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Jul 03, 2019

Tips to Recognize and Prevent Mental Burnout

Written by Dr. Caroline Leaf

We have all had those days when we come home feeling exhausted. We barely have energy to eat and get into bed, and wake up almost as tired and as stressed the next day. Many of us, from time to time, experience burnout: pure fatigue from the challenges of life. 

In this week’s blog and podcast, we are going to discuss what burnout is exactly, why it happens, and what you can do to prevent it and deal with it. This is for everyone, especially physicians, teachers, parents of young children, single parents, those juggling multiple jobs and entrepreneurs. This is one issue I am constantly asked to address at conferences and in interviews. 

Burnout has become a major crisis. I read an article just the other day on how burnout is actually killing physicians! It is estimated that one doctor per day commits suicide due to extreme stress and exhaustion, while 44-65% of physicians suffer from burnout. In fact, burnout is the second leading cause of death for medical students. Physician suicides are an “enormous problem” for the health-care industry, with doctors being much more likely to kill themselves than the general population. Burnout, driven by workload, work inefficiency, lack of meaning in work and work-home problems are a main contributor to the high doctor suicide rate in our society today. And this is just in the field of medicine!

So, what exactly is burnout? Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when someone feels overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands, at both home and on the job. Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity. Although “burnout" isn't a medical diagnosis, it causes a host of mental and physical issues. Indeed, whatever the cause, job burnout can dramatically affect our physical and mental health. These are some of the symptoms of burnout: physical and emotional exhaustion resulting in chronic fatigue, cynicism and detachment, feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment, insomnia, forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention, increased susceptibility to illness, a loss of appetite, feelings of anxiety and depression and so on. 

How does this happen? Burnout is one of those road hazards in life that high-achievers in particular really should keep a close eye out for. Sadly, often because of their "I can do everything" personalities, people who are high-achievers rarely see it coming. Because they are often so passionate about what they do, they tend to ignore the fact that they're working exceptionally long hours, taking on exceedingly heavy workloads, and putting enormous pressure on themselves to excel—all of which make them ripe for burnout. I myself am guilty of this, and have to train myself to listen to my body and taking sufficient breaks throughout the week. 

Often, when someone is in the throes of full-fledged burnout, they are no longer able to function effectively on a personal or professional level. However, it is important to remember that burnout doesn't happen suddenly. We don't wake up one morning and all of the sudden "have burnout." It is much more insidious, creeping up on us over time like a slow leak, which makes it much harder to recognize. Still, our bodies and minds do give us warning signs (which I talk about in my book The Perfect You), and if we know what to look for, we can recognize and stop it before it's too late. Indeed, we have incredibly resilient minds, and we can take back control of our lives. There is always hope!

Here are some tips to help with professional and personal burnout:

1. Fatigue:

In the early stages of burnout, you may feel a lack of energy. In the latter stages of burnout, you may experience intense physical and emotional exhaustion, which will make you feel drained and depleted, and may give you a sense of dread about what lies ahead. 

If you are going to change anything, you first have to be aware of what is going on. I recommend starting a “burnout” journal so that you can monitor your mental and physical reactions to what is going on in your life. In the case of fatigue, ask yourself questions like “how long have I felt this way?”, “what is making me feel so exhausted?” or “am I tired most days?”. Observe your behavior over several days and write down what you are experiencing.  

2. Insomnia:

In the early stage of burnout, you may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep several nights a week. In the latter stages of burnout, insomnia may turn into a persistent, nightly ordeal: no matter how exhausted you are, you find that you just can't sleep.

Once again, observe your sleeping patterns and log them into your burnout journal. Describe and track this over time. 

It is also important to try avoid panicking when you can’t fall sleep. This fear will cause more damage in the brain than no sleep at all, and can further impact your mental and physical health. Do not lie in bed and worry about not sleeping, or panic about how you will feel the day ahead or whatever is going on in your life, and this will impact your mental and physical help and make you feel even worse the next day. Don’t worry if you cannot sleep—your body has its own natural sleep rhythm, and eventually you will rest and regenerate. Give yourself grace, especially if your life is a little crazy at the moment! Remember, if you constantly think about how bad you will feel the next day, your body will go into toxic stress, and you really will feel bad, which can affect your heart health! So just relax, tell yourself you will eventually sleep, do something constructive like reading a book, watch a movie or write more in your burnout journal, and make a plan to catch up on your sleep over the next few days.

If the insomnia gets worse, you may need to seek medical advice. 

3. Forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention:

A lack of focus and mild forgetfulness can be early signs of burnout. Later, this issue may be exacerbated, and you may find that your ability to may get work done is severely restricted, and everything begins to pile up. 

Of course, it is normal to forget things now and then—we are not designed to remember everything. But, if you find your ability to remember things and concentrate is getting worse, you may be suffering from burnout. Take the time to observe your thinking, and make a note of every time you forget something or battle to concentrate in your burnout journal. Remember, awareness can help us find the toxic mindsets behind our physical and mental symptoms, which is key if we want to improve our wellbeing and achieve success in life. 

