“Burnout.” Perhaps many of us have seen this word or felt this sensation more often than ever in these last 18 months.
When we hear the word “burnout,” perhaps the first image that comes to our mind is a matchstick burnt at both ends.
Emotional burnout is not a pleasant feeling. It is not attention-seeking, like when you break a bone and it catches your immediate attention to seek help. Instead, emotional burnout is like an insidious creature creeping at us slowly, and if we do not know how to manage it, our mental and physical health may break down before we know it.
The reality is, we are not taught how to manage burnouts in schools. As we enter adulthood, we are also not equipped with enough skills to recognize and manage our burnouts. Most doctors are not educated in this area either when treating someone. They don’t talk about caring for our emotions, and if anything else, most would refer us to mental health professionals as if we are just another number.
Consequently, the combined mental and emotional loads become heavier on us as there is still a widespread stigma around seeking support for mental-health-related issues—be it on a social, individual, or institutional level.
Prolonged emotional burnout does not just affect our mental health, it also overloads our adrenal glands as our bodies are in a persistent fight-or-flight mode. This sends our bodies deeper into a state of adrenal fatigue and more burnout ensues.
Even though I am a trained health coach, where we are taught to manage our self-care first and foremost, I have fallen prey to emotional burnouts multiple times. The current pandemic, which seems uncertain to me—not just on when it will end but also on what the new normal will look like—has put a toll on my emotional management.
So before I reach the abyss of this vicious cycle, I have recognized that my body will communicate with me via these three signs to catch my attention whenever I fall into emotional burnout:
Sign number one: The usual activities spark less joy.
I love my various physical activities, be it spending time at the gym or in nature. The endorphins from these exercises usually do the trick for me to keep my sanity in check. But when I start to notice that I feel jaded with these activities, I often find that it has to do with some other events that occurred, which are zapping my emotions.
Sign number two: Feeling a sense of apathy and skepticism about everything and everyone.
Generally, I am known to be an optimist who sees the glass half-full. When I begin to hear myself becoming disinterested with every news or conversation or being ultra-skeptical about every event that is happening, I learned that it is my body’s signaling that I am starting the road toward emotional burnout.
Sign number three: Becoming an emotional wreck for extended periods.
I am aware that it is okay to have fluctuations in mood and energy from time to time. However, when I find myself going on for weeks with fluctuations of my mood and emotions, where I swing from extreme agitation to extreme sobbing, I know my body is once again signaling me that I am spending more emotional energy than I can afford.
With these three telltale signs my body has communicated with me, I have adopted the following five practices to reduce my body and mind from sinking further into the emotional burnout pit:
Practice number one: Swimming in the open sea or any body of water.
There is something about bathing our bodies in water to relax and calm our sympathetic nervous system. Perhaps it is because that is the way we come into the world—bathed in a mother’s amniotic fluid for 40 weeks before presenting ourselves into the world.
Personally, going out to the open sea for 20 minutes a day helps with recalibrating my emotional roller coaster back to normalcy. The feeling of swimming freely with the natural force of the waves and the exposure to sunlight act as an instant mood booster. I will do this for seven to 10 days.
Practice number two: Taking multiple cold showers.
If going out to the open sea is not a luxury some of us can afford, taking cold showers throughout the day may also do the trick. The sudden drop in temperature increases our heart rate variability and vagal tone, which, in turn, will activate our parasympathetic nervous system that is responsible for rest and restoration. For some, it also helps with boosting our natural immunity.
Usually, I will run five minutes of a cold shower down from my neck if I do not want to get my head wet. At the same time, I will do four deep belly breaths and let out loud sighs as a way to tell the body to release any emotional tension it may still hold.
Practice number three: Cutting out any stimulating drinks—especially coffee.
When the body is experiencing any kind of burnout, our adrenal glands are often overworked and crying for support. Stimulants such as caffeine stimulate the adrenal cortex to secrete cortisol hormone. Having more caffeine in an emotionally exhausted body means the adrenal glands are working double hard, and the body ends up further sinking into a deeper burnout mode.
I will either do a cold-turkey cut on coffee and replace it with herbal teas such as Kava, or I will gradually reduce my coffee intake to no more than six ounces within three hours of waking up. Additionally, I will be more mindful while sipping and not rush into gulping the coffee. I will also recite some gratitude mantras in my head as I drink my morning cup.
Practice number four: Walking slowly while plugging in some instrumental music.
Despite feeling emotionally burnout, it is tempting to avoid any form of physical activity. Yet, not moving entirely is also unhealthy for the recovery process—unless your medical doctor advises you against doing so.
Taking nice slow walks while listening to instrumental music can transform the situation for me. Depending on the level of burnout, I may start with slow walks for 3,000 steps or about a mile, with a Spotify-recommended instrumental playlist. This may seem like a low target, but when we are in a state of burnout, even 1,000 steps can feel like climbing Mount Everest.
The idea is to do what we can and, most importantly, to feel nourished while doing it.
Practice number five: Letting out a good cry.
Sometimes, all the body needs is to let out a good, cathartic cry. Depending on one’s cultural conditions, crying may not be openly accepted as some may view it as a sign of weakness or feel awkward expressing this side of themselves.
Yet, the more we suppress our emotions that need to be released, the more the body and mind have to hold in the emotional weight, and there is only so much a jug can hold.
Without placing judgment on myself, I will either let myself cry all out in cold showers or put on a movie as a way to help me let my tears roll. Sometimes, this may go on for days or weeks. I will remind myself that there is no pressure and no rush to “end” this crying phase. I know I am on the road to recovery and that this too shall pass.
Sometimes, the more eager we want something to pass, the longer it will take to do so. I have learned with experience to soak in these moments to let my tears roll as much as needed. And within a week, I usually feel so much better and lighter.
As the songwriters, Bobby Caldwell and Scott Cross and artist, Holly Cole said:
“Cry if you want to
I won’t tell you not to…
It’s no use in keeping a stiff upper lip
You can weep
You can sleep
You can loosen your grip
You can frown
You can drown and go down with the ship.”
Perhaps you may never have known much about emotional burnout,or maybe you have known so much about emotional burnout that you’ve gotten accustomed to not bothering to manage it. Whichever spectrum you may be on, know that burnout is not normal and we do not have to suffer even more by burning at both ends of the stick.
We all can learn to manage our burnouts at any stage of our lives. It is never too late to get started.
It might be the most powerful and best gift we can give to ourselves for a more fulfilling and healthier life. After all, I have been practicing my burnout management skills since surviving cancer when I was 23 years old, and I am still learning.