Burnout is one of those things I see all the time and it’s only becoming more and more of an issue. In fact, I’ve gone through it myself (both working a corporate job and then in the first couple years of starting HEAL) and many of the tools I’ve listed below are what’s helped me feel better.
I also see burnout with everyone from stressed out 20-something-year-olds struggling to make their mark on the corporate world to women going through menopause who have put everyone but themselves first for years.
It’s usually pretty obvious when someone is experiencing burnout. Here are some of the common signs:
Usually the symptoms above will give us a good idea of how much support is needed, but we also try to make use of our hormone testing. In many cases burnout is the result of something referred to as ‘adrenal fatigue’, so the main hormone we look at is cortisol, one of your primary stress hormones. When someone is burnt out, what we usually see is very low cortisol levels either all day or at different points throughout the day, leading to really intense fatigue, sleep problems, and some of the other symptoms I’ve listed above.
We also like to look at the other hormones including your thyroid and sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone, because hormone imbalances rarely exist in isolation and it really helps to get the full picture. For example, low progesterone can contribute to anxiety, which can lead to poor sleep, which over time of course leads to a burnt out feeling.
There is no one size fits all approach and once we get an idea of what’s really going on, we’ll put together a custom protocol that focuses on diet, lifestyle and mindset so we can address the root cause of the problem. In these instances, specific herbs and supplements can also be really helpful in a faster recovery so that you feel back to yourself as soon as possible! While recommendations are really individual, there are a few suggestions that are relevant in a lot of cases and that you can consider if you’d like to learn how to recover from burnout.
It goes without saying that the first place you have to look is your diet. Blood sugar fluctuations can contribute to the problem by leading to cortisol release and energy crashes. Some signs you may need to balance your blood sugar include intense sugar cravings, especially after dinner, and experiencing the afternoon energy slump. If that’s the case you’ll want to make sure you’re starting your day with a high protein breakfast that is free of refined sugar such as a smoothie with protein powder or eggs with avocado. You also want to make sure you’re eating protein at each meal, are snacking on healthy fats and are keeping carbs to a reasonable portion (more on that here). As you recover from burnout it’s more important than ever to really watch the refined carbs like white flours, sugars and sweets. Just remember, it’s not forever!
Consuming foods to which you’re sensitive is also a relatively common culprit that you may underestimate. These foods are inflammatory, which initiates a stress-like response. When we work with clients recovering from burnout we will always start by finding a diet that is nutritious, sustainable and works with their lifestyle. We often test for food sensitivities. In some cases we’ll also recommend supplementation with extra nutrients that are needed to help your body deal with the effects of stress, such as the B vitamins, vitamin C and magnesium. Other times we’ll incorporate specific adaptogenic herbs that help the body become more resilient to the effects of stress (more on that here).
Start by taking an inventory of everything big and small that’s contributing to your stress or anxiety. Feel free to keep this list on you and add to it as you recognize more stressors. Then, beside each stressor write down what you can do to eliminate or take action on this item. Let’s say for example that it’s the chores that consistently build up around the house. Rather than just write “do chores”, think of ways to stop them from building up in the first place. For example, if you started to build out a routine around chores like choosing to spend 15 minutes each day on one task like laundry one night, vacuum another night, or if you started making your bed every morning or running the dishwasher overnight and emptying it in the morning, it wouldn’t build up into a big looming project on your to-do list.
I am the first to be guilty of this one and it’s something I’m working on. When opportunities came up, I used to always say yes immediately. Now, on the advice of one of my own health gurus, I wait ~24 hours (when possible) to think it through. Often it ends up that it might not be the best use of my time, resources or energy, and having a bit of time to think through that makes it clear and easier to say no right away.
We can tend to reward people who are eager to please others and are dependable. The problem is this can come at the expense of your own well being if you aren’t comfortable setting boundaries. Before making commitments or jumping to say “yes” every time, really think it through. Will you feel more stressed out because you agreed to help out a colleague, stay late or go to a party? If you were sick you’d probably have no problem saying “no”. It’s okay to prioritize your mental health the same way.
Try to take breaks between big projects or busy periods at work. At HEAL for example, January to March tend to be the busiest time of the year because it’s usually when we run the most Wellness Challenges and year after year I’m totally wiped come the spring. Instead of starting up another project I usually take a break to catch up on other tasks, regroup, maybe even take a vacation. I also find I really need this to get reinspired. What I often say to my clients is that your body wants to recover and will do so easily, you just need to give it the time and the tools to do so.
Speaking of breaks, making time every day, even if it’s just 30 minutes, to do something you love or that you can be fully ‘present’ doing, is sometimes all you need to rejuvenate your mind. Try scheduling it in to your calendar like it’s a meeting that you have to stick with. Make sure you also take time on weekends to do the same.
Exercise is extremely important for mental health, but something you maybe haven’t considered is if your exercise routine is actually a source of stress. This is something I’ve experienced myself and it’s also one that I’ve seen come up a lot recently, especially with women. Some exercise, like HIIT for example, can stress your body in a way that is thought to make you more resilient to stress over the long-term. The problem is that if you’re already very burnt out it can actually just deplete you.
If you have a hard time recovering from workouts or feel exhausted after a workout, it may be time to cut back on it or take a short break. The idea isn’t to stop exercising altogether, but rather to incorporate more rejuvenating exercise like yoga or even walking outside, which are still very beneficial. Just remember that it’s not forever and if you recover properly you should be able to get back into it. Interestingly, reducing your HIIT exercise can also help with weight-loss (if your weight is due to imbalanced cortisol).
Loss of sleep results in elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels the following evening and could affect your resilience to stress over the long term. A common stressor that many of us underestimate is blue light, like the light off your phone or laptop. Blue light at night can suppress melatonin production, which can make it difficult to sleep and disrupt the quality of your sleep. In general, but especially when you’re recovering from burnout, the best thing you can do is to avoid blue light close to bedtime. For example, set cut off times for doing work on your laptop, watching TV or scrolling on your phone. Instead, implement a wind-down routine like brushing your teeth, having a bath or a shower and reading a book every night before bed. Journaling is another well-researched tool that can benefit mental health and is an excellent night-time activity.
These are all topics we cover in the HEAL Wellness Challenge we run with offices across North America.