What You’re Probably Getting Wrong About Burnout

Sometimes, fighting the feeling can be as straightforward as redefining it

A pile of burnt-out matches on a piece of concrete.

Inevitably, every few months, I’ll follow the demands of a creative career and a tough schedule straight into an energy crash. I find myself totally zapped, at a complete loss for story ideas or inspiration. “I need a break,” I’ll tell my friends. “I’m burnt out.”

Recently, while reporting a story on the science-based metric used to actually measure burnout for BBC’s Worklife, I realized I’ve been using the term all wrong: What I’ve been experiencing isn’t really burnout. As I wrote in that piece, real burnout has three major criteria, and I only meet one — exhaustion. (The other two are feeling cynical about your job and being ineffectual at it.) So while the part about needing a break is true, it turns out I’m not actually burnt out at all.

This was a watershed moment for me, and it made a huge and immediate difference. Hearing that I wasn’t burnt out — not clinically, anyway — was restorative. Realizing I didn’t meet the other criteria made me consider all the things I enjoy about my work and made me feel reenergized. In short, being told I wasn’t burnt out was enough to make me stop feeling burnt out.

Ultimately, it’s a lesson in positive thinking. As cheesy as that may sound, a number of studies have found that a positive outlook has significant health benefits, including lower rates of depression, better cardiovascular health, better coping skills, and even higher resistance to the common cold.

In fact, thinking positively can physically change the makeup of your cells. In 2009, Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, won a Nobel prize for her study of how our mental state impacts the length of our telomeres, bits of DNA at the end of our chromosomes. The longer the telomere, the more healthy the cell: They shorten each time a cell divides, and when they get too short, the cells die. Short telomeres cause accelerated aging and all kinds of issues throughout the body. As it turns out, stress, pessimism, and cynicism — not unlike the feelings that accompany burnout — shorten our telomeres.

But reduced stress and increased feelings of well-being can help telomeres lengthen, and that can help keep us healthier both mentally and physically. A surefire way to reduce stress is to think positively, and that can start by realizing you’re not actually burnt out.

It’s a small distinction — the difference between feeling burnt out and actually being burnt out, according to the metrics used to measure such things — but it can be a push to shift your mindset for the better. Suddenly, rather than feeling like you’ve hit the wall, you may find yourself feeling able to scramble up and over it.

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store