May 11 2016

10 Ways to Treat Burnout (and How to Avoid It Altogether)

By Mark Sisson
60 Comments

10 Ways to Treat Burnout (and How to Avoid it Alltogether) FinalThis year it was all over the headlines that what we typically call “burnout” just might be depression. Beyond the vagueness such wording introduced (another way to push anti-depressants?), the actual research further affirms burnout as a genuine psychological and physical experience. The study confirmed that those who suffer from job “burnout” also experience the onset of key depression symptoms, something of little surprise to anyone who’s ever been through it. Yet, as an earlier study suggests, burnout is its own animal. Symptoms are largely linked to “atypical” depression, which behaves differently and can more readily suggest situational origins. It’s something I’ve been saying for years—certain elements of the modern (unmitigated) experience promotes neurosis more than we’d like to admit. Burnout is one common example.

Most people have experienced brief phases of it. Others have unfortunately found themselves in the long-term grip of it. Burnout is that bottomed out sensation of emotional and often bodily exhaustion. We feel wholly knocked down by the unrelenting demands or psychological disorientation of our circumstances. Eventually, we feel we just can’t get up again. The result can be a hollowed-out, hopeless, automaton feeling. Some people cry at random. Others shut down. We might still be moving through our duties at home or work, but it’s often with a numbness that hovers above a perpetual anxiety or emptiness.

Still, it’s important to understand that we’re not talking about “just” a psychological phenomenon here. Burnout, while it’s the long-term result of outer circumstances rather than inherent genetic workings, is still very much a physical malady. Primary symptoms include the aforementioned physical and mental exhaustion but also, commonly speaking, insomnia or sleep disturbances, slow mental processing, impaired memory, irritability, reduced concentration, impatience, cynicism, unexplained pain or headaches, and appetite changes. This is no figment of the imagination.

We mostly hear about burnout in terms of work, as in job burnout. That’s the case with the aforementioned studies (which followed teachers), but I’ve seen burnout in people who either don’t have standard jobs (e.g. parents who stay home with children) or who do have regular work but whose burnout is clearly rooted in other long-standing factors such as intensive parenting or other caregiving demands, acute health/fitness obsession, chronic marital conflict or family dysfunction. The primary issues in these cases are basically the same as those noted in job burnout: lack of life balance, dysfunctional dynamics, unclear or unreasonable expectations, inadequate social support, and perceived lack of control.

While the lives of Grok and his kin could certainly be described as hardscrabble and at times unpredictable, there wasn’t such a thing as chronic stress in the way we know it today. Acute crisis existed for sure, but conditions didn’t promote chronic tension. For one, no one worked as much as they do today. Leisure was and is a hallmark of hunter-gatherer life with at least contemporary tribes’ hunting and gathering demands only requiring 12-20 hours of effort each week.

Likewise, they lived within a close, egalitarian network of social support where all had a voice and everyone contributed to the band’s needs, including caregiving duties. Conflicts were minimal and addressed by the larger community. The system just didn’t put us in the same spot as our contemporary circumstances do.

So, how do we treat burnout once we find ourselves in this modern scourge? What can we do to recover both our emotional and physical vitality? And, even better, how can we avoid burnout altogether? The strategies, I’d argue, are largely the same if we can summon the motivation to follow through before we find ourselves hitting that bottom. Some attempt to address the physical manifestations of burnout, while others confront the core lifestyle issues that ignite and perpetuate it.

1. Minimize physical stress

First, let’s cover the basics. You know my stance on chronic cardio by now. If you’re suffering from burnout, this goes double.

Exercise is a productive stressor and in healthy forms and doses builds your resilience rather than reduces it. But when you tax your body with excessive cardiovascular demands, you’re likely exacerbating burnout related conditions that your body is probably already battling (like adrenal fatigue).

You can follow Primal Blueprint Fitness guidelines, but ease up on sprints if you’re currently treating burnout. Some people may even want to forgo sprints for a time if they’re experiencing early warning signs. Make sure you’re getting plenty—if not extra—recovery between workouts. And definitely take advantage of HRV technology to help you determine your workout schedule and intensity.

2. Sleep optimally

People suffering from burnout often have sleep issues. Either they’re shortchanging themselves on sleep, which then results in or contributes to burnout in the first place, or they attempt to sleep but have difficulty falling or staying asleep.

Because burnout can send hormonal balance off a cliff, it’s critical to move toward realigning with your natural circadian rhythm. To that end, you may benefit from short-term use of melatonin, but don’t ignore the basic lifestyle choices you can make to aid sleep, such as cutting out screen time two hours before bed (more if possible), sleeping in a completely dark and cool room, and going to bed by ten o’clock.

3. Eat primally and supplement wisely

This is no time to tax your insulin sensitivity or deepen nutritional deficiencies. Chronic stress depletes our bodies of key nutrients either through increased demand or reduced absorption.

