How to Bounce Back After Burning Out

Posted by Andrea Ayres

Summer 2013, Gaslight Coffee Roasters, Chicago, Illinois:

I’m sitting staring at a computer screen, again. I’m exhausted, again. I feel like absolute shit incarnate.

I just spent the last year listening to these kinds of questions:

“How’s that whole writing thing coming along?”

“Have you thought about part-time work?”

“Don’t you have student loans to pay though?”

I ponder responding to those questions with the kind of answers I believe they deserve, but then I realize that I have to actually maintain relationships with those people.

It’s been weeks since I’ve been able to write or do anything that pertains to my life ambitions. What am I supposed to do with that? How do you pick yourself up from the doldrums when you have nowhere to go? There’s no foothold, nothing to firmly place your hand upon to hoist yourself up again.

How does one recover from burnout?

How do you start all over again?


What it means to burnout

There’s no clear cut definition of what burnout is but the term first appeared in the 1970s from the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Freudgenberger and his colleague Gail North identified 12 stages that lead up to burnout:

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These twelve stages don’t necessarily have to happen in order. Some people experience them all, others only experience some of them.

The physiological symptoms of burnout are caused by our fight or flight response. Whether we like it or not, this response can be triggered by common work stressors (like trying to meet deadlines or finish projects).

  • Adrenal gland secretes cortisol hormone
  • Heartbeat speeds up
  • Blood pressure rises

Burnout occurs when the demands and stress placed on us exceed our physical and mental abilities to deal with them. We cheat ourselves out of the rest we need because we assume we can push past our breaking points. The bad news is, this is happening more frequently.

Forbes reports that since the economic downturn, many employers have cut resources—though you probably didn’t need anyone to tell you that. The reduction of resources, and stagnant pay, has coincided with an increase in tasks and responsibilities. Employees feel an intense obligation to never say no.

Prior to my burnout, I said yes to everything. There was nothing I couldn’t do, nothing I wouldn’t do for my job. If I’m being honest with myself, what it all came down to was me not wanting to give anyone else the opportunity to say yes.

The point of no return

By the time I was willing to admit to myself that I was burnt out, it was too late. I had withdrawn socially and stopped being able to sleep. I found myself crying during the middle of the day for no good reason at all. I just wanted to do better, to work as hard as I thought everyone else around me was working. It was easier for me to tell myself to work harder than it was for me to face the truth– that I needed a break.

Everyone needs a break from time-to-time. According to Scientific American, exposure to constant stress releases the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol within the body. These hormones block your ability to properly process information—among a host of other health issues they cause.

When I say break, I’m not talking about a fifteen minute stroll around the block. I’m talking about some consecutive days off. The body takes a while to disconnect from the stress. That can take anywhere from a few days to a full week. Your physical and mental resources need time to regenerate. You didn’t lose them overnight, so you can’t expect to gain them back overnight either.

Here are just some of the health benefits to taking some time off:

  • Breaks you out of the cycle of stress
  • Improves relationships
  • Able to gain new perspectives
  • Helps your heart and resets your mind

For a variety of reasons, many of us refuse to (or can’t) use our vacation time. So how do you cope with burnout when you can’t stop working?

Getting real

This is the part that most of us fail miserably at. We don’t check-in with ourselves enough because we think we are too busy or too powerless to fix anything. Neither of those assumptions are true.

Take inventory

Write down everything in your life causing you stress and be honest. Next to each stressor, write down a way you can reduce that stress. Because we do such a good job of telling ourselves to ignore stress, writing this stuff down is usually our first chance to really let our brain begin to process. Here’s an example from my journal, pardon my handwriting:

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It also helps you to recognize themes and common stressors. Locating the main source is the first step in finding out healthy ways to cope and manage your stress.

Ask for help

Learning how to ask for help isn’t easy, especially because most of us were never taught how to do it. Asking for help does not mean you are not capable, it does not mean you are stupid, and it doesn’t make you any less valuable.

Here’s what you can do:

  • be direct and honest about what you need and why
  • think about who is best equipped to assist you (friend, family, doctor, on-line anonymous forum?)
  • reciprocate the help in the future when you are in a better position to do so

Our fear of rejection often hinders our willingness to ask for help but studies show that you don’t actually need to fear this. People reject us far less often than we think they will. Not only that, but people actually like to help. They want to feel needed, it even makes them feel good about themselves. Everyone wins.

Take it all off your plate

By the time we have reached burnout stage you usually find you have no choice but to start over again. Some quit their job, take a leave of absence, or say no to any new work projects until they have recuperated. I can’t tell you what the right choice is for you, but I can give you some advice on how to minimize your stress levels as much as possible:

  • Delegate as much as you can whenever you can. If you are anything like me, you might hoard work like a squirrel hoards nuts because you think it makes you look better than other people. It doesn’t. If you have a team at work, farm out some of the less critical tasks to others.
  • Say no and be firm about it. This prevents you from over extending yourself further. You might find that you’ve been saying yes reflexively without truly considering how it impacts you. Make you understand the consequences of saying yes and what is being asked of you.
  • Get more sleep. Six hours of sleep isn’t going to cut it, you really need to aim for at least eight in order to give your body and mind the time it needs to rejuvenate.
  • Find time for yourself. Again, there’s no room for debate on this one. You need to carve time into your day for yourself. Exercise,read, practice active relaxation.

Once you have followed those steps, try and reintegrate work back into your life SLOWLY. Constantly reevaluate the kind of work you are doing and if it is aligned with your goals.


There’s this nagging voice in the back of my head that constantly tells me, “Still, it could be worse.”

I feel like a lot of us hear this voice.

You think of all the people in your life who work harder than you with fewer breaks. You tell yourself, ‘Hey if they can do it, I can do it.’ But there will be times when you simply can’t and that is okay.

One of the most persistent complaints of burnout is the feeling that you have lost yourself. If you’ve experienced burnout in the past, or just don’t ever want to experience it, you have to reinvest in yourself. Find a way to reconnect to yourself and your passions every day.