Burnout Is Now Our Default State

A therapist’s advice for curing it when the usual strategies no longer apply

Kathleen Smith
Forge
Published in
4 min readSep 1, 2020

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Exhausted Black businesswoman sleeping at her desk.
Photo: Peopleimages/Getty Images

What do you call it when, after months of feeling pandemic-related burnout, you burn out from the burnout itself? Burn down? Burn away? Burn in?

Burnout is an ambiguous catchall term originally coined to describe the stress-induced exhaustion of people in the helping professions: the mental and physical depletion, distancing from others, and lower productivity they experienced when things got to be too much. In this moment, drained by the stress of living in a pandemic and staring down an uncertain year ahead, everything feels like too much all the time. Burnout isn’t a departure from the default state anymore. It is the default state.

So, how do we recover from burnout-related burnout?

Usually, when people suffer from burnout, they’re advised to develop a better work-life balance, or make more time for self-care practices, or consider if a big life change would benefit them. But in our current world, these suggestions sound like fantasies. How can you find balance or set boundaries when your kids are home all day and your office is your bedroom? When you can’t ask friends or family to jeopardize their own health to come help you?

Those are questions I’ve been hearing a lot lately as a therapist. Here are the answers I give my clients.

Focus on strengthening a few relationships

It may feel like a hundred years have passed, but it was only a few short months ago that we threw a reinvigorated energy into our relationships, scheduling endless Zoom calls and wondering why we’d never made more of an effort to stay in touch with one another. When the backlash hit — as it inevitably did for each of us — it hit hard: Suddenly, a jam-packed calendar of video calls was more exhausting than rejuvenating. We withdrew and settled into a routine with much less contact.

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Kathleen Smith
Forge
Writer for

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.