A Primal way of eating is your best defense here, but there’s also no better time to take advantage of supplementation. Keep it simple by covering your bases with a comprehensive, high quality, optimally bioavailable blend.

Likewise, consider the anti-stress benefits of certain nutrients and adaptogenic herbs like magnesium, rhodiola rosea, and phosphatidyl serine. (And, yes, I happen to know a good anti-stress supplement that includes these and more.)

Finally, as tempting as they may be when you’re tired or overstressed, avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can further tax your adrenals and distort hormonal signaling.

4. Start treating your time and energy as currency

Now let’s pick up the bigger questions.

There are people who nickel and dime every aspect of their financial outlay but never apply the same principle to their more important resources: time and energy. I find it very interesting to observe how a society that puts financial frugality on such a moral pedestal gives virtually no thought or respect to the cautious application of these other resources. In fact, overworking is right up there next to frugality on the Puritan soapbox. That’s a recipe for misery if I’ve ever seen one.

Is your job leaving you emotionally or physically depleted by the end of every week? Are you bringing work home or going in on the weekends? Do you have a life outside of your job?

People have argued with me in these circumstances that they make a good living. Whether or not you believe this to be the case, it’s a telling exercise to figure your full work commitment. Don’t just count the number of hours you’re at work. Count the hours you’re doing work or thinking about work. Plus, add in the hours you commute and the hours you, in all honesty, need to recover from your job before you have enough physical energy and mental space to do something for yourself or your family. Forty hours per week is the tip of iceberg for most people in this situation. Oh, and be sure to refigure that hourly wage based on this new number. It suddenly might not look like you’re getting such a good deal. Either you need to change, or it needs to change in this scenario.

If it’s not so much your job that’s the issue, look at your overall energy and time expenditure. Seriously, map it out—circle graph or whatever works for you. Where do all of the 168 hours in your week go? What people, what causes, what jobs, what activities, what conversations, what chores?

Likewise, how many of the above actually give you energy? Here’s where we look at return on investment. Spending time with your partner or going out with friends might garner the least amount of your hours, but they may offer the most energy return. You feel good—great, in fact. Why would you not invest in what offers you more of what you need?

5. Be selfish

I said it in The Primal Connection, and I’ll say it again: we need to drop the “pack mule” mentality. I know countless people who can’t ever seem to say no to others and, in doing so, continually say no to themselves—to their health, to self-care, life balance, to sane living.

The simple truth is this. When we’re drained, we have nothing to give. We can continue to run on physical and emotional reserves for a while, but that’s an evolutionary resource meant for short-term crisis—not long-term expenditure. The costs of chronic stress will absolutely flatten us. We’ll be not only less effective but less ourselves over time.

Life is a marathon event, and too many people try to live with a sprint mentality. They want to say yes to every person, every opportunity. They think they can do one more thing—again and again and again. I can just imagine Grok over there shaking his head.

Caring for others—even kids—doesn’t mean giving everyone what they want all the time. It means offering love and/or help in a sustainable and healthy way. Your first responsibility has to be to yourself.

People who can learn who they are, how they work and pace themselves accordingly will always go farther and have better relationships than those who continually give more and change gears based on immediate, non-critical circumstances. Want an easy example? There’s a reason one study showed that mothers who put their kids to bed early were happier. I’m sure you can think of many more.

6. Cut out extraneous inputs

How many times have you gone away for a week or even an afternoon to a quiet place out in the middle of nowhere and wished you could enjoy more of that peace in your everyday life?

You can.

Cumulative stress and the resultant burnout isn’t just about the big things. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts. All the little agitations and inputs in a day—the extraneous hassles and sensory demands—feed into it.

Take control of what you absorb in a day. Identify all sources of noise and distraction in your environment. T.V. on in the morning. Annoying radio on the way to work. Music and loud coworkers on the job site or even louder kids at home. Media for the better part of the evening. If it sounds exhausting, that’s because it is.

There’s the noise. The endless noise, to be sure. Cut out what you can, and invest in some noise canceling headphones for when you can’t.

But it’s more than that. How much useless, extraneous news do you hear, watch or read in a day? What does it add to your peace, prosperity or self-efficacy to do so? It’s nothing but a drain.

Even when it comes to serious national or world events, research shows we don’t have the capacity to absorb and empathize with every person and every situation. Prioritize what you most benefit from or enjoy, and let the rest go.

I see so many good people burn themselves out by caring too much, by putting endless emotional energy into everything going on around them. Prioritize what matters most to you, and learn to let the rest go. You’re not the only hero in the world. Make substantive but measured investments, and give yourself a break.

