I’m a parent. A professional (with a capital P). My children are young. I barely have any time to work out, or focus on healthy eating. I’m obsessive about putting my kids first, while also juggling my work goals, blogging, social media.
I started writing this article a while ago because I was feeling tired, depressed, and lacked motivation. I wondered, am I suffering from actual depression? Or am I just burned out? And is the difference a useful distinction?
And if so, what could I do about it? Is it as simple as increasing time for myself, (i.e., self-care)?
Humans in this century, especially parents, have tons of responsibilities.
Gone are the days of simplicity. Now with technology and the increasing demands of society, we are humans are expected to pack something into just about every minute of the day. You don’t get to just switch it off. You will be in the middle of dinner, while simultaneously answering emails, monitoring statistics, answering questions, and trying to somehow connect with your children.
This is SO me. I am the queen of multitasking. And I am really, really good at it, and getting lots of things done.
There are so many ways to get burned out. It can happen to any person, with any type of experience. Parenting. Work. Working out. Hobbies. Things you love. Things you don’t love.
No matter the scenario, it just seems that whenever you pour yourself 100% into something, you will find yourself running out of energy and momentum for that thing you are working so hard on.
Heck, this happens even when you aren’t putting yourself 100% into something. You could be putting in 25% into your kids, 50% into work, 10% into training, and so on and so forth.
The sum of it is that you are expending a lot of effort, and eventually, you begin to struggle to put as much into it as you did before.
What is burnout, exactly?
Great question. In years past, burnout was another way to be “tired” or “stressed out” or “overwhelmed” or “fatigued.” The terms were used somewhat synonymously to explain that extreme fatigue one feels after doing a whole bunch of stuff.
Burnout as its own “thing” as grown over the years, so the point that psychologists recognize it.
Burnout can feel like physical exhaustion, mental tiredness, or even emotional overwhelm. Often, people who are “burning out” or who have “burned out” suffer from a combination of all three. They find themselves lacking in energy to physical do the things they want to do, they find themselves struggling to function mentally at the level that they are used to, and emotionally, they can be all over the map. They might experience depression, mood swings high and low, or even numbness.
Burnout can leave you feeling out of control, helpless to change your situation, and even angry or cynical about the circumstances.
You are not even close to the best version of yourself, and your awareness of being burned out makes the situation that much worse.
In extreme cases, burnout can actually lead to long term changes in your body, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Burnout is often caused by extreme stress that you put on yourself. While negative or difficult situations can be the cause of this stress and pressure, even people who are working hard on positive projects and happy things can sink into burnout when they just push beyond what their body can handle.
For me personally, when I feel like I am in a state of burnout, I really struggle to keep my attitude in a good place. I feel very negative about everything. I don’t have energy to do what I want to, and I end up declining social invitations in favor of staying home by myself. I struggle to eat healthy foods, and I can’t make myself get up to even walk around. This usually occurs for me after a massive expenditure of energy, most recently after I started this blog (I posted close to 200 articles in about two months).
This condition (physical, mental, emotional) continues even past when the stressor is lifted. For example, when I finished those 200 articles, I didn’t write any more. I was free to do whatever I wanted. I was no longer pushing hard or feeling any stress whatsoever. But I couldn’t get out of my “funk.”
What are some symptoms of burnout?
You saw what I experienced when I burned out. Feeling terrible during and even after. But the way I experienced it might not be the way you do. People experience burnout in so many different ways. You might experience some of these symptoms, all of these symptoms, or none of them.
Here are some recognized signs that you are headed towards burnout, or you are already in it:
- Your mood just stinks, all the time. You struggle to find anything positive in the day, and every day is a bad day.
- You don’t feel much energy. You are more tired than usual, and getting out of bed, off the couch…these things are more of a struggle than usual
- You feel disillusioned. The things you do don’t matter, not to you, and not to other people.
- Your body might hurt, for no real explicable reason. Aching muscles or joints.
- You might experience feelings of helplessness, or hopelessness.
- Sleep doesn’t come easy, and you rarely wake feeling rested.
- You are more sick than usual, falling victim to frequent colds or other viruses.
- You procrastination or even avoid taking on tasks.
- You self medicate with substances like alcohol, or even start indulging more often in comfort foods.
- In extreme cases, you might find yourself calling in sick to work to avoid going, skipping class for no real reason, or engaging is self-destructive/risk taking behavior.
How is burnout different from being stressed out? These seem remarkably similar.
When I started this article, I did not believe that this was a very useful distinction. Honestly, they seemed to be just about the same thing. But the more I started thinking about it, and looking at my own personal experiences, I started to realize that maybe discerning between the two would actually be useful for me personally.
