Antidotes to Burnout
“Those who have a why to live, can bear with almost any how”.
These famous words from Viktor Frankl speak to the power of having meaning and purpose in our lives. Existential philosophers and psychotherapists have long provided a template for us to follow when our lives have drifted off-purpose. By doing the work of clarifying our values and meaning in life, the next steps become the easiest to take, no matter how challenging things can seem to get.
Case in point: my decision to open an art gallery moments before the onset of the pandemic. It is the clarity of my purpose that has enabled me to stay the course through these past three years. Some days I feel like a Viking warrior standing on the prow of a longboat, shouting at the stormy seas, “Is that all you’ve got?!?”
I’d like to believe that it is born of fearlessness, but the truth is more likely my willful stubbornness, and my belief in the value of this project, both to me personally and my expanding community of artists, art lovers, writers, and poets. As someone who loves taking a ‘leap of faith’, my faith these past three years has been sorely tested! The ass that said, “Build it and they will come,” obviously never lived through a pandemic. Trying to create a place for people to gather when the world is telling us all that it is dangerous to gather, I hadn’t anticipated that my commitment to this soul feeding adventure would become simultaneously my greatest challenge and raison d’etre, the very purpose of my being, my own hero’s journey.
As if keeping Artful : The Gallery alive weren’t enough of an effort through these crazy times, when I found myself sitting here alone each day, I decided that now must be the time to tackle my masters degree in counselling. Make no mistake, completing a postgraduate degree online during a pandemic has not been an inspiring or joyful experience. In fact, this process has been mostly gruesome for me, despite how much I love what I am learning. Earlier this year I reduced my course load as the gallery grew busier, and now, as of today, I have 42 days left until I am completely finished my coursework…not that I am counting. Altogether, this could easily have been a recipe for burnout. What it has been instead, is confirmation of Frankl’s wisdom; because I know why, the how isn’t taking me out.
Burnout is like the proverbial frog in a pot of water; initially we are enjoying the warm bath of accomplishment without noticing that something is very wrong.
The antidote for burnout can be found by examining the individual flavour of your burnout, as it is commonly made up of some combination of three related, but very distinct experiences: exhaustion, cynicism, and inadequacy. These three ideas relate very clearly with our emotions, our thoughts, and our behaviours (Salmela-Aro et al., 2011).
Exhaustion lives in the realm of our emotions. When we are exhausted, we lack enthusiasm, motivation, joy, and excitement. This depletion feels like an abandonment of ourselves, and can be experienced as deep loneliness, despair and helplessness. Rest and rejuvenation are the antidote, and small pleasures are the baby steps back to our enthusiasm.
Our thoughts are what give meaning to our lives, and when our thoughts can’t come up with a good answer to the question, “What is this all for?” cynicism is a natural response. Loss of meaning and purpose in our lives reflects a disconnection from our personal values. As we move through life, our values and what we prioritize, are meant to shift and change as our lives do. Skill building with navigating boundaries and over-concern for others will help, and getting clear about your personal values is the antidote. If your current ones are no longer serving you, it is time for a review.
We live in a culture that values achievement and hard work. Most of us enjoy the initial sense of achievement that comes with a job well done, which is why burnout often (and not always) begins in our professional lives. Act quickly when signs of burnout first appear because the downward spiral is very predictable. Decide what you are reasonably capable of doing and exactly who you are trying to prove yourself to…sometimes it’s just our own doubts going bump in the night. The antidote is to do something different.
The cycle begins innocently enough, with high energy and enthusiasm we feel resourceful, capable, confident, and positive that we can meet expectations, both our own and those of the world. Somewhere in our desire to exceed expectations for higher reward (money, acknowledgment, accomplishment, belonging) we start pushing ourselves harder.
In creeps a vague sense of pervasive negativity which leads to loss of motivation and productivity. As the symptoms grow unchecked, feelings of fatigue, anxiety, depression, and physical discomfort start to appear. Further ignored, our close relationships begin to deteriorate or breakdown, and addictive behaviours can start to show up.
The paradox is that when we feel the first signs of burnout, most of us think, “Okay, I just need to try a little harder! Work a little longer, faster, smarter…fill in your blank. The trouble is that our biological system’s way of meeting the demand to do more in the face of depleted energy reserves, is to fire up the hormones adrenalin and cortisol. Thankfully, for a short time these hormones can successfully work to fuel us; that’s why we have them. We can ignore our body asking for rest and keep going. A study by Marcel et al. (2022) found that high cortisol levels in hair can accurately predict burnout six months in advance.