7. Meditate (however that makes sense to you)

Researchers have found that meditation is an impressively effective tool for helping people detach from their stressors, including the emotional overload involved in empathy burnout.

The effective ingredient here, so to speak, is the relaxation response—a kicking in of the parasympathetic nervous system. Formal meditation can do this, but so can alternatives to sitting meditation and even simply getting into the flow of play or hobbies. Certain physical endeavors like surfing or rock climbing can initiate that flow state for some people more effectively.

I’ve talked at length about meditation in other posts, but suffice it here to say that meditation in its various forms gives our bodies as well as minds a genuine break from the ravages of stress. Likewise, over time at least, formal meditation practices change the structure of the brain to dampen fear reactivity and build mental resilience.

8. Journal

They say a page a day keeps the psychiatrist away. While it’s a simplification, of course, there’s genuine truth here. The key is to take in less and process more.

When we’re bombarded with stress, we can come to see ourselves as hapless victims of it. Take time to write out your thoughts about the situation. Note the physical symptoms and when they arise. Dig into the feelings around it—both the good and the bad. What are the lessons and gratitudes as well as the regrets and frustrations?

When we put our struggles in the context of story, we can better reclaim our sense of agency and see where we can act for our own best interest.

9. Stop Multitasking

It’s another one of the habits of highly successful hunter-gatherers: be present. Such a simple idea and yet so difficult for many people.

Once again, the big conflicts certainly loom large in burnout—one or more “problem” situations that over time grind us down.

While we act to change these situations or our responses to them, we can minimize the other conditions that stress us out. Multitasking, research shows again and again, creates nothing but tension all the while diminishing our performance, which may on its own induce more pressure.

Mindfulness, however, offers an alternative to the perpetual mental chaos. Do one thing at a time, and silence the scripts that tend to play while you go through your day. Put your attention into the task at hand, and you’ll feel the benefits of a slower, more present pace.

10. Take a sabbatical

I’m 100% serious here. I understand there are people who are too on the edge financially to do this. But if there’s any room for possibility, consider it.

It’s sometimes possible to get a medical leave of absence, or you can take advantage of lag time in between jobs or contracts if that fits your situation. Even if a longer sabbatical isn’t possible, consider a genuine retreat time as long as you negotiate with your boss and/or family.

I’ve known many people who’ve done these even under tight financial constraints. Not only did they consider it a boon to their health, but it gave them time to consider what bigger changes they needed to make in their professions or lives.

Which finally leads me to the takeaway.

Become willing to make decisions that seem too big to make.

It takes a lot of courage and maybe a certain degree of madness (as the modern world sees it anyway) to decide you’re going to make a life that truly works for you—particularly when that form can’t fit a standard mold.

Some people do fine with a regular 8-5 job, kids, a house, full social calendar, etc. Others don’t, and an evolutionary perspective would suggest there’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s one of the things I love most about the ancestral vantage point—the way it speaks back to the common choices and expectations we have these days. I know a lot of people who’ve not only found renewed health through the Primal lifestyle, but an expanded sense of personal freedom. The ancestral model puts a whole different spin on what we call “normal” and in doing so opens the door for considering very different paths toward living well.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I’d love to hear your solutions to preventing and treating burnout. Share your thoughts on the board, and enjoy the end of your week.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

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60 thoughts on “10 Ways to Treat Burnout (and How to Avoid It Altogether)”

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  1. Such great advice! I definitely suffered from some burnout about 5 years ago. Love the advice to be selfish. I started scheduling time with friends, even if I didn’t feel up for it, on a weekly basis just to do something fun. Sometimes I had to force myself to go out even when I wasn’t up for it, but I always felt better afterward. As a girly girl, I felt better putting on makeup and making myself presentable every day, even if I wasn’t seeing anyone else. A mini workout (push ups, crunches and squats) every day made me feel like I was doing something. Ultimately, the whole spiritual thing, including journaling, helped me a lot. I didn’t do all of this at once, it was baby steps. And all of these things are still part of my routine today. Which is probably why I don’t feel burnt out anymore 🙂

    1. I’m working on truly incorporating some of these into my day as well. My issue seems to be the long term. I’ve read and implemented nearly all of these at one point for another, but I always seem to lose focus and drift away from the good habits I have established for myself. I’ve had plenty of days where I feel depression symptoms and can’t bring myself to do much other than laze about. Those are the days where I try to be my own drill sergeant and mentally motivate (reprimand) myself to at least get a solid workout in. In regards to keeping a journal, writing my blog posts helps but I usually tend to condense information for my readers rather than to vent about my own life. Perhaps my readers could benefit a bit from some more personal experience and I could use part of the website as a sort of journal.
      Anyhow, thanks to you Mark for another great read and to you Elizabeth for sharing your experiences!

