Coping With Burnout: Create a Mental Health Toolkit for Times of Stress

Last Update: October 9, 2023

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and generally burnt out lately, you’re not alone.

It would be nearly impossible to not feel burnt out by some area of your life after the past year: a global pandemic, a sudden switch to remote learning or working (or some combination of the two), financial uncertainty, perhaps an overcrowded house or a year of newfound loneliness. Even the thought of returning to your pre-pandemic routine—something many people looked forward to in the midst of quarantine—may start to feel like too much. 

If one positive emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that many people have started prioritizing their mental health. The truth is, stress is always present (even when we’re not in the midst of a global health crisis), and the tools for managing it should always be part of your mental health toolkit. With burnout on the rise, here are some ways to deal with it—no matter the source.

What is burnout?

Burnout isn’t an official medical term, but rather a word used to describe a feeling of being overwhelmed, exhausted, and unable to deal with one or many areas of your life. Specifically, burnout refers to a prolonged or ongoing stressor, such as work or a family situation. The term “burnout” was first introduced by the ​​American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s; while Freudenberger used it to describe feelings shared by nurses, doctors, and those in similar caregiver professions, anyone can experience feelings of burnout. 

Burnout most commonly describes feelings of stress or exhaustion from work-related responsibilities, but it can also stem from a particularly overwhelming life change, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to one study conducted in April 2021, over 52% of Americans are experiencing burnout, up more than 10% since before the pandemic began. More than two-thirds of those surveyed said that their feelings of burnout became worse over the course of the pandemic, and 53% of those who now work from home reported working longer hours than they did in the office. 

Note: While those suffering from burnout can experience many of the same symptoms as depression, the two are not interchangeable, and it’s always best to seek professional help to get an official diagnosis. 

What are the signs of burnout?

Burnout shows up in many different (and sometimes surprising) ways, both mentally and physically. Here’s what to look for: 

  • Regularly feeling exhausted and like you don’t have the energy to cope with certain parts of your life
  • Gastrointestinal issues, such as stomach aches or digestion problems 
  • Negative mindset, particularly toward the part of your life that is making you feel burnt out
  • Antisocial tendencies or alienation from friends, family, and coworkers 
  • Finding everyday tasks frustrating or impossible

How to cope with burnout

Unfortunately, there is no instant cure for burnout, but there are ways to identify burnout and work to lessen its symptoms. Here are some healthy habits to help keep your mind and body well when dealing with feelings of burnout. 

Get enough rest.

While burnout is about more than just feeling tired, exhaustion is certainly a symptom. You may feel physically or mentally exhausted and require more sleep when you’re burnt out; insomnia is a very common symptom of burnout, as well. 

If one or both of these is true for you, try creating a strict bedtime and establishing a nighttime routine to help yourself wind down and fall into a restful sleep. Prioritizing rest may also look like simply taking a day to do nothing. If you give yourself the space away from work and responsibilities to simply watch a movie or read a book, you may feel rejuvenated and better able to handle your responsibilities.

Struggling with sleep? These natural sleep aids may help: 

Eat nutrient-dense foods. 

Your mind and body are inextricably linked, so while the foods you eat won’t cure your burnout, keeping your body nourished and functioning well will help you feel stronger and better able to handle stress. Many people may skip meals when they’re feeling stressed; instead, prioritize taking a break to enjoy a well-balanced meal when you’re feeling hungry, and remind yourself that there’s nothing that is so important that you don’t deserve a lunch break.

Looking for easy, healthy snacks for your busiest days? Try these brain-boosting options: 

Practice mindfulness. 

“Having a mindfulness practice is a wonderful way to prevent or recover from burnout,” says Aisha Shabazz, LCSW, a career strategist who frequently offers support in creating a work-life balance. “Burnout causes the mind and body to enter survival mode; when chaos is swirling all around us, without a mindfulness practice, the present moment can become intolerable.”

Meditation and other acts of mindfulness may help decrease these feelings of burnout by quieting the mind enough to lower feelings of distress and lessen the fight-or-flight response, as well as lowering blood pressure and decreasing inflammation in the body. 

“If we establish and maintain a mindfulness practice, we’re able to refocus our attention on what we can control—our thoughts, body, and breath—and remove the distractions of what we cannot control, such as the future,” Shabazz explains.

New to meditation? Here are some resources to help you get started: 

Create healthy boundaries. 

Instead of simply finding ways to continue on with things that are causing you to burn out, sometimes what you  need is to set boundaries with people or situations. 

“Burnout is our mind and body signaling to us that our needs have gone unmet for way too long,” says Shabazz. “The Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) has two lovely resources that I use with my clients and patients, called the Feelings Inventory and the Needs Inventory. According to the CNVC, when we’re experiencing unpleasant feelings, we usually have an unmet need. Once you figure out which needs align with which unpleasant feelings, the next step is to determine how to communicate your needs, so that you can venture towards having your needs met—either by you or someone else.”

If you work from home, for example, you might create boundaries at work by shutting your laptop and turning off your notifications after the work day is complete. In your personal relationships, you might set boundaries by telling your family, partner, or friends that you need a few hours of uninterrupted time to recharge. 

Talk it out. 

If you’re still struggling to find ways to set boundaries, Shabazz recommends working with a licensed therapist. Talk therapy is a particularly healthy way to take care of your mental health, particularly during times of stress or burnout. “If you’re uncertain how to go about communicating your needs, a therapist is a great supportive resource in not only helping you to identify your needs, but also practicing how to communicate them.”

Simply expressing your feelings to a trusted friend, coworker, or family member is also a beneficial way to start facing your feelings of burnout. In some cases, the person may be able to help lessen your responsibilities; in other cases, they may help simply by listening. 

Do something you love. 

Since burnout can make you feel like you’re completely consumed by thoughts about a certain situation, doing something you love—for no reason other than the joy of it—is a healthy, welcome distraction. Pick up a new hobby, work on an art project, play a sport, or practice a musical instrument to help diminish stress and challenge your mind. Getting outdoors can also be therapeutic; studies show that spending time in nature reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and lessens production of stress hormones. 

It’s not selfish to care for yourself as much as you care for others, whether that means cooking a healthy meal, booking a doctor’s appointment, or taking a relaxing bath. Shabazz encourages her clients to practice a well-rounded balance of self-care and other strategies. “Once your boundaries are in place and you’ve established ways to communicate your needs, creating and maintaining a self-care routine becomes more effortless,” she says.

If you’re feeling the effects of burnout, know that they’re not forever, and that there are lots of little things you can do to start feeling better. “Give yourself time and space to be creative, self-compassionate, and calm,” Shabazz adds. “Remember that a self-care routine is not one-size-fits-all, so remain open to trying new things until you find something that suits you and your lifestyle.”

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before changing your diet or healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.

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