Here we are a year into a pandemic. I’ve heard from many of y’all out there that you’re not feeling quite right. Something’s amiss, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. You feel apathetic, fatigued, irritable, unmotivated, unable to sleep, angry even. Nothing is wrong, yet everything feels off. That feeling you can’t name is quite possibly emotional exhaustion, and you may be experiencing burnout.
I’ve written a lot about physical burnout as it relates to adrenal fatigue, or more correctly, mitochondrial fatigue. You can read those posts here and here. I’m specifically discussing emotional exhaustion and burnout in this post, but emotional burnout may cause physical symptoms and visa versa.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is typically described as chronic workplace stress, and that was definitely a thing prior to Covid. The American work ethic tells us that to be successful, we must work our fingers to the bone and work longer and harder than our peers to get ahead. ‘No rest for the wicked’ means you better continue working even though you’re tired. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and no complaining means people come to work sick, and American workplace culture hasn’t always been a welcoming place to discuss mental health challenges that result from feeling overworked.
During Covid times, 2/3 of Americans reported feeling burned out (source). Though the seeds were certainly sown pre-pandemic, Covid pushed us over the edge, testing our wellbeing and throwing our routines into a tizzy.
Routine is critical for health. I often teach my clients to establish a morning and then daily routine, because the body thrives on consistency: predictable meal times, bedtimes, etc. Covid has been the killer of the daily routine. Add to that: gyms have closed, zoom fatigue set in, and the isolation of working from home. Or on the other hand, being around family 24-7 with nowhere to go has been a huge challenge for some.
Here’s what sets the stage for burnout: you’re overworked and overwhelmed, emotionally exhausted. You can sustain this level of stress for a period of time, often the ‘wired and tired‘ phase. Once the stress becomes chronic, you’re depleted, and then burned out.
Physically, what happens during burnout is your adrenal glands secrete more cortisol in response to heightened stress. Cortisol is a normal part of our stress response and prepares us for fight or flight. But we’re meant to recover after stressful events. When stress is chronic and cortisol remains elevated for too long, you start to feel anxious and wired; you have trouble sleeping; you may be eating more or drinking more booze to cope. This causes inflammation and blood sugar fluctuations that create a vicious cycle. Eventually your body cannot keep up with this chronic stress state, and you start to burn out. At this point you can feel lethargic and experience digestive issues, joint pain, weight gain, and depression.
- Feeling wired yet tired
- Feeling detached
- Escapist behavior like increased drinking or drug use
- Feeling stuck
- Depression, feeling like a cloud is hanging over your head
- Trouble focusing
During Covid times, we have seen particular challenges that have made us more susceptible to burnout. People are feeling disconnected and perhaps lacking support they need to pursue career advances and goals. Video calls are harder on us physically and mentally because our brains find it more challenging to process nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language, making it tough to relax during conversations.
Family roles are complicated as we’re trapped at home. The lion’s share of child and family care tends to falls on women who are now having to manage 24-7 childcare as well as their own careers.
Causes of Burnout
- zoom fatigue & unhealthy levels of screen time
- working nonstop
- not getting quality sleep, poor sleep hygiene
- too much social media
- stress & trauma
- unsustainable workload
- family challenges
The pandemic has forced us into our homes and away from socializing, gathering, and even exercising. Humans are innately social creatures who need connection to thrive. Isolation, monotony, and loneliness can take a tremendous toll on our mental health, contributing to burnout. Add to that using zoom to connect and escaping into Netflix and you also have unhealthy levels of screen time that can adversely affect cortisol levels, contributing to insomnia, weight gain, and hormonal imbalance.
How to Overcome Burnout
We have been through a lot of collective trauma this past year, and though there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, many of us aren’t aware of the impacts on our psyche: the conflict and negativity we’ve become accustomed to, especially on social media, and internalized.
Ask any wellness guru about how to overcome burnout and you’ll get an earful of self care: yoga, meditation, exercise. But those are tools for improving well-being. When it comes to addressing burnout specifically, they won’t be as effective. (source) I am in no way discouraging these self care tips as ongoing maintenance, but if you’re already burned out, you need to start by taking some steps to pull yourself out of the hole.
Let’s start with the biggest one first: setting boundaries. Boundaries are crucial for protecting your emotional and personal space. I think the best way to start if you’re a boundary novice is to learn to say NO. Surprisingly harder than you think. You don’t have to take that extra project or do that thing you don’t want to do. Is that meeting really necessary? Does it have to be zoom, or can it be phone? Once you realize you don’t have to say yes to all the things, it’s quite liberating. I think lack of boundaries is the biggest driver of burnout. Here’s more on boundary setting.
Secondly, pay mind to what you’re eating. Nourishing food helps regulate the nervous system and heal the body. The pandemic has increased comfort junk food eating, but these processed and skeletonized foods lack the nutrients we need for healthy hormone balance and brain chemistry to fight anxiety and depression. It’s totally understandable that we turn to food for comfort, because quick hits of sugar and refined carbs (hello baked goods) temporarily boost our feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. Booze increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter. But this is a temporary fix that leaves us more depleted in the end.
Click here for my general article on what to eat. This post tells you how to choose an anti-inflammatory diet, which is key for addressing depression, weight gain, pain, or any inflammatory condition (and it’s the best diet for longevity).
There are a few supplements you can use for burnout also. My top rec is adaptogenic herbs that help the body manage stress. Here’s my guide on how to use adaptogens. Don’t forget medicinal mushrooms! They pair super well with adaptogens. I like the Four Sigmatic elixirs. If you’re wired and tired, this supplement will help support adrenal health and promote calmness. This blend of adaptogens, herbs, and nutrients is great for fatigue associated with burnout.
At work, can you discuss mental health with your team or your boss? Do you have flexible workplace options? Don’t be afraid to speak up about your needs. This is an example of setting boundaries too!
Finally, remember that humans need connection. That’s been a huge challenge for all of use during this pandemic. If you live alone and feel isolated, arrange a park meetup or go for a walk with a friend. Remember to cultivate joy in your life and do what do you enjoy. For me that is having freshly cut flowers in the house, taking a hike in the woods (did you know that is a great way to manage stress? Read more here), gardening (possible indoors too!), playing with the dog, playing music, getting outside to soak up the sun (you need vitamin D!), or any outdoor activity.
I’d love to hear suggestions from you if you’ve struggled with burnout. Feel free to share your story in the comments.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.