    2. This post could not be better timed. I’m on the receiving end of terminal marital issues and I can’t tell you how much it’s killing me. Not the end of the relationship (any more), but the thought I don’t get to just “exist” under the same roof as my children every day, and the dog. They are so precious to me and all I ever wanted. The constant lack of sleep and the whirring of negative issues in your head are so debilitating. I’ve taken some good points from this post. I’ve been following the primal way for about 6 years now and it is a life changer in itself. This post, as many things that Mark provides beyond dietary and exercise and lifestyle advice, adds a few pointers that I hope to get some benefit from. The one thing I might add (and I’m yet to do this) is there is no harm in seeing someone professionally who can help you to rationalise all the badness away

      Thanks Mark. I appreciate this very much

      1. “The whirring of negative issues in your head” – totally agree with those being very debilitating but it’s so hard not to have those constant battles in your head. This post is fantastic, have taken a lot of points from it, like not caring too much, and not giving people everything they want all the time. I’m very guilty of that with my husband to the point I started to resent it. Plus that simple but difficult act of just putting yourself first and filtering out the emotional vampires in your life.

      2. Tangentially Speaking podcast is great for providing positive feelings toward whatever relationship you’re in!

  2. Hubby’s problem is that he’s become the Michelin Answer Man–every question.. no matter how inane, whether it has to do with work or not, gets fielded to him.
    People above and below his pay grade come to him for stuff that could easily be looked up in a manual, on a work website, or even Googled if need be, but noooooooo…they call or come over from miles around (not kidding–sometimes he gets calls from clear across the country!) just to ask questions that could be answered with just a little bit of self-reliance.

    This happens day after day after day. The only break he gets is when he’s not at work, and when he has a doctor or dental appointment, they leave tons of messages–it waits for him to return. Thank god they aren’t allowed to call him at home, or they would.

    When i used to plague my dad with questions as a kid, he’d say “Go ask Mr. Webster” (meaning the dictionary), or “Go ask the Brittanica family” (meaning the encyclopedia). I have advised my husband to start using the same sort of tactics with the more inane questions–“Go ask Mr. Website”, or “Consult Mr. Rules&Regs Binder”, or “What does Mr. Google have to say?”–whatever it takes to make himself the LAST RESORT for an answer, instead of the first.

    1. Oh my gosh! This sounds just like my husband! Except his office is at home (he is a self-employed and an engineer and well-known expert in his field), so people call him at all hours of the day, even on weekends and he is incapable of saying no. The only breaks he gets are when he is driving and can’t answer his phone, or when we are running errands. He is horribly burnt out but will not say no to anyone or to any jobs and refuses to take time off even though we can definitely afford it. It really hurts him that everyone treats him like a resource and not an actual person. It’s really sad to watch… I’ve taken to screening his phone calls and he keeps the ringer turned off on the phone in the office. He can still see the screen light up though so sometimes I have to just take ALL THE PHONES away haha! It seems to help, although there isn’t much to be done about his being burnt out if he refuses to do anything about it!

    2. Haha. In grad school i was whinning to my supervisor “i dont know how to do it” which was running some analytical program. He said RFM “read the fu*# king manual”. Thats always stuck with me and i pass it on.

      1. Ha! “RFM”. I will be using that…I started a contract about six months ago with individuals that have been here for 2-3 years, and apparently have more experience/knowledge on a lot of the material (occupational engineering). It is VERY frustrating that instead of learning the job they just ask me to do things…next time I’ll be asking them if they’ve tried the RFM method first. -_-

  3. “Start treating your time and energy as currency”

    Profound. Cut out extraneous inputs also is a strategy I need to embrace.

    Going to print this, another amazing article by Mr. Sisson.

  4. Sleep is an essential one for me. If I don’t get enough, stress can snowball quickly. It starts a vicious cycle: not enough sleep, stress, trouble sleeping, more stress, etc. So it’s important to intervene with some of the other techniques above to break the cycle. Meditation and walking are two big helpers for me.

  5. I take the point about leisure time very seriously. Most of us simply aren’t designed to work the hours we do, in the work environments we work in, and be happy. If you find a career that’s a good fit, then it makes sense, because you could make the case that many of the hours you work aren’t “work” per se. But if not, a change in environment probably makes all the difference.

  6. “Make decisions that seem too big to make”–that’s a tough one, but so necessary. It’s easier to stick with the devils we know than to make leaps into uncharted territory, even if we know the path we’re on is sending us toward burnout. And that definitely needs to be overcome, since once burnout sets in, you’ll be forced to make those changes anyway.

  7. The multitasking advice is a good one. I’m most productive if I block my time to each task that needs to be completed. When I start to waver between tasks, it opens me up to getting things done more slowly overall, which is less efficient and more energy consuming.

