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How To Tell Where You Are On The Burnout Continuum

Burnout is a sneaky beast to spot.

According to WHO, it doesn’t classify as a health condition. Rather, it’s an “occupational phenomenon” that results from chronic stress which hasn’t been successfully managed.

There are at least 5 stages of burnout. These correspond with various intensities of burnout symptoms. Unfortunately, most people brush them off by saying that “this is just what life looks like.”

Although burnout can be treated in early stages, that rarely happens. Most people need to hit rock bottom to realize that something has to change.

  • Have you accepted that it’s normal to be permanently stressed?
  • Are you constantly tired but finding it hard to give yourself a break?
  • Do you sacrifice a lot to be successful at work?

All of these may be signs that you already entered the burnout continuum.

In this article, I’ll lay out the 5 stages of burnout, together with their symptoms. By the end, you’ll be able to assess where you are — and decide if and what kind of help to seek.

Remember: You don’t have to waste your life living in a perpetual state of exhaustion. Overwork and stress aren’t’ badges of honor. They don’t serve you or anyone else.

I know because I went through all the stages of burnout when I was only 27. One thing I learned is that I could have reversed my course any time. But, I didn’t.

I’m sharing this post so you can learn from my mistakes and treat your burnout in time. But first, you need to be brutally honest with yourself.

What Are The 5 Stages of Burnout?

There’s a difference between a diligent pursuit of your goals and sacrificing your well-being for “success.” But that difference can be hard to see sometimes.

In the beginning, burnout often feels like moving in the right direction. You’re chasing your goals. You’re working towards success. Your flame is burning strong and you’re full of energy. The future seems bright.

That’s how I felt a few years ago when I started working at a mountain lodge during the summer season. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by amazing nature and interesting people. By helping with all sides of the business — from copywriting to serving drinks — I had a chance to learn all the skills needed to run something similar in the future.

Or so I thought.

As I realized much later, my early excitement about handling too many responsibilities was the first sign of burnout. I quickly became overwhelmed and exhausted. I worked six days a week, up to 12 hours a day. And, I wore it as a badge of honor.

Without realizing, I was on a downward-slope, heading for a spectacular crash. But before I crashed, I moved through all the 5 stages of burnout first.

See if you can recognize yourself in any of them.

1. Subtle Dissatisfaction

The first stage of burnout is characterized by a lack of awareness that anything’s wrong. You may have minor thoughts of discomfort or a subtle gut feeling that something’s off. Most likely, you write these off as “this is life.”

At the lodge, my first symptom of burnout was the slight irritation I felt when I was asked to work more hours than agreed. A part of me knew this wasn’t right for me. But, I quickly reminded myself that we were in high season.

Some sacrifices were needed to keep the place running, I told myself.

However, that wasn’t the only sacrifice I made that summer.

2. Subconscious Disregard

This stage of burnout introduces thoughts and emotions that are increasingly uncomfortable. Repetitive mental patterns start nagging you, signalling that something’s off-balance

At this point, your subconscious starts actively working out ways to manage the stress. Dysfunction at work may lead to getting annoyed with your partner. You may start feeling jealous of your friends’ success, silently project self-righteous judgments, or blaming everyone around for how you feel.

To me, this stage manifested while serving people at our garden cafe. For example, I started being irritated by clients’ orders, or their innocent jokes. Even though they simply came to enjoy an ice-cream, I silently blamed them for my internal turmoil.

At this stage, I still didn’t see my burnout as a real issue. My subconscious was fending the symptoms and I thought I could carry on. I was just “a bit tired.”

Only upon entering the third stage, I started feeling that things were spinning out of control.

3. Conscious Numbing

This is the stage when burnout symptoms begin to come up in your behavior. Feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion and anxiety are too big to swallow. You start relying on one or more numbing techniques to defer discomfort.

To me, this involved a few numbing agents — but my favorite one was sweet treats. Because the full board was included in my contract at the lodge, I could have as much cake as I wanted. At some point, I was eating up to five desserts a day, constantly riding the sugar rush.