Pressure builds and can often be triggered by an event (death, illness, separation, divorce) or a betrayal (being passed over, fired, downsized). We often notice our distress at this point, feeling angry or frustrated, and self-doubt threatens to creep in. We begin to question our capacity and are driven to continue, wanting to prove to ourselves and the world that we are worthy, able, and competent.
Ignored in their basic request for some rest, our body complaints get louder; neck and back pain, intestinal problems, headaches, fatigue. Our body aches and exhaustion are a natural response to having our needs ignored. If we continue to ignore our bodies request for rest and rejuvenation and keep striving beyond our limits, a few things can happen: the message can get so loud that we can no longer ignore it (like a heart attack), the message gives up and disappears as we desensitize and lose connection to (and appreciation for) our bodies, or we turn to the pseudo help of substances (drugs and alcohol).
Then, to top it all off, we can’t even sleep and lay awake at night worrying about what we didn’t get done today and wondering how the hell to get through tomorrow. Throw in a few financial concerns and ruminate about those late into the night too. And now, because we can’t sleep, we are even more exhausted and less capable of dealing with the next day in front of us (Allen et al., 2021). The sad part is that most of us, at this point, still think the solution is to work harder because that is what we have been taught to do; ignore the stress and apply ourselves, focus, try harder, do better.
Suddenly, the day comes that we find ourselves inactive: staring blankly out the window, unable to put on our socks, answer another email, make a decision. Our voice of fear and doubt starts to rumble as we imagine losing control, failure and helplessness.
If we are noticing our body telling us to slow down, that likely invokes even more fear as we recognize our physical vulnerability, our mortality. The house of cards we constructed says, “If proving my worth through achievement leads me to thinking I am worthy, therefore, if I cannot achieve, I must not be worthy”…and oh dear…more fear.
And through it all we back away from the best stress buffer we have in our lives: our loving relationships with partners, friends, and family. Reducing or no longer enjoying social time is a strong predictor that burnout is well on its’ way (Wekenborg et al., 2022). It is one of the reasons cynicism creeps in, creating an emotional protective barrier for us as we become frustrated and emotionally reactive…and our isolation increases.
When our mobilization of energy using adrenaline and cortisol finally fails, we go into conservation mode; psychological, emotional, mental, or physical collapse, the final toll for continued striving beyond our energetic limits. This is usually the time that someone will be forced to re-examine the personal meaning and values that have driven them, and re-orient themselves with more realistic and self-compassionate expectations.
Our lives are both personal and relational. We influence and are influenced by the complex web of relationships and the world that we live within. While burnout usually starts professionally, we live it out in the context of our personal relationships, our families, our communities, our society.
Our identity is how we link ourselves to others, and it is formed in relation to others. Our unique identity can be expressed through our values; our character, our commitments to ourselves and the world we live in, what we cherish and what we long for. We have often absorbed a laundry list of thoughts, demands and expectations from others, the family we grew up in, our friends and acquaintances, our employers, and the society we live in.
When was the last time you checked in with that list and really thought about who wrote it? What are you waiting for? Did you recognize yourself anywhere in the description of the roadside attractions on the way to burnout? You can pull over at any time in this process, pull out a map, and plan a different route. There are antidotes to burnout.
Next in-person Calibrating True North workshop: January 6-8, 2023, in Courtenay, BC
References if you are interested in learning more:
Allen, H. K., Barrall, A. L., Vincent, K. B., & Arria, A. M. (2021). Stress and burnout among graduate students: Moderation by sleep duration and quality. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 28(1), 21–28.
Marcil, M. J., Cyr, S., Marin, M. F., Rosa, C., Tardif, J. C., Guay, S., Guertin, M. C., Genest, C., Forest, J., Lavoie, P., Labrosse, M., Vadeboncoeur, A., Selcer, S., Ducharme, S. & Brouillette, J. (2022). Hair cortisol change at Covid-19 pandemic onset predicts burnout among health personnel. Psychoneuroendocrinology 138
Salmela-Aro, K., Rantanen, J., Hyvönen, K., Tilleman, K. & Feldt, T. (2011). Bergen Burnout Inventory: Reliability and validity among Finnish and Estonian managers. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health 84, 635–645.
Wekenborg, M. K., Hill, L. K., Grabbe, P., Thayer, J. F., Kirschbaum, C., Lindenlaub, S., Wittling, R. A., & von Dawans, B. (2022). Associations between burnout symptoms and social behaviour: Exploring the role of acute stress and vagal function. BMC Public Health, 22(1), 892.