  8. Thankfully teachers (and other educational workers) get a sabbatical every year. They need it!!! I work for a large, urban district and the burnout among employees is widespread. I’ve been suffering myself for several years, in addition to suffering from life-long dysthymia (now called Persistent Depressive Disorder and also often associated with atypical features). I recently made the very difficult decision to start taking Wellbutrin and the difference, even after a week, is profound. I’m productive at work, I’m not snapping at people who irritate me and most importantly, I’m making progress in changing my dietary habits, something I’ve struggled with for years. I agree with everything Mark says but don’t discount medication just on principle.

  9. Timely! I came out of my dark days a few weeks ago. Not sure if it was the nice spring weather, sunshine, more social activity or my new doctor suggesting B12. It doesn’t matter, though, and I agree with your advice. I was just recognizing the problem and realizing nobody could “fix” it but me. I can be moody, but it was more than that, and didn’t quite feel like depression. Everything you touched on rang a bell for me. Thanks!

  10. #4 and #5 are brilliant! My time and energy is currency to me. Time is not a renewal resource and therefore a very precious commodity! People get so offended by me sometimes because my time and energy are valuable to me. I’ve already been to the burnt out point and am slowly working my way back to better health….so being selfish is critical to this journey. I need to work on the other #….but it is so nice to see the suggestions in print!

  11. Learning that “no” is a complete sentence helped me out a ton. As did realizing its NOT a dirty, four letter word. Its hard at first, but gets easier.

    1. “No is a complete sentence.” Gasp. That is a life-changer. Thank you.

    2. No is such a difficult word for me. I struggle with passing up opportunities, whether a hike, run, race, a day at the beach… I’m at burnout level (again), and need to eliminate all but the necessary responsibilities. I have a huge exam coming up, and my sleep is sketchy.

  12. Great post!

    By the way, in the intro paragraph, the first two links are the same study. The first link directs to the study, and the second link directs to nymag which is reporting off of the same exact study. After watching this past Sunday’s John Oliver I’ll be keeping you honest about studies in the future :p

    Best,
    Q

  13. Put your cellphone down when you’re with your family or other loved ones! Give them your undivided attention and know that they are giving theirs to you. This feels so good, so present, so loving.
    The email can wait. The call can wait. Heck! Even the boss can wait!
    When you’re on your time, it’s YOUR time. Don’t give it away if you don’t have too.

  14. Well, this was a kick in the pants. I’m burned out. Time to reassess things, I guess.

  15. This is so relevant to me right now it almost made me cry. Thank you!

  16. Good information there.

    I’ve had two (although I have a sneaking suspision it’s actually three) episodes of burnout between 2008 and 2014 and both the the cognitive and the physical damage you mention is something I now live with every day.

    I can’t work out the way I used to, I simply can’t seem to get back to the same level of stamina. And if I don’t take my tyrosine, dhea, 5-htp, magnesium and coconut oil every day, my brain goes in to pretty deep fog. But I’m not complaining. Before I found out what supplements to take I thought I would never be able to have a life again, and now I’ve studied for almost a year with this poor, mistreated brain and body of mine.

    By the way. I’m only 37. If you find your way close to burning out, please take the advice in the article. Even if they come with some hard choices. Because once you’re over the edge there seems to be no going back.

    1. Thank you for your advice Nina, I am currently feeling close to the edge and struggling with my energy levels following an illness that I haven’t had time to recover from and am having to consider how to get myself replenished and properly recovered. This article was great and your comment is making me think about how I really do have to take this very seriously and make significant changes. Thanks & Best wishes

      1. Hi Ann, I’m glad to hear that you have begun to realise the seriousness of this issue. People think that all you have to do is re-charge your batteries but after a couple of hits, your batteries just don’t work as they used to. Hope you find a better way to live and best wishes to you too

  17. 40 hour week?! What that about? Mid level job expects at lead 60 hours to keep job and more to advance. Plus phone calls you are expected to answer at all hours, while sleeping, engaging in sexual activities and driving etcetera.

  18. How do you help someone with burnout? A friend of mine is incredibly ambitious, working 7 days a week. I’ve known him for years, but have never seen him this emotionally and physically exhausted. I want to help, but I don’t know how. Do I reach out? Give him space?

    1. I’d say reach out, but be prepared for your efforts to be in vain. I was a workaholic and it took me a long time to realise I was making most of my own problems simply by refusing to / feeling like I couldn’t let up – when people said something to me about it I just brushed their comments off and continued as I was. It was only the realisation of how i wasn’t being the parent I wanted to be (that and insomnia) that allowed me to take a break, reassess, and get the recovery I needed.

      Likewise, one of my best friends is a (pretty much terminal at this point) alcoholic and nothing I or any of his friends said ever made any difference to his drinking. Addiction (of any kind – workahol is very much an addiction) is very sad because it’s the very addiction itself that prevents the addict from realising that they need to step back and reassess. Some addicts get lucky and the lightbulb goes on and they realise (I was one of these) and some don’t get lucky, the lightbulb never goes on, and they go from bad to worse.