4. Physical symptoms:

Physical symptoms from burnout may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, low libido and/or headaches (all of which should be medically assessed and managed). These symptoms can be different for everyone.

While you manage these physical symptoms, you will also need to address the mental causes behind these symptoms: what is causing you stress? My new app Switch is a great tool for helping you through this process. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of your burnout, and help you build a healthy new thinking habits. You can also find out more on toxic thinking and how to change negative habits in my book Switch On Your Brain

5. Increased risk for illness:

Because your body is depleted, your immune system becomes weakened, making you may become more vulnerable to infections, colds, flu, and other immune-related medical problems. 

This should also be medically assessed and managed.But also pay attention to how often you fall sick, and log this in your burnout journal so that you become aware of how your lifestyle choices are affecting your health so you can start changing them.

7. Loss of appetite:

In the early stages of burnout, you may not feel hungry and may skip a few meals. In the latter stages, you may lose your appetite altogether, and can suffer from extreme weight loss and other diet-related issues. Some people may even suffer weight gain from stress-related eating. 

This is why it is so important to observe our eating habits and food choices, and make health, mindful food decisions so that we can improve our physical and mental wellbeing, which will help us develop resilience to the effects of burnout. For more information on eating and the mind, see my book and online program, Think and Eat Yourself Smart

8. Anxiety:

Early on, you may experience mild symptoms of tension, worry and uneasiness. As you move closer to fully-fledged burnout, your anxiety levels may become so serious that they interfere with your ability to work and may cause problems in your personal life. 

As I mentioned above, my new app Switch is a great tool for helping you deal with the root cause of your anxiety. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of your burnout, and help you build a healthy new thinking habits. 

9. Depression:

In the early stages of burnout, you may feel sad and occasionally hopeless, and you may experience feelings of guilt and worthlessness as a result. As your burnout gets worse, you may feel trapped and severely depressed, and think the world would be better off without you (if your depression is to this point, you should seek help immediately or contact the suicide hotline).

Log changes in the way you feel in your burnout journal. Has your depression increased? Why do you think this is so? How is this affecting your life? Become aware of how you feel, and why you feel the way you do. Once you are aware of these feelings, you can start to change them using the process of reconceptualization, or changing your think, I outline in my blogspodcasts and my new app Switch.

10. Anger:

At first, your anger may result in general tension and irritability. In the latter stages of burnout, this may turn into angry outbursts and serious arguments at home and in the workplace

Once again, log your reactions in your burnout journal. Remember, you are analyzing these reactions as symptoms of burnout in order to become aware of what is causing you stress and how you can change this. 

What can you start doing to prevent burnout today?  

1. Take breaks:

Be intentional about mental health breaks thought day and week, doing makes you happy and relaxed, as I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed. Don’t feel guilty about taking the time to chill out!

If you are always in a competitive or high stress environment, it is important to learn to build in moments where you can completely relax and unwind, and where you don’t feel guilty about relaxing. Give your mind a rest by taking mental health breaks throughout your day, such as running a bubble bath, going for a walk or to an exercise class, grabbing a coffee with a friend, enjoying the weekend, or treating yourself to a much-needed vacation now and then—whatever you love to do. When we go into a directed rest state (that is when we are intentional about relaxing!), we enhance and increase the effectiveness of our thinking, which allows us to be more productive when we are working. This, in turn, will reduce our anxiety levels, reducing our risk for burnout and helping us get things done in less time and achieve what we want to achieve in life. 

If you want to learn why it is so important to relax, why you should treat your weekend like a vacation and how to deal with the Monday "scaries", listen to a recent podcast I did on why we hate Mondays and how to prepare for a busy week.

2. Productivity:

We need change the conversation about productivity. We need to stop basing our worth on how many hours we work in a day or how many things we can get done in one day—this has become an unhealthy cultural mindset. We shouldn’t glorify those who work all weekend, while we should appreciate and admire those who know how to balance work and play, and prioritize rest and time with their loved ones.

3. Recognize that burnout can affect everyone:

Burnout doesn’t just affect professionals. It can affect single parents and those in lower socio-economic brackets, which is why we desperately need to look at how our institutions and organizations are set up so that we can reduce incidences of burnout. This includes better paid maternal/paternal leave, better child care options and more time off, alongside providing better food options at lower cost. Think about what you can do to help people in need in your community and spread more awareness about the importance of mental health. Indeed, one of the main missions of my company is to make access to mental health care and knowledge more easily affordable and accessible to everyone, which is why100% of donations go directly to research on how to make mental health care more easily affordable, accessible, and applicable to everyone around the world. For more information see: drleafresearch.com.

Remember, awareness is key! Being diligent about observing early signs of burnout can prevent it from becoming a major issue in your life. 

If you would like to learn more about how to improve your mental health and deal with burnout, join me at my Mental Health Solutions Summit this December in Dallas, TX December 6-7, 2019! This conference is for everyone: teachers, CEOs, students, parents, doctors, life coaches...everyone! For more information and to register click here (PRICES INCREASE JULY 16!

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