If a constant cycle of stress has left you feeling empty, helpless, and completely drained, you may be on the road to burnout. On this page, we’ll explore the signs of burning out and learn what you can do to prevent and recover from these feelings.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a combination of exhaustion, negativity and loss of efficacy brought on by unrelieved stress. While a natural cycle of short-term stress and adequate recovery can generally be tolerated (and in a best-case scenario can lead to personal growth), persistent and unrelieved stress can run you down, leading to a loss of motivation and inner resources.
This can lead to the feeling - and eventually to the visceral conviction - of pointlessness, thinking that nothing you can do will change the world or your life. At this point, challenges become unmanageable, and external stressors have created inner burnout.
Burnout accumulates slowly over time, manifesting itself not just in our work lives but also in our personal lives. It can develop and grow without us noticing until we are entirely disengaged from work life, personal relationships, and ourselves.
What are the symptoms of burnout?
At its core, burnout is about persistent emotional and mental exhaustion. This can show up in many ways. Let’s explore some common signs of burnout:
In your attitude to work:
- Are you working more and enjoying it less?
- Do you have to force yourself to do routine activities?
- Are you lacking enthusiasm and/or constantly seeking excitement?
- Would you rather be elsewhere?
- Have you given up on your future plans?
In your coping mechanisms:
- Are you consuming alcohol more often?
- Are you using antidepressants and/or sleeping pills?
- Are you exercising yourself into injury?
- Is your need for coping mechanisms increasing?
In your physical health:
- Has your blood pressure gone up?
- Are you feeling run down and catching more bugs?
- Have you gained or lost weight?
In your relationships:
- Are you finding it harder to confide in others?
- Are you finding other people’s needs and expectations harder to manage?
- Have you lost joy in sexual intimacy?
If you're experiencing these in response to work-related stresses, you may be experiencing burnout. Perhaps you have you been signed off work by your GP due to stress or burnout, or you're considering taking this to your GP.
In this video, Francis Norton (MBACP) discusses what burnout is, including the signs and symptoms, and explores how therapy can help in your recovery.
How does burnout impact relationships?
Are you snapping at your partner for no reason? Perhaps you're avoiding company because it’s interfering with your ability to focus on the important stuff, like work. Or you're finding that every work interaction feels like a battle?
Being under stress has an impact on your ability to relate to others. When your body is in fight-or-flight mode, it’s hard to start offering or receiving emotional intimacy with all the vulnerability that involves, or even to be civil to others. But emotional intimacy and support are one of the most important ways of recovering from stress and entering a burnout state where you can no longer access that support impairs your ability to recover from it, setting up a damaging loop.
If someone in your life has changed their behaviour in worrying ways, or they're working harder and harder but closing down to companionship, letting them know that support will be there for them when they’re ready can be really helpful.
How does social identity feed into burnout?
How you define yourself and others, and how others define themselves and you, can play a big role in how burnout unfolds. One example is the expectation placed upon traditional gender roles.
Within our culture, gender roles, race, class and sexuality can all add extra layers of challenge and expectations. If any of this is going on in your life, it's important to recognise it as part of your personal burnout context.
How can counselling help with burnout?
Counselling allows you to talk, and get your worries out of your head without fear of judgement, jumping to conclusions, or unsolicited advice. This differs greatly from other coping strategies you might have used before. Perhaps you’re used to dealing with your thoughts on your own as they go around in circles in your mind. Maybe you pull on your trainers to run them into the dust, or - self-defeatingly - distract yourself from your worries by working yet more hours.
The ability to talk about it may, in itself, bring a sense of relief. Counselling will not immediately solve your problems, but it can give you the space to no longer feel quite so stuck.
As you unpack your thoughts and concerns with your counsellor or therapist, you will get greater clarity about your needs and options, and you can start working on your recovery. You are also likely to gain a clearer awareness of your current burnout factors - both external (like work demands or relationship difficulties) and internal ones (like your reactions to stress or over-identification with work goals). All this will help you make the right decisions to take control of your future.
Sometimes, recovery from burnout leads to a kind of inner regrowth. It can be hard to let go of your old life goals or attitudes, even when they prove limiting or even damaging in your current world. But working with a counsellor can help you become more aware of unquestioned assumptions you may be holding about how to make yourself feel valued, and can help you find new goals and paths.
How can you prevent and recover from burnout?
In addition to seeking professional support, or if you don't quite yet feel ready to reach out to a counsellor, there are a number of self-care strategies that can help you to prevent and recover from burnout. Starting with the most immediate causes and effects:
There are many proven techniques for relaxing like mindfulness meditation, body scans, prayer, the practice of art or music, and moving meditations like yoga and tai-chi. Which one do you find most appealing?
While it can be taken to unhelpful extremes, exercise is good at burning off some of the stress hormones in our bodies. Walking, running, dancing, and the slower forms such as yoga, tai-chi and qi-gong all help here. Remember to finish your exercise at least three hours before bed, in order for it to assist - rather than challenge - your sleep.
It is well known that stress can impact sleep levels and quality, while insufficient sleep can increase stress levels. This can also be a major factor in burning out. In fact, according to one study, too little sleep (less than six hours) was identified as the primary risk factor for burnout.
Take sleep seriously - aim to get more than six and a half hours of sleep a night. Exercise between three to six hours before bedtime. Give yourself nice regular wake-up and bedtimes, with an hour of calm or 'wind-down' before bed. If you’re tired during the day, ask yourself if you’re getting enough sleep.
Your friends, families and even colleagues can all help you navigate and survive the stresses of work. Just like sleep, stress can damage your social relationships which can, in turn, increase your stress levels. Making time to care for your relationships may feel like another demand when you’re already experiencing stress, but these relationships can act as a buffer against it.
How can you give your best self in a sustainable way? The answer is in setting boundaries that allow you to recover from work stress and manage the whole of your life in the way that you need.
Don’t over-commit. What do you need to do just to do your job well, as opposed to pleasing other people? Thinking of which, are you a people pleaser - reluctant to say 'no' for fear of conflict? How would your life improve if you were a little more confident about letting people know what you need?
Look after yourself. What do you need to do to recover from the stress of the day, week or month? How do you decompress - is it exercise, music, cooking, or a nice hot bath? Whatever it is, take time to find the tools that work best for you.
If you’re not reserving the time and energy you need for relaxation, exercise, sleep, social support and whatever else you need to manage your stress levels, think about what boundaries you need to enforce to permit burnout avoidance and recovery.
Remember, these feelings of exhaustion, negativity and failure are not you, they’re the symptoms of burnout, and you really can recover from it.
Watch out for burnout risk factors and warning symptoms and, if necessary, look at what boundaries you are or are not respecting, and think about how to improve them. If you find it hard to enforce boundaries because of your own values or personality, if you find yourself coming back to burnout situations like a moth to the candle, or if you have been signed off work but the stress isn’t lifting, consider working with a counsellor or accessing further support.
Below are a couple of general resources to help. For more support related to your job, search online for occupation-specific help e.g. 'teacher burnout'.
This page was written in November 2022 by counsellor Francis Norton (MBACP).
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