      But for your own sake, it’s worth reaching out even if it doesn’t ultimately help your friend. At least you’ll know you tried. I pretty much pulled out all the stops with my alcoholic friend (at one point he threatened to punch me) and now when he dies I’ll know I did all I could. Much better than just giving him space and hoping. Realising when you can’t help someone you love is one of the hardest things the family and friends of addicts go through. Good luck with your situation, I hope your friend listens, and if he doesn’t, then I hope you are able to make peace with that.

      1. Thank you for responding. You have some really great advice. I’m sorry to hear about your friend. You sound like a really great friend for sticking it out. Addiction is hard on everyone, not just the addict. It’s sad to sit back and watch people you love self-destruct. It’s also hard to realize you have a problem when you’re in the thick of it. Maybe something I say will get through, maybe not. Maybe him just knowing someone’s there will help. I think the worst thing would be sitting there with regret and wondering if I could have done something. I think I’ll be at peace knowing I at least tried.

    2. You tell him what I wish someone had told me; that your batteries actually can run out. And when they do, they might not ever re-charge fully again.

      The problem is that people know they can get tired, but they don’t think they will ever run out completely. And that when they do – there’s no do-over. There’s no “I take it back, I’ll slow down now”. It’s already too late, and you will never be the same again.

      Reach out, sit him down and say – look. You don’t have a choice anymore.

      1. Thank you! I used to push myself so hard and I paid for it. It’s been years, but I’m still trying to recover. When we push too hard and nothing happens, we feel like we’re invincible, until we’re not. It’s like with exercise: you wouldn’t go hard every day for months and not have a rest day. That’s one sure way to mess yourself up. You need that break to recover. The recover part is the most neglected, but it’s how you grow, get stronger, and actually improve.

        1. That is so true. The recover part is basically shamed today, like you’re somehow a lazy person if you want to take a break. I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover, but the supplements I take today make me feel almost as I used to, so I am going to enjoy life as much as I can!

          Take care!

  19. I was burned out for at least 1/2 my life. I am 67 so that’s a lot of years. I had stressful, deadline oriented jobs. I thought I thrived on it. WRONG. Today I am living my childhood dream…one of those hard decisions…but I wouldn’t go back for the world. I watch people stressing about their jobs constantly and thank whomever that I had a chance for a do over and took it. It took years of below poverty wages, but today I make more money than had I continued on my path to nowhere. It’s tough to jump into the unknown…but sometimes you just gotta plug your nose and jump in…you will come back up…may be in unrecognizable, scary waters but the end result is worth it. Take a plunge.

  20. Amazing article rooted in science, anthropology and common sense.

    Thinking big, while currently earning less than 36,000 a year means taking a leap of faith and a lot of action. The belief in God, Love, the Universe or some higher power is necessary for me to find peace in a modern world riddled with rushing and suffering.

    Without faith and support, even the best ideas cannot come to fruition . I love that so many of your post address this and having a life’s purpose. I even read that ADHD would be an asset in a hunter gather society because people, like me, could burn energy, be outside, think quickly, and enjoy variation and ritual.

    Thank Mark and all the people for posting ! Rock on Grok! I hope to find this peace!

  21. I like be selfish and take a sabbatical. I have worked hard my whole life and always did more for my family than I did for myself. Success can have it’s drawbacks. In my fortune seeking absence, the family has become spoiled rotten and expects to be given nice cars, the most expensive private education, etc and eventually live off of dad forever. I realize my stress was not building a business to provide for my family. Stress is finally having time to be with family only to find out that my spouse has become my “Personal Pelosi” and wins the support of my kids by rewarding irresponsibility. Time for a selfish sabbatical. I always wanted to go to cooking school in Thailand or Island hop the Caribbean on a sailing yacht. Maybe ill do both.

    1. I find with kids its when they are most acting out and most annoying to be around that i need to spend the most time with them. See book ‘hold on to your kids ” by nuefeld. Not sure how old your kids are.

      1. Thanks for responding and I will look up your suggestion. I stepped down from an executive travel schedule just to spend more time with my just turned teenagers. I think my problem is one many parents have. It’s hard to face that having the resources to support your child to succeed at or be anything only to have them choose to sit around and do nothing. The book that is helping me is, The Good Enough Child. – Brad E. Sachs, Ph.D. Its a series of vignettes and lessons by a family phycologist. It’s really about accepting who your kids are instead of harping about who you want them them to be. My solution is to guide them towards appreciating experiences as wealth rather than seeking the instant gratification of yummy treats and trendy expensive gismos. In the long run, I’m pretty my son will appreciate skiing his first black diamond run with his dad more than the top of the line electric scooter his mom bought him that sits broken in the garage.