Needless to say, this didn’t help me slow down and rest. I entered cycles of hyperactivity, followed by complete exhaustion. And, I was rolling forward on the burnout continuum.

4. Anxious Exhaustion

Anxious Exhaustion often coexists with Conscious Numbing. These are the two cycles I mentioned above: (1) numbing (or overstimulating) yourself to power through challenges and then (2) feeling extremely low as a result.

When the lows become more pronounced than the highs, that’s a sign you entered the fourth stage of burnout. You start experiencing extreme emotions and sensations in your body for no apparent reason. Even when you’re supposed to be resting, you can’t help but think about all the things you need to do.

When we entered the second half of the season at the lodge, I knew I wasn’t in a good place. I didn’t know how to rest anymore. My mind was always anxious.

On top of that, I was deeply dissatisfied with my performance at work. So… I agreed to take on even more hours. I hoped this would finally make me feel like I was doing enough.

Then, within a week, I collapsed. My body wasn’t able to take it anymore. I have officially gone through the full burnout continuum — and reached the last stage.

5. Full-blown Trauma

I hope that, after reading this post, you’ll be able to slow down before you reach this stage of burnout. I experienced it and trust me — you don’t want to go there.

Living in a chronic state of excessive stress can lead to dangerous places. You enter psychic wilderness where it’s hard to see the way out. Your body starts revealing symptoms of physical disease. Your mind can never quiet and peace feels unattainable.

The most common symptom of this final stage of burnout is either a complete physical shut-down or uncontrollable anxiety (aka panic attacks). At the end of the summer at the lodge, I experienced both. I fell ill with bronchitis (that almost developed into pneumonia) and had to stay in bed for three weeks. I’ve never felt so ill before or after in my life.

Because of the persistent high fever, my mind also went into the panic mode. Even though I was on medicine and well-taken care of, I was scared I was going to die. My mind was full of fear which I didn’t know how to fend anymore.

During those three weeks, I had plenty of time to evaluate my work life. I didn’t know what I was going to do moving forward. But I promised myself one thing:

Never again was I going to sacrifice so much for the sake of feeling “successful” at work.

What Are The Symptoms of Burnout At Work?

The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

In other words, it’s an emotional, mental, physical and spiritual debilitation caused by chronic stress and excessive sacrifices.

At the core, burnout isn’t a work crisis. It’s a soul crisis. It happens when you continuously deny who you are in the pursuit of what you believe you should accomplish.

That said, the symptoms of burnout are usually most visible at work. According to Christina Maslach (whose research informs WHO’s stance on burnout) symptoms of burnout at work can be grouped into three categories:

1. Emotional exhaustion, e.g.:

  • Feeling chronically tired even when you’re not doing much,
  • Having trouble sleeping at night,
  • Struggling to concentrate or keep your attention on a task.

2. Depersonalisation or cynicism, e.g.:

  • Blaming everyone around for the way you feel,
  • Experiencing “compassion fatigue” — i.e. being emotionally unavailable for others,
  • Feeling isolated and struggling to maintain relationships.

3. Reduced sense of personal accomplishments of efficacy, e.g.:

  • Prolonged feelings of depression and/or anxiety,
  • Loss of enjoyment in those parts of your work that you used to like,
  • Persistent thoughts about your work being meaningless.

To check which of those symptoms you’re experiencing, pause and examine the bigger picture of your life. The Mayo Clinic recommends asking yourself these questions:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Have your sleep habits changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?

Finding your answers and tying them to the knowledge you now have about the 5 stages of burnout will help you assess where you are on the burnout continuum. That’s already a big step. Knowing where you are is how you start planning for burnout recovery.

If you manage to catch yourself in one of the first three stages of burnout, congratulations! Most people need to hit rock-bottom (stage four or five) to realize that things need to change.

However, even if you’re at stage four or five, you can not just fully recover — but also learn from your burnout. It’s possible to reverse your course and start living a more balanced life right now.

At this point, many people ask: Okay, but how long will it take?

How Long Does a Burnout Last?

