Your battery is low. It’s almost at zero. There’s nothing but a little glimpse of light before you shut down completely. There’s nothing left in the tank.
This is what burnout can feel like. It’s certainly what burnout feels like to me.
Nobody deserves to feel completely worn out at the end of every single workday.
In this blog, I’ll be sharing the tools I use to combat feelings of stress and overwhelm, and to protect myself, my family, and my practice from burnout.
What is burnout?
Burnout can make us feel that nothing is fixable. Our thoughts become negative and we enter a spiral of catastrophising everything. We might feel as though nothing will get us out of the hole we are in. These negative thoughts can become suffocating and inescapable. Our energy is depleted and we can swing between feeling intensely overwhelmed, and feeling completely numb.
Other symptoms of burnout include:
- Negative thoughts that prevent our ability to carry out normal day-to-day tasks
- Feeling detached, alone and helpless
- Poor physical health
- Problems sleeping
- Change in appetite
- Irritability and short temper
- Anxiety and panic attacks
Many people, especially in professional environments, see burnout as an admission of failure, weakness, or an inability to do our jobs – none of which is true, but it makes it difficult to talk about.
I’ve been through burnout a number of times myself, and over time I have collected an arsenal of weapons to help me fight these negative feelings. Each time I come out stronger and more positive.
The first thing we must understand is that this feeling is not permanent. It is just a season. No matter how much our brains might try and convince us otherwise, this feeling will not last forever.
In much the same way we’d carry out an emergency stop when driving and faced with an obstacle ahead on the road, when we begin to feel symptoms of burnout we need to just STOP.
As part of this emergency stop, the immediate action we take should be to cut out everything that isn’t essential.
When we’re burnt out, the smallest things can tip us over the edge. We want to avoid getting to a point where we’re so close to the edge that a simple conversation could tip us over.
This means we need to reduce the burden and say no to as many things as is reasonable. For example, not attending every meeting if we don’t have to, taking some time off if we can, and asking for help from the people in our lives.
As a practice owner, it can feel like there are always ten different problems or demands presenting themselves at once. It can feel like every responsibility is on our shoulders. But remember that it is not us against the world. The world will continue to turn if we step back and focus on ourselves.
Once we’ve taken the first step to just STOP, we can begin to reflect inwards. This is where we begin our self-care journey, activating the loving, caring, empathetic part of our brain.
Stage 1 – Removing
The first stage of our self-care journey could be removing judgement – of ourselves and of others – and stepping into a calm and loving space.
We need to focus on filling our cups with positive emotions, and recognise ourselves and others for the beautiful, kind, hardworking people that we are. We want to welcome positive feelings of joy and kindness and remove, as much as we can, anything that triggers feelings of stress or anxiety.
Stress, anxiety, doubt, and impatience are all fear-based emotions that tell us we’re not good enough. When our internal narrative uses words like “useless”, “overwhelmed”, “stressed”, “incapable”, we begin to believe it, and can enter a negative spiral where everything feels increasingly worse.
The good news is that we can actually rewire the neural pathways in our brain with new thoughts and belief patterns. Our brains believe the thoughts they hear.
Stage 2 – Repeating
If you repeat something often enough, eventually you will believe it. This is the law of belief, which states, “We do not believe what we see, rather we see what we have already decided to believe.”
By repeating positive statements about ourselves, we begin to rewire the negative neural pathways in our brain and make positive thoughts more automatic.
Below are some examples of positive affirmations we can repeat:
I am good enough.
I am trying my best.
I am amazing.
I am beautiful.
I am smart.
I am capable.
If we’re not comfortable saying short affirmation phrases about ourselves, we could use more general visual images. We might say something like, “The storm will settle and the sun will shine brightly”. These statements are like a life raft in choppy waters, or an oasis in the desert. They give us something positive to shelter in whilst we wait for the storm to pass.
