Is it burnout if you can still do things?

Several years ago, as some of you may remember, I regularly wrote a newsletter for Kura. It was dense – lots of categories and links and interesting bits of health info. And although I really liked putting it together, it took so much time every month. Eventually, the time I thought I needed to spend on it became overwhelming and my newsletter-writing slowly trailed off.

I was reminded of this when deciding what to write for the newsletter today. Although I’m super excited to share how we’re going to better support you and our community with new initiatives and programs, an easier-to-navigate website, regular blogs, and this monthly outreach, I also want to avoid overwhelm. For you, and for me.

Even before 2020, so many of us were approaching burnout. Pile on the five million other ways the last two years have been challenging, I suspect many of us are not just flirting with burnout, we’re full-on setting up house with it. Myself included.

This isn’t going to be an objective how-to article about identifying and dealing with burnout. It will be a reflection on things that have helped me, personally and professionally, to soften burnout’s edges with the hope that you find them useful too.

These things may not resonate with you. I hear that. Your circumstances aren’t mine (and vice versa). But I hope some of them do!

1. Admitting to burnout

Most definitions of burnout include significant fatigue (both physical and mental/emotional) plus changes to motivation and mood. Many of us can say we’re stressed out but admitting to burnout seems to be extra hard, even if it’s obvious to everyone else in your life. The thing is, you can’t do anything about your burnout if you don’t face it. This is where the saying “Admitting you have a problem is the first step” is not just a cliché.

In my case, I was on a walk with a good friend when I admitted that I might be dealing with burnout. Not just tired or stressed, but actual full-on, in the middle of it all, burnout. She looked at me like I was an idiot (in the nicest way possible) and said “Of course you are.” Why that moment made all the difference I don’t know, but it became a turning point in figuring the rest out.

2. Reconnecting (even by accident) to some purpose

Burnout includes a decreased sense of accomplishment and motivation, often because we feel like what we’re doing isn’t making a difference. This is particularly true when you feel like you lack control over what’s happening around you – which of course, describes the last two years.

There’s a ton of research showing that having purpose in life is helpful, in part because it addresses this particular issue. If you have purpose(s), you feel like your actions matter as you rally around the things you value – sometimes described as your “why”. And the actions you take to further that purpose are within your control.

But identifying this purpose, let alone tapping into it, can feel overwhelming. It sometimes feels too big, too important to be something manageable or “figure-out-able”. But what if you had mini-“why”s? Could you find a bite-sized purpose that moved the needle?

This came to me in early January when I noticed a big jump in my motivation and satisfaction working on a new project. I began to realize that some of this work tapped into the very things that light a spark in me; learning (and sharing) new and interesting information, developing new skills, and connecting with people I admire who challenge me.

So, I accidently fell into reconnecting with purpose. Looking back, I realize I could have facilitated this by making a list of things that are important to me (learning, sharing, connecting) and looked for opportunities, big or small, that incorporated some of them. It just didn’t occur to me at the time to do so, so I feel pretty lucky it happened anyway.

3. Realizing that sometimes a goal is just a decision

One of my coaches said something a few months ago about how sometimes you just need to make a choice. Those movement goals? Meditation plans? Nutrition targets? Sometimes it’s not as complicated as you make it. Sometimes it’s just a decision.

Walking is really good for me and always has been. Physically and mentally. As I was figuring out what I needed to support my recovery-from-burnout journey, my goal was to walk most days of the week. I started to develop tricks and plans and schedules until I realized this was a choice. It was as simple as deciding I was going to walk every day. And so I do.

Obviously, not everything is going to qualify. And sometimes we’re not in the right frame of mind to do so. But what if you are? What things could just fall in to place?

4. Getting creative

How many of you say you’re not creative? I’ve said it more times than I care to remember. It’s taken me a long time to realize that creativity can look many ways and that nurturing it has so many benefits.

Kindling my creativity in these last few months has involved cooking differently. Getting out of the rut of the same variations on a theme week after week. That so-called-rut can serve a purpose, providing welcome stability and taking up less mental bandwidth during busy times. But sometimes it can drag us down with its familiarity and blah-ness.

