Over the past couple years I’ve seen firsthand what a toll burnout can take on our health if we’re not careful; chronic stress suppresses our immunity, depletes our energy and wears on our bodies and minds.
Strangely though, sometimes stress actually feels good in the moment.
Running at a high speed, checking off one thing after another and being powered by a combination of adrenaline and inspiration can feel energizing and productive.
Where we can get into trouble is not knowing when to take breaks, or not being able to switch off our minds when we do finally decide to pause (or sleep!).
Here are a few signs that you might be headed towards burnout — and steps you can take to slow down and take care of yourself in the moment instead:
1. Racing mind
What it feels like: Your brain is moving at warp speed.
One to-do is followed immediately by a worrying thought, which is followed by an inspired new project idea, followed by another worry. A few moments of this high brain activity can be good; extended hours or days of it (to the point where you feel you can’t actually shut it off) is not.
What you can do: Try a 10-minute meditation to slow down.
I like to recommend the Headspace app for beginning meditators, but this can also be as simple as sitting somewhere with your eyes closed and focusing on the sound and sensation of your breath. Feel and hear each slow breath in and each long exhale out. The goal is not to eliminate thoughts completely (impossible!). Instead, when you notice that your mind has wandered, simply bring your attention back to your breath. Every time you do, you are strengthening your ability to focus and relax.
What it feels like: Dropping balls, missing opportunities, forgetting details.
Essentially, the sensation of being pulled in too many directions at once — plus the added stress that all of that causes, on top of everything you’ve already got going on.
What you can do: Break out the whiteboard.
Take out a blank piece of paper and give yourself 20-30 minutes to do a brain dump. Your goal is to get the contents of your busy mind down onto the page. Ideas, to-dos, concerns, dreams, worries, plans, errands — write it ALL down. Keep going until you feel complete and confident that you haven’t missed anything. Take a few long, slow breaths. Now that you’ve gotten it all in one place, you can work on organizing and actioning it (check out this post for my tips on how to do that) instead of expending mental energy trying to hold onto it all in your head.
3. Feelings of Overwhelm
What it feels like: You can’t stop moving — OR you’re completely immobilized.
Which of these is happening depends on your personality and coping mechanisms. Personally, I lean towards the latter. When I’m totally overwhelmed, I’m more likely to stop taking steps forward altogether and find the closest distraction. For others, their reaction is stay in a constant state of motion, jumping from one activity to the next, never allowing themselves time to breathe.
What you can do: Prioritize self-care.
When we’re in overwhelm, taking time for self-care can seem impossible or even ill-advised. But it’s actually when it’s most important. This doesn’t have to be an entire day at the spa. Get yourself to that spin or yoga class that you love. Take a 45-minute walk outside during lunchtime with no agenda except to breathe fresh air and soak in some sun. Meet friends for a drink, or leave work an hour early to play with your kids outside before the sun sets. Whatever it is that reconnects you to a sense of joy and leaves you feeling more whole. You’ll come back with boosted energy and a sense of freedom that will take you much farther than that extra hour of work would have.