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Shivani Gopal

Shivani Gopal

December 08, 2019
| Career

The importance of guarding yourself against burnout

Business owners, entrepreneurs and those juggling too many things have one thing in common. They frequently come into contact with burnout. Burnout is closely related with feelings of stress and overwhelm. It happens when we have too much to do, and there is a lot on the line for us to get our tasks done. It also happens to high achievers who are hungry, passionate, have something to prove, and don’t know when to listen to their body and take a break.

Being in a state of stress for long periods of time takes its toll on our body and emotions. This leads to burnout.

Juggling an intense career and healthy social life can cause us to burn out faster than we expect. It’s important for people in all walks of life to identify the signs of burnout and act swiftly to alleviate them. Otherwise, long-term exposure to burnout can lead to severe mental and physical health problems.

Ongoing stress wears you out

Stress is a helpful biological signal, but ongoing and constant stress is very dangerous. When we feel stressed, it’s usually a sign that we need to do or understand something that will help us move out of that situation.

Stress can provide the necessary motivation to help us take action. Humans are very averse to pain. So, stress is the brain’s way of providing a little discomfort so that we can take action and move away from the thing causing us to feel stressed. However, when we experience long periods of ongoing stress, something is wrong and we need to identify the cause so we can guard ourselves against it.

In their paper: Evolutionary Origins and Functions of the Stress Response, Randolf Nesse and Elizabeth Young state that the body’s response to stress includes:

“increased arousal, blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and physical activity…. the nervous system inhibits muscular activity, stores energy, and shunts blood to digestion and bodily repair.”

Being in a state of stress for long periods of time takes its toll on our body and emotions. This leads to burnout.

When you are in a state of burnout, you’ll notice that you feel:

  • Annoyed for no apparent reason

  • Anxious

  • Small things getting on your nerves

  • Misanthropic

  • You may also face physiological issues, such as:

  • Muscle pain and fatigue

  • Fluctuations in eating habits

  • Trouble getting to sleep

  • Increased heart rate

  • Headaches

  • Inability to focus

  • Losing your drive or motivation

  • Exhaustion

You can do anything, but you can’t do everything

Often, it’s high achievers that face burnout because they take on more than they can handle and are constantly trying to prove themselves. High achievers are usually passionate about their work and tend to ignore their body’s critical signs that they need to take a break.

The thing about burnout is that it doesn’t just happen suddenly. It’s a typical case of the ignoring the signs and letting things build up over time.

Self-awareness: reading the signs of burnout

We can successfully combat burnout if we start listening to our body, emotions and those close to us. Psychology Today lists signs of cynicism and detachment that can help to trigger alarm bells in our mind. These include social detachment, lack of enjoyment, pessimism and isolation. As soon as someone pulls us up on one of these, or we notice them creeping up ourselves, we should take it seriously.

Combating burnout with balance

Take stock of 4 key areas in your life:

1. How much physical activity are you engaging in?

2. How much intellectual stimulation are you getting?

3. How much ‘downtime’ do you have, aka: time to yourself to do nothing

4. How much social interaction are you getting?

We all aspire to have a meaningful life. When we delve too much into one area, the others suffer and our satisfaction is held hostage to how well we are doing in a small area of life.

We tend to act out the sunk cost fallacy, where we believe that the amount of time and resources we’ve spent toward a goal must mean something, so we continue on a path that could be self-destructive. We have this constant urge to find meaning, and more often than not, we delude ourselves that there is meaning in randomness.

Consider this: you’re a thrifty and fairly healthy person, aka: you’re smart with money and haven’t had any major health scares. All your friends and family know that you are the best person to get a bargain. Say that you also have a history of heart disease in your family; your great-grandfather had a heart attack and your father also had one. When you talk to your life insurance agent, you decide not to take the additional policy that covers you for heart attacks because you want to save the money. After all, you are a thrifty and seemingly healthy individual. This is known as the Consistency Principle.

We construct our identity around verbal, physical and social interactions. This means that if we say that we are ‘thrifty’ in front of our peers, and we believe that we are thrifty, we will take actions that are consistent with that declaration, even if they are potentially harmful to us and those we love. Scary, right?

Why don’t we all just take a break?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan is a homage to the human tendency to try and find meaning in random events.

“Metaphors and stories are far more potent (alas) than ideas; they are also easier to remember and more fun to read”

The point is that we don’t listen to our bodies and end up burning ourselves out because we have a natural bias that tells us that we should “push through.” We tell ourselves that the “grass is greener on the other side.” However, the blind optimism that fuels us is also a co-conspirator with stress-related maladies, such as:

  • Heart disease

  • Anxiety

  • Accelerated ageing

  • Depression

  • Obesity, and more.

The point is: if you’re striving to be successful, you pride yourself on doing what it takes to reach your goals, your friends and family know you as a hard worker — you are more likely to make decisions that consistent with that narrative. If you’re not careful, you’ll continue to burn yourself out and tell yourself “that it’s all for a reason” and craft a meaningful story around your situation that will enable you to keep burning yourself out!

Be vigilant and listen to the signs. You can’t do great work when you’re burnt out — you can’t gain any fulfilment from your work when you are burnt out — you are not yourself when you’re burnt out.

Finally; and most importantly, It’s not worth putting your health on the line for it.

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