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  • Kristen Genzano

Burnout. A Global Pandemic. Self-Kindness.

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

Person laying on bed with hands on face looking exhausted.

Burnout. It’s a buzz word these days. But what does it actually mean to experience burnout?

According to Psychology Today burnout is “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” Burnout is especially unique because it’s characterized by the fact that the stress one experiences feels like it cannot be made better. More often than not, we experience burnout when we feel as though we do not have any influence or control over the stressor.

Traditionally we associate burnout with the workplace. In fact, over the past two years workplace burnout has led to what many are calling The Great Resignation. Burnout is also used to refer to the frequent experiences of caregivers.

As I consider this definition I think to myself it’s no wonder every single one of us is experiencing some kind of burnout right now.

A Global Pandemic

We’ve experienced various ebbs and flows of the pandemic, but the truth is we’re entering year three of prolonged, unpredictable, intense stress with no true end in sight. I offer this not to provoke a sense of doom or hopelessness, but rather to name what is true and real for our lived experience as humans at this moment on this planet. This is real. We are all suffering.

  • More than 5.5 million people have died at this time.

  • People have lost their jobs, family members, social connections.

  • Children and parents are struggling.

  • Houselessness is up.

  • Loneliness, depression and overall mental health concerns continue to rise across the nation.

Although the novelty and initial shock of the pandemic has worn off, its impact grows heavier and heavier, whether we choose to open our eyes to it or not.

Am I Experiencing Burnout?

According to some symptoms of burnout may include:

  • Exhaustion

  • Cynicism

  • Feeling Useless

  • Irritability

  • Disconnection / Inattentiveness

  • Difficulty Sleeping

  • Headaches

  • Stomach Discomfort

  • Increased blood pressure and/or heart rate

After reading those signs, you may be starting to recognize that you’re experiencing burnout. What now?

Presence + Awareness

There’s a common saying among therapists: if you name it, you can tame it. This saying refers to emotions. For example, if I name that I’m angry about something then I have the opportunity to work with the anger, to experience it, to process it and, as a result, to tame it rather than being governed by it. The same holds true for the trauma we’re experiencing as a result of the pandemic.

When we acknowledge that we are being profoundly impacted by the ongoing global health crisis we give ourselves the opportunity to begin to process the trauma and grief we’re experiencing as it’s happening. On the other hand, if we continue to move along as if everything is “normal” or even that everything will go back to “normal” we are building a house of cards.

Although our psyches may be attempting to protect us by denying our own experiences, denial can only sustain for so long. One day you realize just how exhausted you are, how isolated you feel, how afraid you are of getting sick or losing a loved one to illness. When that day comes you run the risk of feeling alone in your fear, anxiety, grief and sadness because we haven’t collectively named our true experience: “we are burnt out as a result of this pandemic.”

From Emotional Isolation to Emotional Connection

Once we name our suffering we can move out of isolation and into connection with others who are experiencing the same feelings. Even while individual circumstances vary greatly, the experience of suffering is universal. Every single person on this planet at this moment is experiencing some kind of impact from the pandemic and, more likely than not, experiencing some kind of suffering as a result.

On her website, Mindful Self-Compassion co-founder Dr. Kristin Neff explains that, “frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering.” By acknowledging our own feelings and then sharing our experiences – our emotional experiences – with others, we’re able to connect. We’re able to remember that we’re not alone.

A recent NYT article, discussed the stress and difficulty parents are facing as it relates to schools being opened OR closed. The article highlights that the common thread isn’t whether schools should be opened or closed, it’s the “agony” parents and children are experiencing as a result of the pandemic. For some, schools being open would be relieving. For others, schools remaining closed is what would bring a greater sense of ease.

The difficulty of the HUMAN experience is what is shared here. Through our shared humanity we can find connection with others as opposed to debating over how things should be handled which often leads to more divisiveness, more repression of true feelings and an increased sense of isolation.

What do We do?

We’re here. We’re living in this moment. We’re experiencing an incredibly long, traumatic event. We do not know when it will end. We’ve been conditioned to push along, to keep the economy in tact, to conduct business as usual but this behavior denies our truth, our lived experiences.

There’s so much talk these days about being kind and compassionate with ourselves. But how can you be kind to yourself if you’re denying your own reality? How can you respond to what you might need if you’re ignoring what you feel?

What would it be like to pause, take a breath and acknowledge the feelings that arise for you when you acknowledge the weight of the past two years.

What would it be like to allow yourself to cry or scream or rest?

Wise Discernment

As you begin to feel more of your experience it’s possible – even likely – that you will feel overwhelmed by sadness, fear, or a mixture of feelings. This is where discernment comes into play. Discernment is the ability to judge well. In practice, this means recognizing when you’ve been feeling too intensely or for longer than is productive. When you find yourself in this space it’s a good time to step back and engage in behaviors that are supportive and nourishing. It’s an ideal time to practice self-kindness.

How to be Kind to Yourself

All too often we have the best intentions of being kinder with ourselves, but we don’t know exactly how to do it. Here are some suggestions:

Connect with your tender feelings

  • Journal

  • Talk to a therapist

  • Make art

Take care of your precious body

  • Move your body

  • Eat nourishing food

  • Get sleep. Get more sleep than you think you need.

Do things that bring you happiness (or used to bring you happiness even if they don’t right now)

Make a list of things that bring a smile to your face and practice one of these a day

  • Listen to music

  • Color

  • Play with your pets

  • Take a nap

  • Cook a delicious meal

  • Have a phone call with a friend or loved one

Here we are at this moment. We don’t know when the pandemic will end. There’s no roadmap to show us how to move through this terrain. What we do have is centuries of human suffering and human adaptation to show us how to be present with our pain, how to feel and acknowledge our reality, and how to connect with one another for survival. Even when you feel lonely, afraid, and hopeless, remember you’re not alone. Remember you can connect with those around you by sharing your feelings.

Additional resources

Written before the pandemic, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle written by Amelia Negoski and Emily Negoski, is a great book to learn more about how to handle the experience of stress in your life.

To read more about how to cope with Zoom Fatigue – one of the many experiences contributing to our collective burnout – read this article by Center for Mindful Self-Compassion Executive Director, Steve Hickman.

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