6 Tips to Overcome Lockdown Burnout
Burnout is on the rise but there are things you can do now to increase resilience and help you bounce back
Heidi Hauer, coach and author, says it’s time to rethink and rebalance
We have coaches available to support you – find yours here
The other day, a coaching client told me her friend invited her to a 40th birthday party in July. “I scrolled forward in my online diary, and glimpsed the week she’d mentioned,” she told me. “The evening was blank. I felt my heart sink a bit but heard myself telling her I’d be glad to make it. I feel exhausted just thinking about meeting others again in person. I used to be very sociable but now I’d rather stay at home or just meet people I know very well.” she said.
I told her there was nothing surprising about her heart-sink moment. Because of the pandemic, she has been working longer hours from her own cocoon at home. Many of my coaching clients have described feelings like Anna’s about the return to socialising and in-person meetings. As we tentatively venture back into the world post-lockdown, our social diaries filling up again, a recalibration is needed.
What is pandemic burnout?
Research shows that huge numbers of people are finding themselves more mentally fragile than they felt pre-pandemic. For a wide variety of reasons, many of us are suffering from “pandemic burnout,” with a range of contributing causes. According to the authors of a 2020 study on the phenomenon (Queen and Harding, 2020): “Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Burnout in the course of dealing with a pandemic can make you feel emotionally drained and unable to function …. [causing] you to feel helpless, hopeless, and resentful.”
For some, the blurred work/life boundary has led to an increase in hours. For others, the pressures of homeschooling, health anxiety or financial pressure has contributed to increased stress and exhaustion. Aside from the anecdotal evidence (apparent when I talk to clients and friends) statistics demonstrate that pandemic burnout is widespread. In the UK, Ipsos Mori research in February 2021 found that 60% said they were finding it hard to stay positive, an 8-point increase compared with responses gathered before pandemic. A study last summer by Mental Health America found that 75% of US workers had experienced burnout, with 40% citing symptoms as a direct result of the pandemic.
With many now in an established routine of increased hours and ‘always on’ expectations, the added pressure of recovering our social selves with diaries filled with IRL meet ups could tip us over the edge, unless we think carefully about self-care.
Recovering from burnout
Reasons for burnout are always multi-faceted. It’s never one single work project that pushes you over the edge. Instead, burnout happens when you are off-balance in multiple areas in your life over a long period of time. The pandemic has created pressures that have made this an experience for many. Successive lockdowns and long-term uncertainty have unsettled us in new ways.
Many of us, if not totally burnt out, are in a state that psychologist Adam Grant (borrowing a word from sociologist Corey Keyes) terms ‘languishing.’ In a recent article on the psychological impact of lockdown, Grant calls languishing the ‘neglected middle child of mental health’ and describes it as the absence of wellbeing. When we’re in this grey zone between surviving and thriving, we are far more vulnerable to developing depression and anxiety disorders down the line.
Recovering from burnout (or avoiding it if you’re languishing on the edge), and readjusting to a more balanced way of living relies on rethinking your daily routine, reframing stress and changing your mindset. Here’s what to do.
1) Be your own lighthouse
I have a metaphor to help clients visualise resilience: a lighthouse. Whatever the sea around it is doing, the lighthouse is secure on its island, its light is shining bright. Now, more than ever, we all have to become our own lighthouse. The time where we can find an anchor in the outside world is over. The pandemic has highlighted the fickle nature of external circumstances: uncertainty is everywhere. We need to turn inward for stability.
In my book, The Queendom Within, I recommend creating a morning micro-ritual (e.g.: a short walk around the park, a mindful breakfast, a five minute meditation), to connect you with yourself and create a state of inner serenity. This inner calm will grow with time and help you weather whatever the day might throw at you. By cultivating it, you ensure you begin every morning from a place of peace.
2) Pocket a touchstone
I’m a huge believer in gratitude practice. I heartily recommend gratitude journaling in my coaching work and have seen the benefits of journaling personally and for my clients. Taking note of positive things that happen, no matter how small-scale, makes us better at noticing them in future. As a result, we become more optimistic: research shows that those who experience gratitude regularly tend to be happier.
In addition to journaling, it can help to have a portable ‘trigger’ with you to help you take note of or ‘anchor’ all the things you feel grateful for. A small pebble in your pocket is ideal. Get used to giving yourself a small ‘gratitude pause’ when you notice an uplifting experience and touch the pebble, saying “Thank You”. When you make this a habit, it will be easier to recall the positive experiences later.
3) Embrace the chaos, don’t dream of perfection
The mindset that says ‘I’ll be happy when…” is your enemy. It underlies perfectionism, a subject that I’m a bona fide bought-the-T-shirt expert on! If you wait for the outside world and your external circumstances to align with your vision of a dream future, chances are you’ll be waiting forever to feel content.
Instead, turn your attention inward, focusing on creating a warm, self-nurturing feeling on the inside that you can return to when life throws you off course. Being alive by definition means handling challenges. Pain-free easy-peasy life doesn’t exist. Rather than waiting for the ideal future to manifest, think about what you can change about the way you react to and make life more enjoyable now. Ask yourself: how can I respond to experiences in my life in a gentler, kinder, more centred way?
4) Eat for calm and happiness
I never tire of shouting about the emotional and mental benefits of eating well. What, how and when we eat massively influences the way we feel and function. Brain fog, one of the burnout symptoms that seems most ubiquitous at the moment, can be reduced by cutting back on sugar, alcohol and gluten. And upping your water intake. Cognitive function is seriously compromised when we are dehydrated.
Eating a wide range of fresh fruit and vegetables and avoiding processed food has been shown to boost mood and decrease stress. Partly, this is explained by the impact our diet has on the microbiome in our gut, as research has identified a link between mental health, cognitive function and the bacteria in our intestine. Much of the serotonin in our body is produced by the gut, and our gut walls are lined with neurons, after all. In other words, it’s no surprise that mentally, as well as physically, we are what we eat. I personally practice intuitive eating because it’s a wonderful way to holistically nurture one’s body.
5) Move more to feel like a player
Exercise has been proven to have as much of a positive impact on symptoms of moderate depression and anxiety as traditional medication. And when you love the exercise you engage in, the mental benefits are even greater.
Rather than focusing on fitness and physical appearance, make a conscious effort to commit to exercise because it makes you feel great, and fills you with energy and motivation. In her fascinating blog ‘When Meditation Fails’, neuroscientist Dr Sarah McKay writes: “When you exercise you’re taking action. You’re getting out of your mind into your body. And by moving your body you’re reminding your brain that you retain agency. Your brain evolved to move your body through the world, so moving your body reminds your brain you’re not helpless — you can still act independently and make choices.”
6) Reframe your attitude towards stress
What is worse for you than stress itself is the fear that it might harm you. Human beings are inherently resilient and adaptable, and we can often do more than we think we can. I love writer and activist Glennon Doyle’s mantra “We can do hard things”. It’s a helpful reminder that bravery is more of a practice than a personality trait. Take opportunities to show courage, and watch yourself grow into a more self-determined, wiser version of yourself.
If the thought of pushing yourself outside your comfort zone sends your cortisol spiking, watch psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s inspiring Ted Talk on how to make stress your friend. To paraphrase her: it’s all about reframing it, because physiologically, stress sets off the same cascade of neuro-chemicals as excitement.
Heidi Hauer is a coach and the author of The Queendom Within