I didn’t re-invent the wheel. For reasons I can’t remember, my partner and I started watching an episode of Jamie Oliver’s 30-minute Meals every Sunday morning over breakfast. And slowly, I got inspired. I wanted to make new, healthy things that didn’t take forever. I wanted to use my stalwart 30-year food processor with the broken handle more often. My partner wanted to try the food processor, period. So, we did. And by tapping into that creative part of myself, I’ve been more motivated to shine that light on other areas.

5. Finding small places to shift

A guest on one of the podcasts I listen to was talking about the importance of saying no. While this wasn’t a ground-breaking proposition, she made it practical by suggesting the listener say no to three things a month. Not only would not doing those three things almost certainly make a difference in your sense of overwhelm, but it allows you to practice the skill. I’ve found asking the question “Is this something I should say no to?” to be really helpful, whether I actually say no or not.

This wasn’t a big change. And yet, it’s made a difference. Now I’m looking for more small shifts to build on.

6. Picking and choosing what works for you

There isn’t a law that says you must follow all the suggestions someone makes. You can pick the things that make sense to you and patchwork your own resource quilt. Of course, there are many times that a plan, strategy, or program truly work better as a whole, but that isn’t necessarily true. If something makes sense to you, grab it, and see how it fits with other things.

In recent months, I’ve done exactly that. I’ve found suggestions in books and podcasts and received ideas from colleagues, friends, and family. I’ve finally listened to my inner voice. I’ve kept what works for me and let the rest go including:

    • 4X4 rule – each week, spend 4 hours on of each of the following: movement, time alone, time with partner/important person, and rest (tip: actually scheduling these in can be very helpful)
    • Remembering that the stress cycle needs to be “completed,” ideally through movement, courtesy of the Nagoski sisters’ book Burnout: the Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle
      • This concept suggests that we need to find release and rest after experiencing a stressor and that repeated, incomplete stress loops build up making us less resilient to all future stresses
    • Using an app-based guided meditation daily (and trying a few versions to find one that suit me best right now)
    • Leaning into meal planning
    • (Finally) leaving the computer at work after long clinic days
    • Working on habit-making using some of James Clear’s suggestions (from his book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones)
    • Working on habit-breaking using neuroscientist Andrew Huberman’s suggestion of following an undesired unconscious habit with a positive one – for example:
      • I’m trying to stop leaning on my left elbow when I get caught up in my computer work because it leads to shoulder pain at the end of the day. But since I’m not often aware of when I start it, it’s hard to stop. Huberman suggests following the “bad” habit (once you become aware of it) with a “good” one, like standing up and stretching. This apparently creates a sort of double habit in the brain that allows us to better recognize the undesired habit *before* it happens in the future so that it can be more easily avoided.

7. Not disrespecting the burnout

This is the perfect example of something that is easier said than done. Even as someone who has actively addressed this concept for 20 years a naturopathic doctor.

I feel better today than I did two months ago. It’s tempting to wonder if it was really burnout. Because is it burnout if you can still do things? Of course it is. You learn that lesson really quickly if you ditch the things that helped you start to feel better in the first place.

You’ve probably heard statements like “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” or one about how you should put your metaphorical oxygen mask on before anyone else’s. Yes and yes. But the analogy that I’ve liked the best is this one: “I feel like I’m on the last stretch on Tetris, I’m shuffling bricks side to side, with no hope of change or victory, desperate not to fail with this block, but I know that whatever I’ll do, I’m still damned. The bricks keep on coming, and the speed only increases.” (source unknown)

I suspect that even if you don’t play Tetris, you get the vibe. Dealing with burnout is realizing that maybe Tetris actually sets you up to fail while convincing you that success is possible if you just try harder.

Think this might be you? Reach out to a friend, family member, or healthcare provider. These last few years have been largely awful and everyone deserves to win a game or two.

Yours in health,

Dr. Alexandra Verge, ND

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