We don’t have to be saying these things constantly, either. When we notice those negative feelings and fear-based thoughts rearing their heads, or when everything is beginning to feel overwhelming again, we can STOP, take a deep breath, close our eyes, and repeat one or all of these affirmations.
Taking just a couple of minutes for ourselves to do this will do the world of good. We’ll be forming new neural pathways – more positive ones – using repetitive rhythm. The more time we spend in positive and reflective spaces like this, the more we’ll find our pathways to recovery.
Stage 3 – Releasing
Once we’ve replaced the negative thoughts with more loving thoughts and our neural pathways are starting to be rewritten, we can move into the release stage: letting go.
We need to let go of those unhelpful thoughts that led to the stress, anxiety, and burnout in the first place. Those thoughts that tell us there is too much to do and we can’t do it, that nothing we do will ever be good enough, and that there’s no way through this. We now know that those thoughts are not true, kind, helpful or productive – and we don’t need them.
We’ve filled our cups with more powerful and motivational beliefs. But of course, those negative thoughts won’t disappear straight away. Negative thoughts are sticky, stubborn, and thrive on attention.
However, there is a healthy and productive way of dealing with them without giving them any more power. We can acknowledge that those thoughts exist, but follow up with their opposite. For example, if a saboteur thought tells us we are not good enough, we can acknowledge that it is there, and then say to ourselves, “I am good enough.”
Or, if our negative thoughts tell us we are an incapable person who can’t get anything done, we can acknowledge them, and turn them around. We can say: “I am a capable person, and I am trying my best to get things done. My best is good enough.” Immediately, we have attached a positive, productive thought to a negative, untrue belief: this is how we continue to rewire our neural pathways.
In doing this, we become unattached from the catastrophic lies that come from the part of our minds that have been hijacked by saboteurs. Now that we are doing the internal work, we can begin to look at the practical elements of changing our lives externally, by adding boundaries.
Once we have done the work to identify our stressors and rewrite the narrative in our heads into something more loving and positive, we can start to ask practical questions. Where can we reasonably cut out – or cut down – our stressors? Are we spread too thin? Are we taking on things we don’t need to?
We can then start to make a list of our absolute priorities. We should ask ourselves what boundaries we can put in place that will protect us whilst we’re in this recovery period. It could be as simple as postponing a conversation until we have enough mental capacity to articulate what we want to say.
We have to be really strict with our boundaries. Practice owners are hardworking by nature, and having been in a routine of putting our practice first and working 60-hour weeks for years, it’s difficult to break out of those habits.
This is why it is so important that we rewrite our neural pathways and make better ways of thinking our new normal. It might not hurt us to work one extra hour today, but that might catch up with us later and undo all the hard work we’ve been putting in.
Making it the new normal
In my experience, the recovery period from burnout – when you’re putting all the things in this blog into practice every single day – is around two weeks.
Every day, I practise these things:
- Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones
- Identifying whether a thought has come from a place of love or fear – learning which thoughts are sabotaging me and which are productive
- Short meditations and mental fitness, bringing my attention inwards and focusing on the breath for a few moments each day
- Prioritising things that are important
- Putting protective boundaries in place and sticking to them
- Some form of exercise to get the endorphins flowing
This doesn’t mean that I carry out three-hour mindfulness sessions every day. Even with boundaries and priorities in place, I simply don’t have time for that – most people don’t! But most people, including busy practice owners, do have time to simply walk into another room and be quiet. To repeat a mantra in their head. To close their eyes and focus on their breath for two minutes. To deliberately and considerately replace a negative thought with its positive opposite.
Nobody can prevent burnout from happening. But the more you have tools to help yourself overcome those negative feelings, the less damaging and heavy it will feel. You are more than the harsh inner critic that has been beating you up. You are capable. You are intelligent. You are beautiful. You have control over your mind. You are going to make it through this.
P.S. I talk a lot about burnout and stress over on my LinkedIn. If this blog resonated with you, come and join the conversation and let’s combat stress in our industry one practice owner at a time!