Hello Burnout My Old Friend
In December, a lot of people I know are feeling burnt out. As magical as the winter holidays can be, spending more money, eating too much unhealthy food, and having extra responsibilities can add to our stress. Family troubles tend to bubble up this time of year too, whether that’s difficult family members or missing someone you’re grieving. Plus the shorter days and cold weather can contribute to low mood and make everything a little harder to deal with.
And since a lot of the people I know are writers, adding NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)—where writers strive to write 50,000 words in 30 days—sets us up to start December with a full plate of obligations we’ve been neglecting. Don’t even get me started on my mountain of laundry that needs folding.
Burnout: What It Is and What It Isn’t
Burnout is characterized by low physical and mental energy. Our motivation suffers, and we might find ourselves avoiding various aspects of our lives, whether we enjoy them or find them difficult. It’s caused by chronic stress. Our bodies are only designed to handle stress for a short time with periods of recovery in between. But modern lifestyles lend themselves to long-term stress, and for many of us, no time is more stressful that the holidays.
We have a tendency to talk about burnout only as it applies to careers, but it can happen in our personal lives too. It’s more than just having a bad day or feeling tired. Symptoms can be similar to depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. However, burnout is usually temporary, less intense, and more likely to be caused by external situations.
Burnout and Me
I have a long history with burnout. I’m an ambitious person with a lot of ideas, and I have a tendency to push myself too hard to accomplish my goals and finish projects and then need a long time to recover afterward. It was fine when I was younger, but as my life has gotten more complicated—owning a home; parenting older kids with more complex problems; starting my editing business; my parents dying and the ensuing grief, anxiety, and depression; and recently, an ADHD diagnosis at age 40—that old strategy leads to me feeling burnt out more easily and it taking me longer to get back to normal.
For a long time, I kept falling into the same cycle of burnout: push myself too hard, take too much time to recover, feel rushed, and push myself again. Rinse and repeat.
I realized quickly that this wasn’t something I could maintain. But when I started looking for help, most of what I found wasn’t applicable to my situation. A lot of the advice, like taking six months away from my job or paying someone to clean my house, wasn’t feasible for a freelancer building her business. So I had to find new strategies that work for me and my life.
How I Get Back on Track
When I’m feeling burnt out, I struggle with focusing on what I’m doing wrong and putting pressure on myself to “fix” it. Now, I try to anticipate that this will still happen from time to time because my life is still complicated and realize that the only way out is to be kind to myself and add in some strategies to help myself cope better. Sometimes that still means I’m coping after I start feeling burnt out, but sometimes I’m able to prevent it.
Learn to recognize when burnout is approaching
When burnout is on my horizon, it’s harder to get motivated. I get physically and mentally tired more quickly than usual. I avoid tedious but necessary everyday tasks like cleaning the kitchen and folding laundry. It takes me longer to complete those tasks once I convince myself to do them, and I get distracted more easily. Everything just feels harder. A big red flag is when I hear myself saying the word overwhelmed in my own mind and to others.
Have a plan
As soon as I notice the specter of burnout looming over me, I pull out my plan. This is not a metaphor. I have a written plan and a self-care kit that I keep for these exact situations. I know that when I’m feeling overwhelmed, it’s hard to remember what steps I need to take. Anything other than zoning out and avoiding feels like too much. When I have my written plan, I can focus on one thing at a time without having to think too much about it.
What’s My Plan?
- Put away everything electronic.
- Get physically comfortable and indulge my senses with essential oil, chai tea, fuzzy socks, and a scented candle.
- Take 10 slow, deep, mindful breaths.
- Mentally or in my journal, acknowledge and validate what I’m experiencing.
- Pick one or more self-care tools and use them. I have these written down on little cards so I don’t have to remember them either. Some of mine are knitting, going for a walk, calling a friend, or watching videos of babies laughing at dogs (trust me—these are the best!).
Slow down and take lots of breaks
This is the hardest part for me. My natural tendency is to buckle down and push harder, but that’s the opposite of what I need when I’m overwhelmed. So I have to force myself to slow down and be gentle. When I go back to work or chores, I focus on one thing at a time, and I try to do it as mindfully as possible. I take more short breaks than usual and give myself a few long breaks a day where I nap, play video games, do yoga, or take my dogs for a long walk. And although it seems counter-intuitive to me, I get so much more done when I take this approach than when I try to power through the impending burnout. In fact, I have reminders of that written on sticky notes in my office and bedroom.
Give yourself what you need
We all have the same basic needs, but when you’re burning out, you may need to pay more attention to what you need—body, mind, and spirit. This part is hard for me too. The last thing I feel like doing when I’m already overwhelmed is adding to my seemingly never-ending To Do list. But, like taking breaks, taking better care of myself actually makes me calmer and more productive. The key is to focus on one small thing a day and allow myself to really dig in to it. That might mean going to the doctor to make sure there aren’t physical problems (anemia, sleep disorders, or other issues) that are contributing to my burnout. At this time of year, it could be making hearty baked oatmeal (with gingerbread spices!) for breakfast, sitting in the dark before everyone else is up and enjoying my coffee by the light of the Christmas tree, snuggling with my pets under a fuzzy blanket, and doing most of my holiday shopping online to avoid the crowds that overstimulate me and put me in a bad mood. None of this is fancy or expensive, but it helps me maintain a calm mindset and cope better with my stress.
Of course, reduce stress where you can. Look for ways to improve your work situation, and set aside any tasks you don’t have to deal with at this moment. And yes, I advocate taking as much time away from work and your other responsibilities as you can. Unfortunately, most people I know can’t take a sabbatical or have someone else handle all their chores. But what we can do is get help. We can ask our spouses, kids, other family, or friends to take some tasks off our plates and help us carve out a little more time for self-care. We can seek out counseling and medication when we need it. We can talk to others who have experienced the same thing to feel a little less isolated and broken.
The holidays are hard for me. I used to try to be Martha Steward with decorating and baking but also had to work full time, with a long commute and a job I didn’t love. I’ve let go of a lot of those expectations, but then I started working for myself fulltime (which is a whole different topic!) and my parents died three years ago, which has changed the dynamic of our extended family and made everything I used to love a little bittersweet now.
So when I’m not feeling all that jolly heading into the last few weeks of the year and instead feel overwhelmed, overstimulated, and over stressed, I’m learning to make the time and space I need to rest and relax and allow myself to recover and let go of the stressors in my life. And in those spaces, I’m even managing to enjoy the holidays again.
Jeni Chappelle is a freelance editor and a cofounder and editor for Revise & Resub (#RevPit). She considers herself a hobbit (minus the big, hairy feet) and lives in a tiny town near Charlotte, NC with her family and way too many pets. You can find her on Twitter @jenichappelle and on her websitewww.jenichappelleeditorial.com.
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