable.
- Take mini-breaks. I write all about how to take mini-breaks here. They’re good for your productivity, but also good for recovering from burnout. Your brain is under strain already and won’t tolerate straight work for 8 or more hours. Breaks as short as 2 minutes can be hugely helpful.
- Limit caffeine. Ugh, add this to the list of tactics that aren’t my favorite! I don’t believe we have to get off of caffeine entirely, but when in burnout, it’s tempting to let that cup of coffee turn into 3 … or 4 … or 6. Limiting caffeine to 1 cup of coffee, ideally not on an empty stomach (do as I say, not as I do!), and sticking to herbal tea the rest of the day can be helpful in recovery.
- Consider supplements. Supplements are highly individual, and I encourage you to do your research and / or work with someone who is educated on supplements before tossing 10 items in your cart. However, for almost every human, I recommend magnesium l-threonate or glycinate. Adaptogens like ashwagandha and Tulsi (I get mine from Organic India tea – use code MEGAN for 15% off at Organic India USA) can also help mitigate stress. There are many others, like GABA and phosphatidylserine, but I’d recommend checking with a practitioner before starting these last two.
- Play hooky and cancel things. OK, clearly, we can’t make this part of our weekly routines, but sometimes we just need a free pass to clear our schedules and really relax. I do this about 1-2 times per year, and it’s the BEST feeling ever. Some people call it a mental health day, or playing hooky, but whatever you call it, use it wisely. A few weeks ago, when my anxiety got to be overwhelming, I cleared my schedule for the afternoon (I never cancel on clients, but I cancel other meetings like networking, brand partnerships, helping other entrepreneurs, or internal team meetings), hopped into bed, went for a walk, and relaxed the rest of the evening. I felt miraculously better the next day!
- Talk it out. Even if you process your feelings internally (that’s me!), it can help to talk it out. Find a trusted friend, coach, or therapist, and spend focused time talking about what’s on your mind. If this is a friend or a partner, do it strategically – you don’t want to unload your problems every single time you see someone. If you’re looking for a coach, I’d love to help you out.
- Acupuncture. I consider myself so lucky to have an acupuncturist who is incredibly knowledgeable about the human body, willing to truly listen, and goes above and beyond to ensure I feel my best. I’ve been through a LOT of practitioners on this journey, and I can wholeheartedly say that acupuncture has helped me the most. (I see Emily Guevara at The Acupuncture Juncture, and I highly recommend her!)
- Spend time in nature. Nature is SO healing. From taking your shoes off and standing on the ground for a few minutes each morning (called “earthing” or “grounding,” and meant to reconnect you with the Earth’s healing frequencies), to taking daily walks outside, to escaping to “true Nature” in whatever form that means to you (for me, it’s Colorado!), connecting with the Earth is incredibly healing.
- Have grace for yourself. As I said at the beginning, this process takes time. And while I recommend taking ownership of your situation and your healing, try not to place blame on yourself. Recognize that you’re doing everything you can, and that expectations of perfection do nothing but harm you. At the end of the day, it’s ok if all you did today was get through the day. You WILL get better. I’m certainly here cheering for you!
Now it’s your turn … Have you felt burned out before, or do you feel burned out now? What helped you recover most? Whether you’re in burnout or not, which of these strategies can you implement?