Written by Sara Fennel
Lead Image by mspoint/istock.com
It’s not a desire—it’s a demand: We want it all. As high-achieving women, our intention and dedication provides us with a family life full of connection, a meaningful career, strong relationships and, ultimately, a fulfilling life. But what happens when we come face-to-face with the costs of being a modern-day superwoman?
Living a life full of adventure, meaning, and purpose, and refusing to let a single moment pass us by creates a lot of demands on us emotionally, mentally, and physically. Society praises our achievements, becoming a cog in the never-ending cycle of doing and having it all. But with this increased pressure, it’s more important than ever to be aware of the condition called burnout.
Keep reading to find out how you can tell if you’re burned out, and what you can do to treat it and prevent it from happening again.
WHAT IS BURNOUT
The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by an American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger. He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions.
Simply put, burnout is when your body has reached a high capacity of stress and you can’t handle the normal demands of life—you’re overworked. This can happen to anyone after an extended period of time of over-giving or over-working, or from lack of self-care, rest, and recovery.
From a survival standpoint, our bodies are meant to handle stress in short bursts of time and equip us with a cascade of hormones to keep energy, strength, and mental alertness high in times of need. In our primitive days, if a predator was chasing you, these stress hormones would have kicked in and saved your life as you ran away. This same response happens today, because the body can’t tell the difference between a predator and, say, a work deadine. Once you are “safe,” these hormones subside and your body goes back into a state of relaxation.
The problem arises when our stressors come from everyday living and not allowing our bodies to come back to a state of relaxation. These periods of chronic stress can come from career demands, financial worry, relationships and emotional turmoil, a busy schedule, a never-ending to-do list, illness, poor nutrition, and even excessive exercise. Chronic stress causes your body to literally tap out and tell you ‘I’m done,’ like a professional boxer in the ring tapping out, knowing she’s beat.
Image by biscotto87/istock.com
6 SIGNS OF BURNOUT
This is a classic sign of being overworked and overstressed, but this type of exhaustion goes beyond just being tired. You’ll find everyday tasks overwhelming, you’ll wake up tired even after a good night's sleep, your body will feel heavy, and it will be difficult just to get through your day or even get out of bed in the morning.
2. Feeling Wired but Tired
This sign may seem in conflict with sign number 1, but even when you’re exhausted, you’ll have problems falling asleep at night, and may even find yourself getting a second wind of energy in the evening. This happens because you’ve disrupted your body’s natural hormonal fluctuations throughout the day.
Cortisol is a hormone that spikes in times of stress, but it’s also responsible for naturally waking you up in the morning. Cortisol is meant to naturally rise in the morning to give you alertness and then gradually decline throughout the day to help you relax and prepare for sleep in the evening. If cortisol levels stay high for too long because of stress, the body flips the natural fluctuations of cortisol and you will have low levels in the morning and high levels at night, keeping you awake, but tired.
Finding yourself more agitated and irritable than normal is one of the major signs of burnout, or that you’re heading for it fast. As we become more and more stressed for a longer period of time, the hormones cortisol and adrenaline stay high in the body, putting the nervous system on high alert.
This irritability could be anything from loud noises, people, situations, or tasks in your life. You’ll find yourself becoming short, impatient, unable to tolerate things you usually can, and overwhelmed by situations that normally would have little to no effect on you.
4. Slow Recovery from Workouts
It’s normal for exercise to cause some slight fatigue and sore muscles, but when you find yourself taking days to recover or you are not fully recovered before your next workout, this is a sign of burnout. Your body will feel sore for longer periods of time, weights may feel heavier than usual, and you may even find yourself unable to have the endurance that you once had.
5. Low Libido
Fluctuations in sexual desire are normal and there is no universal normal for everyone. A woman’s libido will fluctuate throughout a given month depending on where she is in her menstrual cycle, but when weeks or months go by without craving sexual pleasure, this is a warning sign.
When stress is chronic, the body uses sex hormones to meet the demands for increased cortisol. Consistent high levels of cortisol lead to a depletion of sex hormones and therefore decrease your sexual desires.
Depression in our society is becoming an epidemic, with more people missing work due to mental health issues than ever before. According to the Hope for Depression Research Foundation, depression affects one in 10 Americans in any given year. A 2017 IPSOS poll found that 40 percent of Canadians reported mental health issues affecting their daily lives and 500,000 Canadians miss work each week due to these conditions.
When you lose interest in things that used to bring you joy, when you lack a feeling of happiness and feel deep sadness or apathy, brain fog, lack of mental abilities, and even memory issues, these can be signs of depression brought on by burnout. If these symptoms are accompanying any other signs of burnout, ensure that you speak with your doctor about it.
HOW TO AVOID BURNOUT
Proper self-care, self-awareness, and knowing our limits plays a role in paying attention to the signs and symptoms of burnout, because the truth is, you won’t just wake up one day completely tapped. Chances are, your body has been sending you signals long before that, asking you to please slow down and pay attention. The trick is to listen to those whispers before they become shouts, so you can get ahead of burnout.
The number one thing you can do to prevent burnout is manage stress. While it might be impossible to remove certain stressors from your life, the part that you do have control over is how you respond to them, and how you advocate for yourself when you feel burnout approaching.
Try these tips to manage stress and avoid burnout.
1. Prioritize adequate sleep, recovery, and rest. If you’re dealing with a wired-but-tired feeling at night, try sticking to a bedtime routine. Take a bath, shut off all electronic devices, and read a book an hour or two before hitting the hay. Likewise, when you clock out of work for the day, really clock out. Shut off notifications and emails so you can transition into downtime.
2. Be cautious of how much you take on at one time. It’s hard to say no, we get it. From work tasks to an almost offensive number of Zoom calls, there always seems to be a way to put more on your plate. If this is you, try reframing your thoughts on your time. While it may be feasible to carve out an extra hour of time in your day for yet another task, set a boundary for how much you’ll actually say yes to. If you get flustered, try saying, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I’ve got as much as I’d like on my plate right now.” Notice we’re saying as much as you’d like, versus as much as you can handle. That’s the key.
3. Spend more time getting fresh air. Studies show that more time spent in nature promotes happiness, calm, and stress relief. Even if you live in the city, committing to getting outside for 30 minutes a day can do wonders.
4. Ask for help in your life if you have too many demands. Girl, how many times do we have to tell you? Delegate! Whether it’s hiring someone around the house to help with tasks, sending the kids to grandma’s every other weekend, or enlisting the help of a personal trainer or nutritionist who can develop healthy fitness and eating regimens for you, your life will become infinitely easier when you steer clear of doing it all yourself.
5. Take relaxing baths with Epsom salts and lavender essential oils. Epsom salts reduce stress and alleviate soreness, while lavender promotes calm by easing anxiety and depression, and can even help with insomnia. Plus, the ritual of drawing yourself a bath is seriously its own form of self-care.