7 Actually Realistic Ways to Deal With BurnoutNo hustle culture allowed.
Exhausted by Wednesday even though you slept for 10 hours and snoozed your alarm twice? Tapped that “do not disturb” button on your phone and skipped plans with friends on the weekend to bed rot until further notice? Can't actually do any of that because you’re too busy doing the things that are making you feel this way in the first place? This cycle can make you feel hopeless, exhausted, and curious if literally anyone knows how to recover from burnout.
The answer is yes (yay!). But first, here are the basics of what’s going on. Unsurprisingly, burnout is caused by a very obscure, very unique condition called…stress (ever heard of her?). “Burnout is the result of unmanaged chronic stress. It happens over time (not just overnight) and is typically caused by being hyper-focused on meeting the needs of others or pushing yourself to the max,” says psychologist Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD. And even though the World Health Organization’s definition of burnout is specifically related to work, the concept also applies to other life obligations, like with caregiver burnout.
It feels like wanting to hibernate in bed and avoid your to-do list, that’s for sure, but the anxiety associated with burnout and not doing enough work also can manifest in physical symptoms. It’s not uncommon for people dealing with this issue to have a hard time sleeping, a weaker immune system, and even stomach issues, explains therapist Angela Wu, LMFT, who specializes in Asian mental health issues, anxiety, burnout, and depression.
Some types of people are more prone to burnout. For example, if you’re chronically people-pleasing or hard on yourself, it might be difficult for you to honor your need for a break or set clear boundaries around saying no when you’re at capacity, explains Wu. If you have a case of imposter syndrome or feel really competitive at work, you might be susceptible. Anyone who feels like their worth is based on how much they get done at work or in life might be more likely to feel crispy over time.
Burnout in the workplace might affect people with marginalized identities most, including people who identify as Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and women. That’s because things like discrimination, microaggressions, bias, sexism, stereotyping, isolation, or lack of representation can all likely contribute to burnout, explains licensed psychologist Nina Polyné, PsyD, assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at University of California, San Diego and Wondermind Advisory Committee Member. So can feeling extra pressure to defy cultural expectations and stereotypes in order to feel valued, she adds. And just being in that unfair position might make it even more of a challenge to tell your boss that you’re burned out.
So, yeah, there’s a lot more to burnout than just ~being busy~ and putting out the flames isn’t as easy as just slowing down or doing yoga. There might be a lot of systemic bullshit that’s contributing to your burnout that’s fully out of your control, which is why the usual advice for fighting burnout can often feel impossible or low-key delusional. (Sorry, we can’t all just quit our jobs or take a week off to fill our cups!) So, we asked the experts to give us actually realistic strategies to help deal with burnout…without burning your whole life down.
1. Acknowledge that you’re on fire.
A tip for future you: You can’t address burnout if you don’t acknowledge that it’s happening. So when you start to notice things like insomnia, extra negative self-talk, avoiding social things, or just less enthusiasm for life, take a beat to check in with yourself.
If you’re already fully aware of your burned-out state, getting more familiar with what that feels like for you can help prevent burnout from getting worse before you start taking action. So start journaling about what’s going on in your life and how you’re feeling physically and emotionally, says Wu. Do you have a lot of guilt about turning down the extra project you were asked about or can’t seem to set a boundary to stop checking your email after 6 p.m.? Jot that down.
2. Do something pointless.
When you’re totally focused on what you need to do and not what you want to do, you’re on a path to Burnout Mountain. Sure, this is a little oversimplified, and some of us literally cannot do less because of life or money obligations. That said, finding a balance between need-to-do and want-to-do activities can help you avoid feeling fried.
If you’ve already arrived at this destination, that’s OK. You can climb out of that rut by trying to work in more stuff that energizes, motivates, and calms you. You know, the things you do just because they’re fun, explains Dr. Rubenstein.