        1. I think you’re starting to find the right path. It’ll probably take some time for your kids to understand why this change is happening all of a sudden and there will probably be a bit (maybe a lot) of protesting. After all, you have showed them what to appreciate so far. You suddenly changing your mind about what is important is going to throw them for a loop. But you are right. They will come around, and you will all be the happier for it.

          Go take your sabbatical, you’ve earned it.

  22. Great timing on this post, I have literally just decided last night to take a 6 month trip around the world, as I have the situation to do it right now, even if it means cutting some “adult responsibilities” and feeling like i’m letting people down, it’s what I want. I see this post as another sign of the universe that I made the right decision.

  23. Great post I think the best one I have read. I’m going to keep it and re-read it for inspiration to slow my life down and really pay attention to the four hours a day I figured out I have that I don’t know what I’m doing with. Maybe I shouldn’t feel so burnt out after all.

  24. I am currently emerging from a 3-year period of burnout which almost destroyed my health and my nascent career. It’s only in the last 6 months that I have managed to slowly start getting back to health and gaining a sense of perspective.

    Symptoms and results of burnout:

    – Developing gastritis / possible stomach ulcer as a woman in her 20s. At least one other young woman I worked with also developed a stomach ulcer.
    – Unprecedented weight gain
    – Self-medicating with alcohol
    – Short period of clinical depression, which I had never experienced before
    – Panic attacks
    – Uncontrollable crying jags at first
    – Very low resilience
    – Intense rumination about job
    – Feeling victimised and helpless

    One of the most worrying symptoms was developing extreme physical fatigue whenever I got any type of bug or virus. A cold or stomach bug would knock me out for days with fatigue so extreme I could not get out of bed. Anxiety over missing work compounded this at first, but over the course of a year or so this ceased to be a factor. Nevertheless I would end up in bed for 3-4 days after catching a mild stomach bug or cold. There were times when I was really worried I was developing CFS. But now I am doing better, it isn’t happening any more, and I’m pretty sure it was a symptom of burnout.

    At some point in the past year I realised that stopping the burnout was a matter of survival; I have only been teaching for 4 years and have invested a lot in this career. I need to be able to carry on and even thrive and I will only be able to do so if I am not burned out.

    Over the past 6 months I have started recovering from burnout by:

    – letting go of my perfectionism
    – checking out of my job as much as I can
    – abandoning as many responsibilities as possible and refusing to feel guilty about it
    – refusing to think about colleagues’ opinions on how good a job I am doing, previously a big source of concern to me
    – getting a new job

    Looking back now I can see a change in my perspective which has gradually built up over time.

    I fully agree that burnout IS a real thing of its own. It is not just depression. At my lowest point in my burnout I did go through an actual period of clinical depression and it is definitely not the same thing.

    Unfortunately the physical effects of burnout remain. I am still struggling with the weight I gained during this time period. Even though I have eaten LC/paleo since 2011, burnout made me “weak” and I often succumbed to unhealthy eating accompanied by ballooning weight. I strongly believe that the weight I gained was far out of proportion to the food I ate. I also screwed up my digestive system and still have antibiotic-resistant gastritis and stomach bloating. It’s frustrating because I’m not even 30.

    Overall though I feel that I have come out the other side. I have a new perspective which I think is long-lasting. I’m planning to get out of my current career (yes, I’m a teacher) in the next 2-3 years and start my own business. I’m living and eating healthy and actually exercising voluntarily. I’m even starting to enjoy a social life again, which also went down the tubes during my burnout. Hopefully I have learned enough not to find myself back there again.

    1. Hi there,

      I’ve burned out severely twice, so I know what you’ve been through. I just wanted to say that I also hade problems with stomach bloating for many years and I tried everything for it. The only think that has ever helped was fasting. I read over and over that if you fast for at least three days your stomach and intestines, while not having to process food, actually start focusing on healing instead.

      I fasted on vegetable juice, water, green tea and vegetable stock for seven days, and after that my stomach was better by at least 80 percent. I was scared to death of being hungry and I thought it would be an enormous struggle, but the sugar and salts that were in the juice and stock kept my energy up and I only felt hungry once during the whole week.

      It was four years ago now and my stomach has gotten a little more sensitive again, so I’m going to fast again soon. Once every four years is not a problem.

      Take care and best wishes

  25. As Mark mentioned, our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in egalitarian societies. Anyone looking for further reading on this topic might be interested in Peter Gray’s article, “Play as the Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence”.

    This fascinating article shows how for most of our evolutionary history, humans chose a non-hierarchical method of organising society described as ‘fierce egalitarianism’. Our enlightened ancestors chose to create societies where the strong did not dominate the weak and the keen did not take advantage of the slow. Peter Gray explains how they achieved this through play and humour.

