Burnout Is Now Our Default State

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

Exhausted Black businesswoman sleeping at her desk.
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.

The trouble with distancing yourself, though, is that it’s only a short-term solution to stress, a quick calm at the expense of long-term mental health. Humans are social creatures, and we need each other to survive and thrive. We also have only so much energy when we’re in survival mode. And often, those two facts are in direct conflict with each other.

Rather than vacillating between extreme socializing and hermit life, try finding the middle ground: meaningful connections with a few choice folks.

Focus on one or two relationships that could use some energy and attention this year. This is different from scheduling calls with your entire family or staying active in your group texts. It’s about building stronger one-to-one relationships where you can turn off the superficial chitchat and talk about more than Covid-19 stats or how hot it is. You need a few people with whom you can discuss your real challenges, joys, and questions about the future.

To create those spaces for yourself, here are some questions you can ask:

  • What are one or two relationships I’d like to see grow over the next year?
  • How can I make space to share what’s really going on with me?
  • How can I stay connected when I’m tempted to withdraw?

Making one or two relationships less superficial and more substantial will help you build a stronger sense of self. The more you know who you are and what you want, and the more you share that with others, the less hopeless you’ll feel in stressful times.

Purpose

Finding a sense of purpose is a common strategy for recovering from burnout — we tend to be less stressed when we’re helping others, solving interesting problems, or otherwise engaging the part of our brain that is curious rather than anxious.

But in a pandemic, finding a new purpose can be tricky. A significant life change feels like an inaccessible luxury to most of us. People are worried about losing the job they do have. They can’t think about grad school when they’re trying to homeschool their kids. They’re not fantasizing about an Eat, Pray, Love trip — they’re wondering how to make it all the way to Grandma’s house without having to use a public bathroom.

How do you find purpose when you’re just trying to make it through the week? You redefine the scope of “purpose.”

When you assume that finding purpose is only about changing the world, you lose sight of the fulfillment that can come from changing your world: discovering that you love a different genre of fiction, or that you can write really funny emails to a friend who’s lonely, or that you feel better when you put on real pants or pick up groceries for an elderly neighbor.

Finding purpose is about being driven by your values, not your anxiety. And when you look for the small pockets of purpose in a day, your energy level tends to rise.

Big changes may bring immediate relief to burnout, but they don’t really make you a calmer person, or a better person, in the long run. They don’t change how you treat yourself or how much creativity you bring to a hard problem. We have to stop searching for 2019 burnout cures in a 2020 world. Ask yourself what’s worth doing today, and you’ll have enough energy to ask yourself the same question tomorrow.

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

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