I’m tempted to say that my burnout lasted only for a few months. By the time that summer was over, I went through all the 5 stages of burnout. I recovered from severe bronchitis — and, on the outside, I seemed to be back to “normal.”

But this was just half of the story. In the next months, I remained in a state of “emotional hangover.” The work burnout left a bigger scar on my psyche than I wanted to admit.

A few months down the road, I had a big trip planned. I was going on a solo adventure to India and Nepal — something I’d dreamt about for years. I had money saved and a plane ticket booked. I was excited to explore the culture, the Buddhist temples and practice yoga in the Himalayas.

But shortly before departure, anxiety started creeping in. I felt that I hadn’t recovered from my burnout yet. A part of me was still in that fearful place, lacking confidence and energy to go.

But guess what I did? Yep — once again, I pushed through. I forced myself to go. Even though my body was telling me I wasn’t ready, I chose to ignore it. I boarded the plane, feeling anxious as hell.

When I found myself in Asia, I started experiencing regular panic attacks. Almost every night, I cried myself to sleep. Eventually, I decided to go back after a week.

I moved in with my parents to regain a basic sense of safety. My mental health was more fragile than ever. Only after about 6 months, I slowly started coming back to myself.

All this is to say: How long it takes to recover from burnout is very personal. To me, it seemed that I recovered fast — until I went for that challenging trip. While I was away, the symptoms of burnout started coming back.

In one study on burnout recovery, researchers found that how fast people bounced back after burnout depended on the coping mechanisms they used to deal with symptoms. For example, those who didn’t address their problem (i.e. used avoidance-based coping mechanisms) developed more severe burnout symptoms over time.

Additionally, I’d say your recovery will depend on factors such as:

  • The stage of burnout you have reached,
  • Your baseline mental health before burnout,
  • The amount and quality of support from your environment,
  • Whether or not you have the internal skills to support yourself: self-awareness, self-compassion and emotional resilience.

The good news is that even (or especially) if your burnout symptoms are severe, you can learn from it. This type of personal crisis may show you things about yourself that you wouldn’t see otherwise.

Through my burnout, I learned a lot about my personal values. Letting myself spiral so low showed me what I certainly don’t want in my life: ennoblement of busyness and sacrificing my well-being to be “successful.”

At the same time, it made me connect with the deeper needs of my soul. I understood that to serve others, I must take care of myself first. Gradually, I became better at that. I gained new energy to do more meaningful work.

As a result, I’m here today — writing this post and hoping it can help you recover from burnout.

How To Recover From Burnout: The Only Thing You Need

If you google “how to recover from burnout,” you’ll mostly find generic self-help tips.

Set firmer boundaries. Make sure you rest. Spend time with your loved ones. Do more of what makes you feel alive.

Of course, none of this is bad advice. However, those generic tips usually don’t account for the deeper causes of burnout.

There’s one root problem that perpetuates all burnout, no matter which stage you’re at. It’ the misalignment of your work with the needs of your soul. That’s the real cause you need to treat.

You may think your needs are met when you have a roof over your head, food on the table and a group of friends. But these are not all human needs. Your soul — or, your True Self — has a different set of needs. These revolve around fulfilling your purpose, i.e. doing something that gives your life meaning.

The thing is, most people don’t know their purpose. They can’t do more of “what makes them feel alive” because they don’t know that is.

That’s why the first step to recovering from burnout is to realize the needs of your soul.

Of course, this is not the kind of task you can accomplish overnight. It requires serious inner work. It requires you to look within and examine how you’ve been living so far.

Then, you may ask:

Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life?

It’s not an easy question to answer. But, curiously, burnout helps with that. When you hit a wall and crash, it makes you realize what you certainly don’t want.

This is how you reverse your course. By eliminating what you don’t want, you move closer to meeting your soul’s needs. And that doesn’t just help your burnout recovery — it also teaches you how to live a meaningful life.

At Big Self School, we believe that outer impact starts with inner growth. To get advice and inspiration for living from the inside out, follow our Medium publication. If you want to receive our best articles to your inbox, sign up for our newsletter here.

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