Overworked, stressed, unmotivated? There are telltale signs you’re heading for a burn out. But there are also effective ways to identify them, deal with them and get back on track.
According to Dr Samantha Clarke, a clinical psychologist and personal trainer, we all experience some form of stress in our everyday lives. “It’s when this stress is not properly addressed and left to exacerbate that it leads to more complex mental and physical exhaustion, also known as burn out,” she explains. Here, Samantha explains the burn out signs and the solutions…
Sign #1 You feel exhausted
This can either be physical exhaustion, mental exhaustion or both. “Mental exhaustion can present as difficulties thinking something through, unable to see the consequences of a choice, lack of clarity, difficulties making decisions, worry and ruminations,” explains Samantha.
“Physical exhaustion is often the end result of an overloaded autonomic nervous system. When the body is under continual stress and there hasn’t been enough downtime to allow the body to rest and reset, the long term result of this prolonged stress can be extreme exhaustion and adrenal fatigue. Early signs can be feelings of irritability, tense muscles and restlessness. Often people notice sensations of anxiety when they are in a typically calm or relaxing situation. For example, they may be lying in bed and start to feel a rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, or even mental experiences worrying about situations at work, if work is the source of burn out. Others may experience physical stress as a more depressive reaction in the body, feeling tired, wanting to sleep more, weakness and muscle fatigue.”
The solution: Create movement in your day
“It’s part of our natural make-up to move, but nowadays we spend long periods sitting in artificial environments with florescent lights,” explains Samantha. “Take time to centre yourself and reconnect with your body and mind. Engage in movement, whether it’s your daily run, a yoga class or a walk on your lunch break. Stress leads to tension in the muscles, which then further exacerbates stress and tension. Movement can help you build body awareness and identify when you’re storing tension in muscles, and learn to let it go. Movement also helps to alleviate stress so we can re-set and come back to our work task with a clear mind and be more productive.”
Samantha says it’s also essential to learn skills to help the mind let go of stress. “Often, even when we are out of the actual stressful experience, the nature of our human mind means that we can bring the feared situation into the present. Our bodies react to this mental stress in a very similar way to an actual feared situation. Therefore, even if we physically remove ourselves from the stressful situation we need to learn how to assist the mind in doing this also. Skills in mindfulness that assist a person in changing the way they relate to these mental events can help reduce stress.”
“I encourage people to combine movement and meditation as this can be a wonderful way to give the body what it needs to let go of stress physically and mentally. Try yoga, chi gong, and tai chi. These practices have been formally combined but once someone learns the principles for mindfulness and body connection, they can take this skill into any activity of moment they choose. For instance, one of my favourite movement practices is to swim or run.”
Sign #2 You lack enthusiasm, motivation and feel ineffective
Can’t drag yourself out of bed each morning? Feel hopeless? “A telltale sign of the start of burn out is a disconnection with your passion or motivation to do tasks you used to enjoy or deeply value,” explains Samantha.
“There are two main types of motivation – internal and external. Internal is when you do something for the pure love of it or because it is connected deeply to something that’s important to you. For example, comforting a crying child because you value being a parent who is there and present for your child’s pain. This is not a pleasant experience but it holds a very important personal meaning.”
“External motivation is driven by either gaining or fear of losing an external incentive. For example, ‘I am just doing this job because I am paid to do it’. Or when we do something to avoid an unpleasant emotion – ‘If I don’t do this task I will feel guilty or ashamed about it’. External motivators are often linked to very short term motivation – we get a task done but it’s often very hard to get the task completed. Each step of the way can feel like walking through treacle.”
“An early sign of burn out is when you have lost your ‘why’ in what you are doing. This can happen for a number of reasons but when this loss of value continues, it is experienced as a loss of enthusiasm and motivation in what we are doing. We can also start to feel resentful for ‘having’ to do things from this position, further increasing our distress and disconnection from our work and career.”
Solution: Keep your values in mind
“You will never have everything in balance,” explains Samantha. “But you can ensure that you are giving time and attention to other areas of your life that are important to you, such as your family, friends and hobbies.”
