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Are you in Burnout?

Updated: Apr 3

Burnout is a state of mental and physical exhaustion that can have a deeply negative affect on your ability to do your job, to be present in all of your relationships and to experience joy from a social life. It comes from a continual exposure to stressful situations, like constant financial stress, looking after an ill family member, not taking care of your physical health, living with a spouse with mental illness, a child having learning issues, working long hours in the evenings or weekends or living through a 2 year pandemic!

Burnout is more than simply being tired. It was a term first coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s when he identified these 3 specific symptoms:

  1. Depersonalisation - where you separate yourself emotionally from your work, instead of investing yourself and feeling like it’s meaningful.

  2. Decreased sense of accomplishment - you keep working harder and harder for less and less belief that what you are doing is making any difference.

  3. Emotional exhaustion

Anyone can experience burnout and we all experience it in different ways, depending on what out stressors are (work, finances, relationship, ongoing demands and unrealistic expectations from your family or boss, etc). Most often (and very generally speaking) men experience burnout more as depersonalisation (becoming emotionally detached) and women experience burnout through emotional exhaustion (having nothing left to give).

What are the signs of burnout?

  • Exhaustion on every level - You're excessively driven or ambitious and you keep pushing yourself to work harder and harder. This causes you to feel mentally, emotionally and physically drained and depleted. You may experience physical symptoms such as ongoing headaches, stomach pain and changes in your sleeping patterns and your appetite.

  • You often get sick - Burnout depletes your immune system and makes you more susceptible to colds, flu, stomach bugs and and can cause insomnia. Burnout, if left untreated, can also lead to mental health concerns like depression and anxiety where you may end up neglecting your personal care for a while (not eating well, not sleeping enough and not doing any exercise).

  • Withdrawal & Isolation - In burnout, you barely have any energy to get yourself through a day so being around others will make you feel totally overwhelmed and even more depleted. If you have been pulling away from seeing friends and family and you’re saying no to all invitations for parties or you’re avoiding any socialising with friends, family or work colleagues…. Then you are most probably experiencing burnout.

  • Mood swings - Burnout can cause people to lose their cool with friends, co-workers, and family members more easily. Coping with normal stressors like preparing for a work meeting, driving kids to school, and tending to household tasks also may start to feel insurmountable, especially when things don’t go as planned. You may also get triggered easily - getting irritable, impatient and frustrated at the smallest things and your reactions these days seem to be out of proportion to what’s happening.

  • Escape fantasies. You find yourself dissatisfied with the never-ending demands of your life, work and relationships and you fantasise about running away or going on a solo-vacation. In extreme cases, you may be using drugs, alcohol, TV or food as a way to numb away your emotional pain.

  • You're in denial about your own level of stress. You're not seeing your own behaviour as being unworkable - instead, you're seeing others as incompetent and lazy and blaming everyone else for what’s wrong in your life. 

What actually happens to your body in burnout?

You body responds to any threat (perceived or real) by engaging its in-built stress response which is the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. This is a physiological reaction which floods your body with the 2 big stress hormones: Adrenaline and Cortisol. These trigger a series of physical reactions in your body to allow you to quickly escape a threat. But once you’ve escaped the danger and you’re safe, those hormones are meant to decrease rapidly so all of your body systems can regulate again. 

Burnout comes from not regulating your fight/flight/freeze response and staying stuck in a stress response state. 

Nowadays, we are so depleted and exhausted that we perceive any excess work, financial and relationship demands as a threat, not to mention big world events which add more to the pile of triggers. Our fight/flight/freeze/fawn response is constantly being activated, keeping us in adrenal overdrive which causes burnout.

What not to do when you're in a stress state:

1. Don’t try to calm down by using unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking, drinking alcohol or taking prescription or recreational drugs. These won’t de-activate your stress response, they just facilitate you detaching further from your reality and harming your body in the process.

2. Do not think you can tell yourself or anyone else in a stress response (burnout) to: “Just relax”. Never in the history of the world has a reactive person relaxed just because someone told them to relax! Relaxing is not a mental thing, when it comes to our stress response - it’s a physical thing. 

