Just about all of us are going to have to contend with emotional burnout at some point in our lives. Existence on this planet can be unbelievably beautiful, full of joy and wonder, but there will inevitably be times when it’s also full of overwhelming stress… sometimes for prolonged periods of time.
When the kind of stress that absolutely flattens a person comes along, it tends to be multilayered and devastating, like a sh*t cake. You might find yourself laid off from your job the same week that a tree lands on your house so it needs a new roof. While facing this kind of financial and home stress, your spouse may decide they want a divorce, you find out that one of your parents is seriously ill, and one of your kids has been biting people at school.
One awful thing after another keeps happening, and it feels like you’ll never be able to drag yourself out from beneath the cloud that’s smothering you.
There’s emotional burnout for you.
Now, some people advocate for the kind of self-care that’s easy to do, like taking a day to wallow in a bubble bath and get a manicure, or going shopping for a new set of power clothes and a chia smoothie, but those actions are like thin bandages covering a hemorrhaging flesh wound: they might staunch the blood flow for 0.002 seconds, but that’s about it.
Emotional burnout needs to be treated on a deeper level to really be effective.
1. Spend Time With Friends
Sometimes, spending authentic time with people close to you can be incredibly cathartic. People tend to get burned out when they feel that they’re entirely alone in a situation; that they have the world on their shoulders and don’t have a support system to help them out.
By talking with people you care about, you realize that there are plenty of people who care about you in return. They can help you through your troubles, even if it’s just taking your kids for an afternoon so you can sort through some things, or organizing a yard sale so you can replace the appliances that suddenly stopped working. Don’t be afraid to ask for their help.
2. Reduce Your Stress However Possible
Do you have some sick days saved up? Take them, and use them to decompress in whatever way you possibly can. If it’s at all possible to take a leave of absence, try to sort that out: you can’t keep putting energy out into the world without replenishing it at the source, and you can only really do that when you take a step back to regroup.
A spiritual retreat with your group of choice can work wonders: you can spend a few quiet days at a Sangha, a convent, a yurt in the woods – whatever you prefer – while connecting deeply with that community. Spend some quality time with elders and teachers, and get their input.
When it’s time to get back to work, be candid about your burnout and see if you can have your workload eased a bit.
3. Be Creative, By Any Means Necessary
It’s really difficult to be creative when you honestly feel like you don’t have a single spoonful left of energy to give, but interestingly enough, being creative actually fills your well, even just a tiny bit at a time.
This isn’t to suggest that you sign up for NaNoWriMo (where you try to write the next great novel in a month), or create some kind of sculpted masterpiece, but making sure that you draw from your creative spirit and pouring some beauty out into the world is immensely healing.
Do you like to bake? Try out a new recipe. Are you a knitter? Do you like to sew? Try a small project that you really enjoy and can complete quickly and easily for a small burst of accomplishment.
If you’re feeling burnt out, you may feel like it’s somehow self-indulgent to take a few moments to be creative when you “should" be doing a million other things, but you know what? Creativity is one of our greatest abilities, and it’s what drives our species forward. It activates all kinds of areas in our brains, and you might find that you’re passively problem solving while you’re sketching or playing some guitar.
Seriously, even if you need to be prescribed sleeping pills to do it, make sure you sleep. You can’t squeeze blood from a stone, and when you’re trying to exist on a sleep deficit, everything will be a thousand times worse. If your home situation is really stressful, try to get away for a couple of days, whether to a hotel or a friend’s place – anywhere you can just withdraw and sleep to recharge yourself.
Exhaustion – really severe, bone-deep fatigue – only adds to the burnout that so many of us suffer from. Without sleep, every aspect of our health and wellbeing suffers: innocuous comments from others are processed as hurtful, tiny setbacks make us feel utterly defeated, and we just end up spiraling further and further downward until we end up falling apart.
You need to rest, and replenish your resources.
If you find that you’re overdosing on caffeine to get yourself through an average day, try to avoid drinking coffee or tea after 2pm or 3pm so it doesn’t end up keeping you awake half the night. Put away electronic devices an hour before bed, and either read or meditate. You’ll be amazed at how much difference some solid rest can make when it comes to recharging your emotional batteries.
5. Get Professional Help
If you broke a bunch of bones, you’d get yourself to a doctor to have them reset and to get yourself some painkillers, right? Then you might need some physiotherapy to be able to function better again once they’d mended sufficiently. If you got pneumonia, you’d need bed rest and medication, and to ease back into regular life slowly so you didn’t relapse.
Emotional and mental illness are no different, and they originate in the brain, which is a pretty solid, squishy organ sloshing around in your cranium. If you wouldn’t refrain from seeking medical help for a broken bone or phlegmy lung, why hold back from getting help when your brain is going haywire?
Work with a healthcare professional to see which approaches may work best for you. Undiagnosed autoimmune conditions and food allergies can wreak havoc on mental and emotional wellbeing (nightshades are incredibly inflammatory for many people and can cause panic attacks, for example), and chemical imbalances can be sorted out with medication.
6. Make Changes
Emotional burnout is generally a pretty good indicator that life changes need to be made, even if it’ll be difficult to do so. You may have been suffering in a horrible, depleting work environment for far too long, but have held back from looking for a new job because you’re comfortable and secure where you are now, even though it’s sucking your will to live.
Perhaps your relationship has been in the hole for years and it’s time to have a serious talk with your partner.
If you’ve been a caregiver for a parent with Alzheimer’s or dementia, or a child with severe special needs, you may have reached a point where you’ll need to think seriously about care facilities that are better equipped to look after them than you are.
Facing situations like these is really, really hard, and most people try to avoid them for as long as possible, even if it means that they – and others around them, including close family members – suffer greatly. Not facing issues just means that you’ll continue to burn out until you have literally nothing left to give, and that’s a dire situation for you as well as those you love.
Rest, eat well, get the help you need, and then please be honest with yourself about the life you’re living. You may need to reevaluate all the aspects of your situation and then take informed steps to bring about long-lasting change.
Have you experienced emotional burnout before? What helped you to get out of that pit and find your way back to the light? Leave a comment below and share your experiences with others who may be in a hole right now.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec’s Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn’t writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.