Samantha suggests blocking out some time in the week for these aspects of your life. “These focuses can be hugely restorative and help us come back to work fresh,” she says. “Often when we are starting to get burnt out or feel stressed at work, we become tunnel visioned and spend more and more time at the desk. This is often unproductive.”
“We can keep values in mind in a number of ways. Visual representation of what this means to us. For example, as a psychologist and personal trainer these careers facilitate my values around health and wellbeing of the overall population, learning and passion to know more. These larger values can be represented visually in the work space or at home. It can be with a mental process of really connecting with what is important to you about the role you are in, and how that helps you to live your values. Even if workplaces are restrictive in some ways we can still start to focus on how we can connect with our values whilst in that role. By connecting even small tasks with the larger value we can start to ensure that the ‘why’ is clear and more deeply connected within our role.”
“If we are not connected to our sense of purpose and meaning, work can start to become a cause of depression and unhappiness. What is it about your work that brings meaning for you? What are you passionate about and how can you reconnect with this? Re-skill if you need to take on more tasks in the areas you care about and, worse case, start to examine alternative work options if you are truly unhappy.”
Sign #3 You skip meals, sleep and all self-care because you’re too busy
“Often when people start to get stress or burnt out they start to reduce their self-care behaviours,” says Samantha. “Good quality meals are often the first ones to go along with exercise and sleep. We get more and more caught up in the mouse wheel of trying to manage the stress and forget to nurture and nourish ourselves.”
Solution: Don’t forget the basics
“When we are busy, stressed or down, we start to let the fundamentals go, such as what food we are putting in our bodies, sleep, meditation, and exercise. When we want to operate at our best we need to be sure to put in the right ingredients for optimal performance. Have healthy snacks prepared, don’t skip meals, and get eight hours sleep if possible. Unhook from technology at least an hour before bed to let the mind relax and assist with sleep.”
Sign #4 You feel ineffective
Taken you twice as long to do a simple task? Samantha says noticing that you’re slow or ineffective at completing your usual tasks is another possible sign of burn out. “Often we start to procrastinate more and start a new task before completing others,” she explains. “Multitasking is often seen as a desirable behaviour, yet research actually shows it leads to more ineffective behaviour. You may also notice tasks that used to be easy for you, like presenting in a meeting, are now linked to high levels of anxiety and impaired performance. Use these signs to address what might be at the core of these behaviours.”
Solution: Address barriers
Tackle it head on. “Often people fail to step back and actually examine the barriers or difficulties they are having at work and address these systematically,” explains Samantha. “Do you need support? Is there a better system that can be put in place to ease the load? How long has it been since you have had a holiday? When I see people who are burnt out they have lost this macro view of their work, which often happens with stress. They miss simple solutions like self-care and balance. It can be helpful to talk this out with someone – a friend, colleague or a counsellor/psychologist. Before thinking through the barriers and systems around work, ensure you have taken time to rest, nourish yourself and do mindfulness exercises to allow maximum benefit. I also encourage having regular check-ins on these issues and making a long term plan for longevity. For example, planning regular holidays, clarifying values regularly, setting career goals in line with values and reviewing these systematically. Ensure that they are clear and acting consistently with other areas of their lives.”
ABOUT: Dr Samantha Clarke (PhD) is a Clinical Psychologist and Personal Trainer. Samantha incorporates a holistic approach to healthcare, placing emphasis on helping each individual move towards a more fulfilling and meaningful life. Samantha has a wealth of experience assisting people in addressing lifestyle factors to enhance their overall sense of health and vitality. Her work has a strong foundation in providing Mindfulness-based interventions and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Her PhD is in the area of goal setting, enhancing motivation to promote wellbeing.
Samantha is the Director of a psychology practice on the Sunshine Coast. She also provides personal training and runs Mind Body Resilience Retreats for wellness industry professionals and individuals in Australia and overseas. These retreats assist health professionals and the general public in reconnecting with their sense of meaning, combating burnout and kick-starting their overall health.
The next wellness retreat Samantha is attending is in Noosa from August 29 to September 3.