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AWARE Ink Newsletter

  • jpeterson

Recognize the Signs of Burnout in Yourself This Year

Deny your emotions and act like you have answers

The New Year! Here’s a How-to guide to set resolutions that avoid bad habits like eating sprinkled cupcakes that your daughter loves, but you secretly inhale at night because you were too busy to eat lunch at work. This is low-hanging cupcakes, though, isn’t it? What we need to talk about when you feel exhausted by compassion and overwhelmed by responsibilities. In other words, we need to talk about you starting the New Year burned out by your job and worried about what’s around the next corner.


Although you no longer have to worry about a saber-tooth tiger around that corner, your life maybe even more stressful than your ancestors’ lives were. Stress was useful for the caveman because it helped him avoid hostile situations: fight or flight. Overcommitting to too many life-changing New Year’s resolutions provokes a stress response. Research studies have identified many of the reasons why you may feel burnout.


You lack control over your own work and/or you have heavy clinical workloads. You don’t feel like your coworkers support you. You don’t “belong.” You don’t think that you can safely offer feedback. Cynicism, crankiness and the feeling of not needing others are contagious. They make you sick. You don’t know how to take care of yourself because there isn’t training and resources.


You can make a real resolution, however, to work on yourself. Healing burnout requires an action plan. Learn to recognize the signs of this hormone in yourself and loosen your grip on the proverbial spear.


The Signs of Stress and What to Do


Mental health teams may be even more vulnerable to burnout than other first responders. Practical strategies can reverse burnout, but they require an open heart and specific changes to your lifestyle. Look for a flushed face that isn’t a part of a costume, fatigue and muscle weakness so severe you cannot open the cupboard to steal your daughter’s cupcakes, irritability at everything, including at that dandelion that yellowed the bottoms of your new sneakers, difficulty concentrating even when the next season of your favorite show drops on Netflix, high blood pressure that isn’t from laughing really hard, chronic headaches that do not arise from your co-worker’s perfume. If you must post sticky notes with New Year’s resolutions on your bathroom mirror, at least leave space to observe your reflection closely.


Even mental health professionals need mental health professionals. Talk to one outside of work. (And give them a chance!) Eat reasonably well, perform light to moderate exercise, and sleep on a military-like schedule. Actively destress: get outside, practice mindfulness, Zen your house. I like the little Zen gardens. Find time to hang out with your coworkers (in a healthy and supportive way!). Sky-diving, maybe. Book clubs are excellent. Take time to connect with a friend or family member in an authentic manner. Now is not the time to attack them for that ugly holiday sweater. Ask yourself questions with your therapist, why am I choosing to go to work? Do I feel stuck? Why don’t I feel valued and supported?


Fake It Until You Make It


One kind of change that can have a powerful effect on your burnout right now is cultivating resilience, your ability to manage and recover from stress in a positive way. With greater resilience, you can figure out your clients’ situations more accurately, keep going in the face of frequent challenges, and stay confident and hopeful. Building resilience requires self-awareness, careful attention to one thing at a time, and looking at setbacks as a chance to grow. Perhaps the most under-appreciated tool for building resilience is making social connections in your community. Volunteering, for sure. Just getting to know your neighbors can also be an important factor. Practicing mindfulness is also good, but it is pretty much good for everything wrong in life.


Your clients’ suffering is not You. Think less about what is happening to them and more about improving your resilience and acceptance of their difficult situations. This skill can protect your mind and body and lead to greater satisfaction with your job. Start with daily actions that build upon one another and, seriously, fake it until you make it. The Hebbian principle, “what fires together wires together,” has solid research behind it and faking resilience and acceptance will soon feel natural.


Can we fake resilience if those suggestions seem too difficult right now? It is really hard to act against our emotions. Cluttering my office with Zen gardens, for example, drives my colleagues nuts and that frustrates me. What I need to focus on more is converting that frustration into a desired mental state. In this case, empathizing that not everyone sees Zen gardens as valuable or a lot of work. (I’ve watched the tv show Hoarders too, she should know). Practice this kind of thinking and you will create new narratives for yourself. What seems “fake” or “imagined” will soon feel natural. You will “make it.”


Set resolutions to stay alert to burnout, observe your physical and mental states closely, and build resilience. But watch your kitty… she may think she is still a saber-tooth tiger on the top of the stairs. Happy New Year!

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