One of the first things people ask when they learn I'm a therapist is, "Isn't it hard listening to people's problems all day?" I mean, that's not exactly what I do, so....no. It actually energizes me to help people figure their stuff out.
I've been lucky to have extensive training and personal experience in preventing burnout. It's part of my ethical code to ensure I have the capacity to provide high quality care as a therapist.
Yes, there are hard days. But burnout doesn't happen because of a hard day, or even a few hard days in a row.
Burnout happens when we aren't proactive about managing our internal resources. Taking breaks and remembering to eat are important. But so are things like sticking to limits (is that what they mean by "leaving work at work"?), staying challenged, and collaborating with others.
What is burnout?
It is a persistent pattern of stress that builds up over time. Burnout is tricky because it can feel temporary ("I just didn't get enough sleep last night," or "I was hangry this morning but I'm fine now,"). But it's still there after your nap.
No one has a stress-free job (or life), even though some people's Instagram accounts would have you believe that.
Setting up built-in reinforcements to protect you from routine stress is essential to preventing burnout. We need to decompress, recharge, and get ready for the next challenge.
How can you tell if you're burnt out?
Sometimes you can't tell. It can start slowly, and impacts your physical, emotional, and mental well being. Some of the following are signs and symptoms of burnout:
When your body, mind, and spirit are running on empty, you have very little tolerance for mundane life details. You or someone in your life may notice that you're in a bad mood more often than not. You snap over small details, and don't feel like yourself. Instead of addressing the chronic stress that's affecting you, you take it out on otherwise manageable situations.
Fatigue and Trouble Sleeping
You constantly feel tired. But it's not just your body that's tired, because then a nap or a full night's sleep would help. It's more like you're mentally and emotionally drained. Plus, your mind is racing with all the stress you're experiencing, so you're not able to sleep anyway.
As any grandmother can tell you, stress will affect your immune system, mess with your appetite and digestion, cause headaches and breakouts. You might be someone who carries stress in your stomach, grinds your teeth, or has chronic muscle tension. The combination of poor sleep, stress, and emotional overwhelm can wreak havoc on your body.
Emotional detachment or hyper-sensitivity
You feel checked-out or lose interest in things that usually excite you. You find it hard to be happy for your friends' successes, even though you wish them the best! It's not that you're necessarily sad, you just don't feel anything. Or -- you might feel everything. Some people feel constantly on the edge of tears, where the slightest thing can cause you to break down.
Preventive self-care measures can feel silly or indulgent. ("I don't mind answering these emails while I'm on vacation.") But they are vital to keeping you ready to deliver for your workplace, friends, family, partner, and yourself.
As many therapists and coaches will tell you, we often won't notice burnout until it's too late. Recovery is much harder when you're already noticing the effects. Taking steps ahead of time is your best bet.
How can you do this?
Deliberately set limits on your time, energy, and resources. Schedule out regular medical appointments, car maintenance, and time to do the chores you would otherwise avoid. Decompress with friends or family. If you have any opportunities to take breaks or time off - take them! Even if you feel like you don't need to. This will fill your "anti-stress bank account" so that you can tolerate any stress that comes later.
Would you rather go to the dentist for a routine visit, or go in at the last minute for an emergency root canal that could have been prevented?
Prioritize Your Values
Another way to prevent burnout is to reconnect with what is most important to us. This doesn't just have to be at work. We sometimes feel helpless in trying to undo stress when it comes to things we can't necessarily change. You can still find ways to tap into your values by thinking about the following:
What is a topic you could talk about for hours?
You can't help eavesdropping, or even joining in anytime you hear a conversation about this topic. Maybe it's a certain social issue, an aspect of your job, or even just an experience you share. What excites you about that topic, and how can you build that into your life? When we feel competent and passionate in at least one area, we can tolerate stress in other areas.
What are one or two skills you want to develop?
Do you know someone who is really good at cooking, drawing, making friends, or public speaking? Is there a way you can build this challenge into a part of your life? Sign up for a class or commit to a goal that will force you to practice a skill. Do they still have chili cook-offs? A bootcamp at your local gym? Is a publication or website you admire open to submissions? A new commitment will wake you right up and give you a new personal or professional goal to work toward.
No matter what our circumstances, we owe it to ourselves and the people around us to take care of ourselves. When we can meet our own needs, we're more present for others. If you've tried these tips and are still feeling the effects of chronic stress, there may be something deeper going on. Getting professional help from a therapist or coach, even for a few sessions, can reveal a pattern or need that we've overlooked.
If you've tried the tips above but still feel like you can't level up, call me at (562) 704-4736 for a free consultation about how therapy can unblock anxiety and depression that holds you back. Prospect Therapy welcomes individuals and couples of all genders and orientations in Long Beach, Seal Beach, and surrounding areas.