So what should you do instead?

  1. Accept that there will always be life stressors - you can’t control them but you can control your reaction to them. You know mentally that most of the daily stressors you experience are not life threatening but your body constantly reacts as if they are, so learning how to switch off your fight/flight/freeze/fawn response in a conscious way is incredibly important to get out of a stress response. How do you do that?

  2. Do something physical to process your daily stress when you’re at the office or when you get home: Run up and down some stairs / Go for a walk around the block / Sing loudly along with music in your car / Go to the gym / Dance to loud music in your lounge / Scream into a pillow / Hit a mattress or pummel a punch bag (not your personal trainer!) Physical activity helps your adrenal and cortisol levels to lower and de-activates your stress response.

  3. The easiest and most effective way of switching off your stress response is to practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique as taught by Dr Weil. 

  4. Ask for support! 

  5. Get into a non-negotiable routine around your health by eating better, sleeping more and physically exercising your body everyday.

  6. Change your thought process:Instead of thinking: “I need to keep pushing through” Ask yourself: “How can I make myself supportable and ask for help?”Instead of thinking: “I really need to be more disciplined and do more with my time." Ask yourself: “How can I allow for more rest and a lighter work schedule?”Instead of thinking: “If I don’t work over the weekend, this project won’t get done and my boss will be angry with me.” Ask yourself: “When can I arrange a time to have a conversation with my boss about his/her unrealistic expectations of me.

Is it burnout or something else?

It’s important to check with your doctor to clarify that you are, in fact, experiencing burnout as the symptoms can be very similar to depression or anxiety disorders. How do you know the difference?

  1. Burnout - you can still do your job and be present with your family and friends (even if you keep dreaming about disappearing into the forest with no wifi for 2 months). Depression - You struggle to get out of bed and do the simplest of tasks or connect with the people in your life.

  2. Burnout - removing an external stressor from your life will make you feel better.  Depression - removing external stressors still leaves you feeling anxious and down.

  3. Burnout - you're aware that external things are causing your state and you know that you can change them. Depression - you feel helpless, hopeless and unable to change anything and you don't believe that anything will ever get better.

  4. Burnout - you still trust your own abilities and have self-confidence (even though you’re tired and feeling like you’re not doing your best). Depression - you have no self-esteem or self-confidence and don’t think you have what it takes to do anything worthwhile.

If you know you’re in a state of burnout:

  1. Talk about it with your family and friends and ask them to support you with whatever you need to change the daily stressors in your life.

  2. Learn how to start saying no and how to put some boundaries in place when people are asking too much of you. My eWorkbook on boundaries can show you how - The Freedom Factor 

  3. Have a meeting with your boss to see how you can take some time off or re-structure your working hours and work commitments.

  4. Speak to your partner about making supportive changes around the home, with parenting and daily logistics.

  5. Speak to your healthcare practitioner about medication or supplements that could support you with adrenal burnout or other medical symptoms related to burnout.

  6. Start prioritising sessions with practitioners of healing modalities (massage, reiki, breathwork, somatic healing, yoga, meditation etc).

If you’re concerned about your symptoms and think there is something more serious going on then book a session with a mental health professional who can help you to diagnose whether you’re suffering from burnout or depression - either way, talking to a therapist really helps! Especially if you don’t have someone else in your life that you can talk to.

  • If you live in South AfricaSADAG (South African Depression & Anxiety Group) have a fantastic 24hr hotline run by trained counsellors and it’s free to speak to them. 0800 456 789. They also have a special hotline set up for healthcare workers who have all been affected by burnout 0800 21 21 21 or SMS 43001

  • In the USA, Call or text 988 or live chat on You can also reach Crisis Text Line by texting MHA to 741741.

  • If you live in the United Kingdom, this page is a great resources for a variety of mental health crisis lines to contact.

I have supported thousands of clients for over 29 years to learn how to stop sabotaging themselves with unworkable behaviour. If you're ready to become #1 on your own list of priorities and to start saying no and setting better boundaries, then book a coaching session and let's start a journey together. I can't wait to meet you.


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