Even if your schedule is at max capacity, you can start with a small fueling activity in your downtime, Dr. Rubenstein suggests. If you’re craving a catch up, call a friend on your commute home. If you’re looking for a little solitude or a distraction, make that commute designated podcast or audiobook time. Or, if movement helps you feel better, try to squeeze in a little morning mental health walk (without checking email or Slack) before your day gets going. The goal is to balance draining tasks you’d describe as “should do’s” or “have tos”’ with the “get to dos.”
3. Take timed breaks.
When you’re in the thick of it, penciling actual breaks into your schedule can help ensure that you’re getting enough mental rest to start feeling better, says Wu. Even if you feel guilty about taking a breather or have no idea how to relax, this IS a must-do if you want to recover from burnout. But because burnout can make you super distractible, be sure to set a timer to keep it short and sweet. The goal is to have more conscious, restorative breaks throughout your day, rather than one unhinged TikTok binge that leaves you feeling more stressed.
Sure, a break could mean just lying down for 20 minutes once a day. But they can also look like meditating (for those who partake) or watching a funny TikTok, says Dr. Polyné. Anything that shifts your focus onto something that doesn’t feel like work is fair game.
4. Check-in on yourself.
When we get burned out, it’s usually not until we’re feeling completely exhausted or even ill that we think, Hm, is something wrong here? That’s partially because “when dealing with burnout it’s easy to disconnect from yourself and your needs,” says Dr. Rubenstein. And when you ignore the physical signs of stress—like muscle tension, fatigue, and headaches—you’re missing key warning signs that you need to slow down and give your bod (and your mind) some attention. “By tuning into your body and noticing things like tension in your neck you can address small signs of stress before they become bigger,” adds Dr. Rubenstein.
So now that you’re fully in it, try to work more mind-body practices into your routine whenever you can. That could mean getting up from your computer to stretch your arms, neck, and roll your shoulders a few times or following a progressive muscle relaxation on YouTube or Spotify before bed. You could even just check in with yourself once an hour to see if you’re thirsty or hungry. All of those little things can help you start feeling better.
5. Say no to something—anything!
When you’re nearing burnout or already there, you might feel like you can’t take on one more thing, but you end up doing it anyway. Sometimes that means hustle culture-ing yourself into getting one last project in before you sign off for the week or forcing yourself to meet up with friends even though you’re beat.
Though it can feel like doing the thing is easier than giving an excuse to skip out, the long-term repercussions can make burnout worse. So even if you have FOMO or feel weird asking your boss for an extension, remind yourself that there will be more opps for you to show up—and you’ll be able to do that as your best self then. It’s not up to you to do everything, says Wu. The more you practice turning down things, the easier it will be when you feel like your mental state is overwhelmed. It’ll help you recover from burnout now and hopefully avoid it in the future.
6. Make self-compassion your go-to.
Let’s assume you did something kinda tough like turning down that work assignment or birthday brunch. While you are crushing the self-care game with that one small move, it might not feel like it. In those cases, when you do something hard that’s good for Future You, it can be helpful to give yourself a positive affirmation, Dr. Rubenstein. “Extend kindness to yourself in tough moments like you would with a friend,” she adds.
For example, you might say, “This is really hard, so I am going to be gentler to myself today,” suggests Dr. Rubenstein. Or, “Putting my needs first helps me take care of me.” You can rely on this little go-to whenever you need some inner support.
7. Explore your relationship to work.
It might be hard to muster the strength to analyze why you’re doing what you’re doing, but that little reflective moment can help you change the patterns that got you here. Think about why and how you prioritize work over your well-being, whether that’s the work you do in your career or taking care of your family or other emotional labor. Do you let those tasks or responsibilities define who you are? Do they feel like the most important things in your life? If so, why? Then, write out a list of values to get more clarity on the other things that matter to you, Dr. Polyné suggests. Those could be your health, fun, quality of life, and gratitude. See if there are things as worthy of your time and energy as your job or responsibilities.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.