Are You Burned Out?

How can you tell if you’re starting to burn out, a review of the 5 stages of burnout

Last year around this time, Panchamaya Yoga Therapy Clinic  ran a class that was titled Anxiety, Depression and Burnout. While Burnout is often referred to in the workplace setting, we found that many people were experiencing symptoms of burnout from the pressure of the pandemic in their personal lives. This included an increase in pressure around their responsibilities to family members, often without the support of the external relationships or the diversions of pre-COVID life.  People often talk about burnout as a singular event. You work too hard for too long, you get burned out, and then you recover. But burnout is actually much more than that. It’s a process that happens over time and has five main stages:

Physical exhaustion

Physical exhaustion is a common symptom of burnout. As you get more and more stressed, your body will start to feel the effects of all that stress—it’s what happens in your body when you’re overwhelmed. Physical exhaustion can include headaches, nausea, muscle pain and even chest pains. If you have these symptoms for an extended period of time (more than 3 months), it’s time to seek some help from a doctor or health professional.

Physical exhaustion can also cause other health problems:

  • Sleep deprivation can lead to poor concentration throughout the day and increased irritability with coworkers, family  or friends
  • Low energy levels can lead to decreased effectiveness at work due to missed deadlines or late projects
  • Lack of exercise often leads to weight gain which then leads back down the path towards another round of self-criticism

Yoga Therapy can help improve a feeling of physical energy with specific physical postures (asana), as well as particular breathing exercises, or pranayama. A secondary benefit to doing this work is that sleep quality often improves when doing these practices, which helps replenish energy reserves.

Emotional exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion is a feeling of being overwhelmed. You may feel like you’re doing the best work in the world, but your efforts are simply not enough to overcome the stressors in your life. If left unchecked, emotional exhaustion can cause depression and anxiety as well as other mental health issues.

Burnout is often caused by high stress levels in your life — whether from work or home. It also happens when you don’t have adequate support from coworkers or family members who understand what you’re going through (which may be harder for some people than others).

 There is surely much to process when the emotions are disordered, and many find help through conventional western methods such as talk therapy.  In Yoga Therapy there is an element that addresses our sense of connection called the anandamaya kosha- it’s also referred to as our bliss body. Often when we feel depressed or anxious or lonely, we can gain contentment by aligning with universal feelings of love, peace and joy that transcend our fleeting emotional states. The vehicle for this work is often meditation.

Mental exhaustion

Mental exhaustion can be defined as a state of feeling exhausted, mentally drained, and bored with your work. You feel like you have run out of ideas or energy to tackle the tasks at hand. Your brain is tired and you can’t concentrate on anything for very long.

You may feel overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done during the day and it feels like there isn’t enough time in a day for all of it. You might find yourself thinking about how inefficient your work is compared to others’ around you; maybe you’ll start comparing yourself negatively with coworkers or colleagues who seem more competent than yourself. You also may start questioning whether or not what you are doing matters at all!

Chanting is a tool in Yoga Therapy whose applications may surprise you! If this is a practice you connect with, you might experience increased energy, a sense of connectedness and optimism.

Cognitive exhaustion

Cognitive exhaustion is a feeling of being overwhelmed, worn down or tired. You may feel like you can’t think clearly and have difficulty focusing on even simple tasks.

This can lead to poor decision making and memory issues as well. If left unchecked, cognitive exhaustion can become an increasingly difficult problem to manage as time progresses into burnout. When we experience decision fatigue, doing a physical practice or breathing techniques can quickly help restore clarity and perspective. 

Behavioral exhaustion

This is the stage at which you’re no longer able to focus on work. You may find yourself unable to concentrate on tasks, or perhaps you’re just not motivated enough to do them. Perhaps, at this point in burnout, you’re tired of dealing with the same issues over and over again—and it’s not just because they keep coming back; it’s because your energy levels have tanked so much that even if something new arises, you’re too exhausted to deal with it effectively.

This stage can be easily confused with depression. If someone is feeling sad all the time but then has an episode of extreme rage (which they’ve never experienced before), they might be experiencing behavioral exhaustion as well as depression…but only one diagnosis counts! If a medical professional diagnoses burnout after they rule out other mental illnesses first, then they will give advice appropriate for behavioral exhaustion rather than depression. In Yoga Therapy, the things that can make big changes in our lives may seem like small efforts, but when we do something with intention every day, the positive impact is compounded. Developing a daily yoga practice is a powerful contribution to developing new behavioral patterns. 

Burnout is a process that gets worse over time. It is not the same thing as being tired, and it isn’t a sudden event—it’s a gradual process. Burnout can happen to anyone, whether you’re an employee, an entrepreneur or simply a person trying to manage a busy life. Getting help that addresses all aspects of you: body, mind, breath, emotions, behavior, can get you on the path toward recovering from burnout. We are not just our jobs, our responsibilities, or our roles in our family systems. We are complex individuals seeking experiences that are both rewarding and nourishing.