Thursday, May 5, 2011

Preventing Burnout

No, not the burnouts that the NASCAR drivers do after they win a race, those are great, but the burnout that people experience when the typical life demands associated with work, family/kids, and general life responsibilities drain their physical and emotional energy and leave them feeling chronically depleted and without sufficient reserves of energy to continue to manage everything. It’s fairly common for me to talk to people who present as depressed, stressed, or chronically irritable, only to have it become clear that these mood symptoms are secondary to the person experiencing varying degrees of burnout from all of their life demands.

Many people I talk to feel that their tanks of physical and emotional energy are frequently well below half-full and even accept that this is about as good as it is going to get, given all of their life demands that drain from their tank. And realistically, mostly full tanks may not be likely, or even necessary for good health and bright moods; but burnout arises when a person has been running nearer to empty or even on fumes for extended periods of time.  I‘ve seen people keep that up for years or decades, but over time, continuing to push on a near empty tank results in significantly unhealthy emotional and physical symptoms.

The characteristic symptoms of burnout are 1) feeling physically worn out most of the time; 2) feeling emotionally drained, which can present as chronic irritability, moodiness, or dysphoria; 3) experiencing more frequent illnesses secondary to a lowered immune system; 4) withdrawing somewhat from interpersonal relationships and getting less enjoyment from them; 5) finding it harder to get into work and becoming less efficient and motivated while at work; and 6) feeling increasingly pessimistic and finding it harder to get excited about life.

It can be incredibly challenging once burnout has set in to refill the tanks and to feel recharged in any lasting sense, so the key is to notice early on when burnout is occurring and to do something about it immediately. The strategies for doing this could comprise a full book and would include the obvious things such as taking care of yourself by getting enough rest, eating well, and exercising. I‘ve also covered the cognitive strategies for mood management, so in this article, I wanted to discuss a specific behavioral strategy that is often neglected but is incredibly helpful at keeping the tanks sufficiently above empty.

John Gray, in Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus, discussed the idea of the necessity of cave time for men and how men need that in relationships. My spin on cave time, however, is that men and women both need cave time from the standpoint of rejuvenating and refilling the tanks of physical and emotional energy. Cave time is really anything that a person can do, that for them, recharges the system and prevents the downward spiral of running on fumes and hitting burnout.

Almost anything could work as cave time! You can even invite other people into your cave with you if that helps to fill up the tank, but during cave time, make it be exactly what you need. Common caves for people are watching television shows, reading, playing on the computer, doing yard work, engaging in hobbies, cooking, working on a project, shopping, and exercising. You probably noticed that a couple of those caves had the word “work” attached to it, but it really isn’t work if you feel rejuvenated and restored from it. A colleague of mine used to spend hours in his garden and with his rose bushes and talked about how doing that was better for him than bottles of stress medications and blood pressure pills.

One of the keys is to make this cave time part of the daily routine, even if it is fairly short in duration. How many times have you gone on vacation or escaped from all the life requirements that take energy, maybe for a weekend…..maybe even an entire week…..and then returned to “real life” (as I often hear people say) only to find the tank of energy almost empty again in a day or two! The more helpful strategy is to find something that you can do every day so that you can constantly refill the tanks and keep them from getting too low.

Conceptually cave time is a fairly simple and obvious behavioral strategy, but people have great difficulty doing this for two primary reasons. I often hear people say that they feel too guilty to take time for themselves when they know others in their lives have needs that will go unmet during that time. People also often can’t get themselves to take time to rejuvenate because they’re all too aware of the mental list of the next 10 things that need to be done, and that won’t get done, if they take cave time.

But life is an ultra marathon, not a wind sprint! Someone may get a good start initially by redlining their engine constantly and running on fumes without refilling, but if they crash and burn down the road with the physical and emotional problems associated with burnout, that great start sure wasn’t worth it. I know it’s difficult to overcome the guilt of taking time for oneself and difficult to let things sit for later while taking some rejuvenation time, but burnout can be prevented this way; and in reality, by taking those regular breaks, you have much more to give in the long run because there is energy in the tank to put toward the kids, to stay productive and energized at work, or to truly enjoy and take pleasure in some of the good things going on in your life.

And again, I want to stress the importance of doing this now and doing it regularly. I talk to so many people who have hit a point where they have been running on fumes for years or decades, and they have an incredibly difficult time bouncing back from this and ever getting their tanks to fill back up. So take your cave time now, talk yourself through the guilt you may have about doing it, don’t let the discomfort of letting other life demands sit for a bit stop you from taking it, and ultimately, prevent burnout from occurring!

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