Most people describe being “stressed out” as just having too much stuff on their plate. Too much going on at work, at home, in the social life. There are tons of mental, emotional, and even physical pressures. Too much going on, too much to handle. A simple solution to avoid being stressed out all the time is to just lift some of the pressures. This is certainly how I would describe it, and how I would solve it.
As for being burned out, I think it goes further than being stressed out. I think being stressed out is the state of being under too much pressure, while being burned out is more about the state you enter when you push yourself too hard. It isn’t something that can be easily overcome but simply solving a problem. It is like the stress pushes on your so hard that your systems (physical, mental, emotional) are pushed out of wack, and you’ll have to make some significant efforts to get them back on track.
And looking back, that distinction explains so much, like why it was that I didn’t feel better once I stopped working on my site.
Burnout also sounds a lot like depression.
Could you put burnout in the same cup as situational depression? I’m not a mental health expert, but it certainly seems that way. Situational depression is a short term type of depression that can result from something big happening in life, such as a loss, a major problem, something really bad happening suddenly.
Perhaps the stressor, whilst not traumatic per se, is enough to cause a person to experience that situational depression.
In any case, the treatment for situational depression is remarkably similar to treating burnout.
There is no one way to overcome burnout. The experts (and everyone else on the internet who has ever gone through it) agree that you will need to take some action to overcome it. Just sitting back and hoping it will go away and resolve itself isn’t going to work.
Here are the general recommendations, and none of these should surprise you:
- Improving your diet, eating healthy foods (a balance of fruits, vegetables, protein)
- Exercise (any kind, walking, lifting weights, biking, dong yard work) and doing it consistently
- Cutting out comfort food or intoxicating substances (alcohol, drugs)
- Spend more time with your social support network (see other people and talk to them)
- Cut out stressors
- Do the things you need to do to get good sleep (put the kids in their own bed, kick the dog out of the bed, sleep by yourself, get a weighted blanket, adjust the temperature in your bedroom, put your smartphone away from the nightstand
And when all else fails, get help. Go to the people you trust and tell them what is happening to you. Seek help from a counselor. Go talk to your doctor. You don’t have to turn to medication, but medication can help in certain circumstances to get you back on track.
Here’s the thing…..as armchair doctors reading blog posts to self-diagnose ourselves, we might also be overlooking the real possibility that there is something physical wrong inside of us that is causing all of this, like a hormone imbalance, vitamin deficiency, poor functioning thyroid, etc. You won’t know for sure what is going on with you if you never reach out for help.
If you try eating better, getting exercise, sleeping better, resting, engage socially, and you still feel like garbage, I’d say it is time to ask for help.
Admitting it is the first step.
For me personally, I think the first and most important thing you can do to address burnout (or situational depression if that is where you are at) is to admit that you are suffering from it. When you are deep in a funk, the thing you often lose is the ability to truly self-analyze, and with that awareness, come to this conclusion. So in many cases, this isn’t as simple as just realizing in one second, I’m burned out!
If you are reading this article, perhaps you arrived here after having that moment. But don’t just think it. Acknowledge it. Say it out loud. Say it to other people. Don’t feel ashamed of it. Most likely, you are burned out not because you are lazy, incompetent or just not enough. You are burned out because you tried so darn hard. And that is nothing to be ashamed of
Next, I think you 100% need to take a step back and look at how your energy is being allocated. Self-care doesn’t have to mean giving up on your family or friends or all the things you think you need to get done. Sometimes it is just as simple as changing one small thing. Maybe it is focusing on getting better sleep. Or maybe it is alleviating one stressor (having a neighbor walk the dog so you can sit down and eat breakfast for once, for example).
Look at your day. Where are the opportunities to change? What is necessary and what is not? I definitely recommend ruthlessly cutting out things that are unnecessary so that you can focus on the things that are primary and the most important to you.
But if you don’t take a look at your life and the areas that could be improved, then you can’t take any steps effectively to move in the right direction.
How did I overcome burnout in 2019?
Like I said earlier, I pushed SUPER hard in 2019 to build this site. I was working 18 hour days sometimes, learning all that I needed to know, making mistakes along the way, talking to people, creating and uploading content. But I didn’t feel exhausted at the time. It wasn’t unpleasant.
The truth was, I loved it. It was great.
And for about two months, things rolled along really well.
I didn’t eat that great, and I was working long hours in front of a computer. As a result, my commitment to physical exercise suffered. I stayed awake later, and spent more time looking at my phone while lying in bed. As a result, I also think the quality and quantity of my sleep suffered.
After about two months (April and May of 2019), I ran out of gas on this site. My delight and enjoyment just evaporated in a hurry. Over the period of a couple of days, I went from jumping out of bed to work on the site, to feeling really unmotivated, and more interested in reading some escape fiction. I kept posting here and there, but I just had little interest in the site.
I realized that I had been working too hard, and that it was time to take a break. So I rested. Read books.
