It’s a term you’ve probably seen around lately. Some see it as just the latest Internet buzzword to grace our screens. Or is it? Like emotional vampires, lettuce water myths or that bizarre stint of Tik Tokers tasting soy sauce with their junk it can be hard to know what’s fact or fiction when it comes to our health.
However, it turns out that ‘Pandemic Burnout’ is one case where the facts actually do stack up. Less of a buzzword and more a current buzz-feel, this is something surveys are showing huge numbers of us are feeling when it comes to the ‘new normal’ right now. I’m Dr Kieran Kennedy, and for this week’s Mind Matters we’re diving into the need to knows.
Burnout: what is it?
Burnout is defined medically as a condition of combined mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. A mind meets body reaction to chronic levels of high stress and mental strain.
Periods of uncertainty and chronic stress are just a few of the conditions in which burnout likes to grow. So, basically the pandemic in a nutshell.
While burnout is something we traditionally talk about in workplaces, it can actually occur anywhere. And within that, new research is showing that the pandemic itself is causing rates to shoot sky high.
The 5 Signs to recognise
Some need-to-know signs you might be in ‘pandemic burnout’:
1) You’ve changed
At the start of the pandemic things were new and highly panic-inducing. We felt acutely stressed, emotional, anxious and angry. As time goes on (and burnout moves in) it’s common to notice a definite shift. Feeling less acutely stress, and more just ‘really over it all’ is a common sign of burnout creeping in. Instead of feeling ‘better’, we just feel ‘different’.
2) Shades of grey
One of the hallmarks of burnout is that our mind starts to tunnel vision down toward the negative, cynical & overwhelmed. For people who are used to feeling optimistic and upbeat this can be pretty frightening. It’s important to understand that feeling cynical and unenthused is not necessarily about you, and is more likely a sign of pandemic burnout kicking in.
3) Flat batteries
The core of burnout is a sense of deep (often mental) tiredness and exhaustion, even if we’re sleeping and fuelling as we normally would. Surveys have recently shown that people are feeling mentally drained and exhausted right now, and it’s burnout that’s likely the cause.
Talking to patients and people in general, early in the pandemic there was a sense of emotions being high. We felt the hit of news, lockdowns & cancelled plans with sadness, fear or frustration. Now many are simply feeling numb or nothing at all, and this one’s a common red flag for burnout.
There was a whole lot of chat about “productivity” when we first hit lockdowns. But many have since noticed a change. Feeling unmotivated, lacking in drive or out of focus are common signs of pandemic burnout and ones of which a tonne of people are feeling the effects.
Unfortunately, there’s no single solution for the change, trauma and loss we’re moving through right now. This is rough and in many ways out of our hands, and that’s important to call out. What’s important too however is knowing that small things can make a big difference.
For those of us who identify with the symptoms above, here are some tools to help:
1) Calling it out
Burnout thrives off being avoided and ignored. While it might sound counterintuitive at first, there’s a lot to be gained in just stopping and feeling what’s there. Acknowledge you’re feeling burnout, and know that that itself takes a bit of mental load off.
2) Time out
Taking a break from news feeds and updates right now can be hard; there’s often a sense of guilt or an anxious pressure to “need to know”. For burnout though, it’s vital we give our brain a rest and so regular, even daily, breaks from checking the news or scrolling our feeds can help
Making active time for activities that give us a lift and some spark is really important right now. I talk about “flow” a lot (and there’s a tonne of evidence to back this up), and activities that are equal part enjoyable and challenging help evoke it. Plan some ‘flow’ time daily - exercise, art, a new language, music, whatever works for you.
4) Rest & self-care
There’s a drive with burnout that doing more, working harder or pushing through is what’s needed but medically we know that’s not true. If you’re feeling the burnout feels then now is the time to add more self-care to the menu. Schedule rest time that’s not coupled with distraction or multi-tasking. Know you might need a bit more sleep right now than usual. Drop the guilt if you’re pulled toward a movie on the couch. Just as we do if we’re physically under the weather, we need to allow the brain to rest and recover when we’re hit by chronic stress too.
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