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Are You Burned Out—or Just Exhausted?

Learn the 3 tell-tale signs of burnout — and 6 ways to finally start feeling better.

It's no surprise: Americans are exhausted. In fact, one study found that nearly 40 percent of Americans wake up most days of the week still feeling sleepy.

I can relate. I’ve previously dealt with adrenal fatigue after a particularly stressful period in my life — but thanks to these habits I’ve been able to tackle that issue and heal. However, my energy has risen and fallen in waves over the past few months.

Some days, I jump out of bed with Gary Vee-levels of excitement; others, I’ve barely opened my eyes by 9:30 a.m. My work-from-home job enables me a little bit of leeway, sure, but still, it’s concerning. I keep wondering: Am I just tired, or is there something more serious going on on the days I feel off?

Turns out, there is a difference — although it’s a fine line — between simply being tired and being burnt out. I went to the experts to learn more about burnout — and how to finally feel better.

What Is Burnout?

Burning the candle at both ends can eventually lead to a more insidious health issue, known as burnout. Burnout is defined as the physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress, explains Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., executive director of the American Institute of Stress.  

Burnout is affecting more and more Americans. Just the very existence of this website makes it clear. Arianna Huffington founded Thrive Global to provide science-based solutions to “end the stress and burnout epidemic and highlight the connection between well-being and performance.”

Although fatigue is one sign of burnout, burnout is compounded by other physical and mental symptoms as well. Here’s the difference: When you’re tired, you can still function, even if you’re not running on all cylinders. “But in the throes of full-fledged burnout, you are no longer able to function effectively on a personal or professional level,” explains Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D, psychologist and author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout.

In other words, “when someone feels tired or even exhausted, they still feel emotions, such as sadness or anxiety,” says Hanna. “But with burnout, there is an odd nothingness that seems to overcome the brain and body.”

While you don’t have to have all of the following symptoms to qualify for burnout, nor does experiencing all three always mean you’re burned out, the three main signs of burnout are:  

  1. Physical and emotional exhaustion: Beyond feeling physically tired, you may feel drained, depleted, and dread what each day will bring, Bourg Carter says. You might also experience insomnia (despite being exhausted!), forgetfulness, physical pains, illness due to a weakened immune system, and you may feel anxious, depressed, or angry.  
  2. Cynicism and detachment: You may feel pessimistic, negative, and disconnected with others. When you are burned out, you go into “a state of helpless complacency—a kind of not caring anymore,” Hanna explains. “For someone who is passionate about their work, family or community, it can be scary to feel this emptiness where there once was concern.”
  3. Ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment: You may feel irritable, easily distracted, not as productive as you once were, and maybe even wonder what’s the point of working at all.

What Causes Burnout?

The cause of all this mental and physical distress: chronic stress that builds up over time, Davis says. Our always-on, always-connected culture also adds to our susceptibility, Hanna says. “By keeping us constantly connected, technology fuels the addictive nature of the brain to want more information, connection, and stimulation.”

Fortunately, one or two all-nighters won’t cause burnout. The problem occurs when stressors—whether work-related, emotional, or social—continue over a long period of time, and your body and mind can’t keep up. When you’re under constant stress, your body produces more cortisol, which is the stress hormone likely responsible for burnout, Davis explains.

Jet-setting CEOs aren’t the only ones who need to worry about burnout. Young women experience “just as much, if not more, stress than high-achieving executives,” Davis says. In addition to work-related stress, women may experience stress from social situations, societal prejudice, family pressures, and other forms of emotional distress.

Plus, women may be even more vulnerable to burnout because of how our brains are wired, Hanna says. Not only are we more deeply impacted by the stress of others (thanks, empathy!), but women’s brains have the tendency to ruminate on stress and anxiety more than men’s brains, Hanna explains. “This leads to greater amounts of wear and tear on the brain and the body from stress hormones.”

Finally, women unfortunately aren’t so great at prioritizing self-care, Hanna notes. We try to be constantly available for others without wanting to appear weak or overwhelmed, which means we tend to internalize stress rather than find healthy outlets for it.

How to Overcome Burnout

If you fear you’re burned out—or in the process of getting there—here’s some good news: You can take control of your health and get back to a less-stressed state of mind. Here's how. 

  • Practice self-care. “Self-care and self-awareness are critical to make sure that we notice these signs and symptoms of imbalance before they start to shut us down,” Hanna says. And go easy on yourself: “You need to turn off whatever is turning on your cortisol,” Davis says. “Take breaks. Go on vacation. Don't work on nights or weekends.” If bubble baths and face masks help you relieve stress, great—go for it. But know that recovering from burnout takes time, and won’t be fixed with a face mask.
  • Set your priorities. “Get clear on what’s important,” Davis says.“This might mean spending more time with family and friends, and deciding which work projects to focus on and which you can set aside.”
  • Catch some quality zzz’s. Rest is another crucial step in recovery, Hanna says. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of solid-shut-eye for one week. (Note: If you are just exhausted rather than burned out, a week’s worth of good sleep should be enough to restore your energy and leave you feeling refreshed.)
  • Eat well. In addition to sleep, focusing on a “nourishing diet” is an important part of the process, Hanna says.
  • Hang out with friends, get exercise, and go outdoors. That’s the perfect trifecta, Davis says. “Spend time with people you enjoy, engage in cardiovascular exercise, and go into nature,” she suggests. “These activities are shown to have psychological benefits, and they seem to be some of the best options for reducing stress.”
  • Keep in mind that getting better isn’t a quick fix. “Because it took so long to get burned out, it also tends to take a long time to repair and recharge,” Hanna notes. Plus the path to healing will look different for different people. “Each person needs a thorough evaluation to determine what exactly is going on that’s causing the cluster of symptoms in order to get a personalized prescription to rebalance the brain and restore health.”
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