But I couldn’t get the momentum train started on the blog again. Not in a few days, not in a week, not in a month. Not in three months. Not in six months.
And looking back at the months after that endeavor, I realize now that I wasn’t just tired, or stressed out. I had actually burned out. And the difference I realize which helps me discern between the two now after the fact is that my attitude just sucked. I distanced myself from my friends and family because I didn’t want to inflict my negativity on them. (I am generally a very positive person).
I couldn’t motivate myself to work out, to eat well, to go to bed on time. It was like I cared…..but I also didn’t care at all.
And the situation did not improve with time, not one bit, not for a long time.
So how did I climb out of this downward spiral?
I’m a work in progress, I think. I probably spent about six months down in the dumps after my massive undertaking in 2019. I needed to take steps to improve my life (and do the things above) but I just couldn’t. I needed my friends, and family, but I couldn’t reach out to them. I needed to get active, but I couldn’t get started. The bad times just kept perpetuating themselves.
And then finally, one day, for no reason at all, I decided to reach out over Facebook messenger to a friend, and we started chatting. And I just said it.
I think I’m burned out. I think I might be depressed. I can’t get out of it.
Finally, I admitted it. Out loud, I admitted something I had suspected for a long time. Something I was kind of ashamed of, this weakness.
And while lightning didn’t strike and fix me, it seemed like this one small moment was really pivotal in helping me start to make some changes in my life.
And I had setbacks, don’t get me wrong.
But I started going on short walks and just GOING OUTSIDE. I started eating more and better. I spent some time with friends, away from my children, and had the chance to just listen to them talk, and then to talk myself.
And it became easier and easier to admit that I had been in a state of burnout, of depression, or feeling like a failure.
But this wasn’t enough to get the momentum train rolling again. While I was feeling better, I still couldn’t climb out of the burnout hole. I couldn’t get started working on this site (and other important projects again). It took the support and help of other people to get me started and motivated. It seems that I wouldn’t and couldn’t lift a finger for myself, but when other people were involved, it was like their involvement and influence lit that fire again for me.
Here are the specific things I did to overcome my burnout.
Here’s the list. Some of these things might not be useful to you, or help at all. But these are the steps that I took:
- I cut out social media 99%. I dramatically reduced the amount of time I spent on Facebook, just mindlessly scrolling.
- I cut out mindless television/Netflix, and replaced it with reading something of substance.
- I started taking my youngest daughter over to the neighbors house during the day (they love her and are super lonely) so we could get more social interaction and I could also feel good about myself (doing something nice for the neighbors gave me a little dopamine hit I think)
- I check email only once a day now.
- I turned off almost all the alerts on my phone.
- I stopped carrying my phone around with me 100% of the time.
- I started decluttering my house and throwing things out that I didn’t need or donating them to second hand stores.
- I tried to send at least one message a day to a friend, not to complain but to try and engage and support them somehow (How are you, how are you doing, how are the kids, what have you been up to, what’s new with your job, just thinking about you, etc)
- I started pushing myself to get out of bed earlier, and going to bed earlier
- I started walking more consistently, even short walks
- I am eating lettuce (and other green things) again
- I told other people I was suffering
- I let myself cry
- I stopped trying to DO stuff with my kids and started spending time BEING with my kids
Am I cured from burnout?
Heck, I have no idea. My attitude is certainly better, and I am working again. I am able to do more to take care of myself.
But I think the experience really highlighted the dangers of burnout, and how that can impact the people who work for themselves, especially those of us who work from home, without the relief of being able to go to the water cooler on a break and spill.
High achievers are extremely susceptible to this, and probably the ones who struggle the most to overcome it. We as overachievers think as a whole that if we just work harder, we can overcome anything. It is our superpower. Our greatest strength. But also our greatest weakness.
Overachievers like myself cannot overcome burnout by just putting in more hours. Overcoming burnout has been more about learning to be okay with putting down some burdens, or even allowing some failures to occur. It goes against the grain of most of what we have been taught and believe.
How can I avoid burnout in the future?
I really, really want to avoid burnout in the future. It wasn’t pleasant and set me back massively. (Six months basically wasted). Looking forward, I am going to pay a lot more attention to how I feel, what I eat, and how much exercise I get.
I am also going to avoid setting myself up to burn out, like by setting extreme goals for myself to work towards. Yes, my burn out in 2019 was completely and totally self-imposed. I can’t blame it on anyone but myself.
I think that if I set realistic goals, pace myself, and pay attention to myself, I can move forward and succeed with utterly destroying myself in the process.
Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, all under the age of 10. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the US, Emily is a mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the computer when the kids are sleeping. She started this blog in April of 2019 and is proud that the blog is now paying for itself. If you want to know about her journey as a blogger, check out out her personal digital journal or her post about failing her way to blogging success.