By: Rachel Fairbank
Burnout is defined as a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged stress. Given the nonstop barrage of stressors these past few months, many of us are probably well on our way to developing burnout, if we aren’t there already.
Stages of burnout
The stages of burnout include a honeymoon phase, in which a person devotes extra time and energy to dealing with their stress; followed by mitigation strategies, when a person is crankier than usual but is still trying to juggle everything; followed by chronic stress, a point when people have an even harder time coping and often find ways to detach themselves from others; and finally, by full-blown burnout.
If these stages sound familiar, well, at least you’re not alone. As a society, we seem to be on a path to burnout together. We started in those ambitious first few weeks with big plans: We were going to learn how to bake and knit! After a few weeks of trying to juggle quarantine and work from home and homeschooling and job loss. Now we all seem to be stuck in a phase of chronic stress, either lashing out at the people around us or detaching from the world at large.
“A lot of people are in the second and third stages right now,” Ziegler says. “We are all here.”
That said, there are strategies that we can employ, even in an era of physical distancing and omnipresent fears about our health and safety. These are some of Ziegler’s recommendations for avoiding burnout during a pandemic.
Know the signs of burnout
“Knowing the signs of burnout are really important,” Ziegler says. What stage you might be in will vary, and it’ll look a little bit different for everyone. People who are burned out are often detached from others, feel drained and unable to cope, and lack their usual energy. They also often experience physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches.
As Ziegler points out, it’s normal to be stressed and anxious, given everything that is going on. But just because this stress is understandable doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to cope.
Stay connected with others
We may have to practice physical distancing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be creative about staying connected with others. When it comes to preventing burnout, strong social connections are key.
As Ziegler suggests, in addition to friends and families, lean on online communities that might share some of your concerns. Whatever your situation is, whatever your struggles are, there are people out there who can relate. Make sure to prioritize these connections, as they will help buffer you from burnout.
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It is okay to cut down on the number of hours of school each day or to say no to extra job duties at work. As Ziegler points out, as much as we want to do everything, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. It’s important to be selective about what we take on as well as practical about what we can accomplish, given our constraints.
Set boundaries for yourself
Boundaries are really important, especially in these times. Boundaries can help make your workload and home life a little bit more manageable. It’s okay to say no to things, it’s okay to adjust your expectations, and it’s okay to prioritize what’s most important.
Schedule time for yourself
If we put a meeting on our calendars, we do everything we can to make sure we show up to it. Caring for yourself, in whatever form that takes, is just as important.
“Every day, schedule time for yourself,” Ziegler says. “When we are under stress, we don’t tend to squeeze in healthy things for ourselves.”
So carve out a time for yourself. Put it on your calendar and give that time as much priority as a work responsibility. Your mental health and wellbeing is important.
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Even small changes of environment can help keep us from feeling overwhelmed. This could be as simple as moving from the living room to kitchen or going for a short walk around the block. Given that we are all at home all the time now, a small change of environment will go a long way toward helping us feel mentally refreshed.
Move your body
As Ziegler points out, there’s a big connection between staying active and maintaining good mental health.
“People have to remember working out is good for your mental thoughts,” Ziegler says. As we are a lot more sedentary than usual, moving can help us stave off some of the effects of abrupt changes in our routines.
Even if you only have ten minutes, it’s worth fitting in a few calisthenics or a quick walk.
Practice mindfulness with your diet
Being at home all day while stressed means a lot more snacking and a lot more unhealthy foods. Unfortunately, although in the short term, reaching for a bag of chips or a carton of ice cream feels good, when it comes to balancing stress, these snacks hurt more than they help. Being mindful about what you are eating will help in the long run.
Power naps are rejuvenating
If you have twenty minutes, consider taking a power nap to boost your energy and productivity. Find a quiet spot, set the alarm and do your best to relax. If it’s hard, Ziegler points out that power napping is something that gets easier with practice.
Early afternoon, when your concentration and ability to focus is suffering, is a good time for a power nap. Twenty minutes is the sweet spot, as 30-60 minutes can leave you feeling more tired than when you fell asleep. Of course, if you’ve got 90 minutes for a full nap, that also works, but that’s harder to carve out of your schedule.
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Words have a way of becoming reality. “We have to notice our words,” Ziegler says. Allow yourself to vent, allow yourself to release all your fears and worries, but then find a way to pivot and channel your fears and worries into something productive.
A side hustle can help you feel in control
If you are worried about your job security—or if you have been laid off—developing a side hustle can be a productive way to pick up new skills while also giving you a way to regain control over your situation.
Now is the time to think about what other skills you have you can use to your advantage. If nothing else, this will help you regain a sense of purpose, which is key to weathering periods of potential burnout.
List your fears
There are so many fears and anxieties in the world right now, and for good reason. Instead of bottling up them all up, Ziegler suggests listing them all out and then—and this is the key part—coming up with strategies for how you would cope if the worst happened.
“Give yourself your moment,” Ziegler says. “Then, stop, and make a plan around it.”
Are you afraid of losing your job? Not being able to pay rent? Getting sick and needing someone to care for your children? Name these fears, then start making plans. Just the act of thinking through them will help your regain a sense of perspective and control.
Right now, the world is a scary and stressful place. There is no avoiding it. However, even in the middle of all these worries and anxieties, there are still actions we can take to help mitigate the worst effects. Adjust your expectations, carve out time for yourself and do whatever is in your power to preserve your sanity for the long run. Because it’s going to be a long run.
Rachel Fairbank is a freelance science writer based in Texas. When she is not writing, she can be found spending time with her family, or at her local boxing gym.