    Find the article links in the bottom right hand corner:

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/peter-gray-phd

  26. Wow…. this nails it… one of your best in a long time. So many quotable phrases. I especially liked the one about the anger porn aka… news.

  27. Perfect Timing. Over the past few months I’ve had the good luck to be plucked out of my ‘normal’ life. I have taken my work at home job across the country to stay for a few months with my ailing parents, other family, in the place where I grew up. Nothing like seeing where I came from, and getting a fresh perspective on my life ‘back there’ to help me to see just HOW burnt out I have become. Wow. I have really lost my way. Frequent relationship stress, ever higher hoops to jump thru at work, coupled with a strong early conditioning that sent me out into the world with a handicap in the ‘happiness’ and ‘social life’ departments. I am motivated to assess, journal about the times in my life that WERE fulfilling, and discern what habits were in place during those time periods that set me up for success and joy. I am ready to make adjustments, likely– some major ones– to cultivate that sense of wonder and joy again. Was at a funeral last night of a 43 year old man…life is precious, and not to be wasted. THANK YOU Mark, and the people in this community for your inspiration.

  28. “hollowed-out, hopeless, automaton feeling… still be moving through our duties at home or work, but with a numbness that hovers above a perpetual anxiety or emptiness” = me right now.

    After some terribly sad and anxious years (the slow and expensive loss of my beloved dogs; supporting a partner who was depressed and anxious and being bullied at work, and ultimately lost his job; losing an important relationship that wasn’t what I thought it was), I’ve come through to the other side, except everything is so flat. I’m not finding pleasure or joy in anything I normally would. It’s all just meh.

    I find myself despairing about the world – all the bad news, all the idiots being horrible humans on social media, politicians, apathy, hate and stupidity. Sure, there are positive things, but I see the bad totally engulfing the good right now.

    But I don’t feel depressed. I just feel nothing. Empty. Just a bit frustrated that I’m in such a deep, dull rut.

    So, I’m gonna try #6. Cut out extraneous inputs – starting tomorrow morning. Instead of getting up, checking email and facebook and reading the news headlines, I’m gonna go and sit with my chooks and breathe deeply. I realise I’ve been starting my days in exactly the wrong way. Duh! No news for me. I feel lighter already.

    Thanks Mark, I’m sure this will make a difference.

  29. One thing to keep in mind wrt/”energy and time expenditure” – that which cannot continue at some point WILL NOT CONTINUE. If you find yourself starting to think that something has to change, that you can’t keep working the hours, dealing with x, etc. LISTEN TO YOURSELF!

    Just being aware of your thoughts about a situation and taking them seriously may help prevent you from hitting the bottom of burnout. Yes – even if you change before rock bottom, you’ll still burn- out, but it won’t be to the deepest point.

    It took me awhile to accept the changes in my job at a company I liked, and got out before I was too burned out. The immediate change helped prevent the downward spiral even though my emotions were still pretty shot.

    One thing I would like to point out for Christians is that prayer, sitting in the presence of God waiting for him to console you, is critical. Oftentimes it will be mentioned with meditation, but not here. In tough times, I ponder how tough it was for Jesus, and even worse it was for Mary to see her Son going through his ordeals. Both Job and Jesus knew suffering, and God can console if we let him.

  30. I’d like to add something I often find myself saying to someone I know who sacrifices himself to his demanding and selfish family: remember the oxygen mask. When you’re on a plane, the instructions are in an emergency to put your own oxygen mask on before trying to put one on another person. You have to, have to, look after yourself or you will be eaten alive by life and its demands. This isn’t selfishness, but survival. A great article, Mark, and great comments from other people. Thank you all.

  31. thanks Mark.. some excellent ideas here.
    My usual prescription for burnout is more easy running outdoors, and more trail running, but this has stopped working for me after several decades of success.
    On Prozac now, which at least stops the suicidal thoughts, but it hasn’t done anything for the brain fog and inability to concentrate. I started saying no, felt terrible to refuse my usual volunteer activities but I am no longer effective in most capacities anyway.
    Next up to try is the nootropics – thank you for that article too.

  32. Great topic!

    For all the fellow desk jockeys, I’d add: do something with your hands. I don’t mean just physically working out, but garden, fix something, build something. It’s very therapeutic.

    As I’ve become more in-demand at work, job stress has increased, while I still try to do it all at home. Last New Year’s, I took some vacation time and worked on things around the house while my husband was on a ski trip. I’m an introvert, so these uninterrupted days alone painting, organizing and fixing were so therapeutic. They made me realize how thoroughly burnt-out I’d become, and I vowed not to let it happen again this year. Well, it started to, after a few weeks of hosting trainings and workshops for my job (introvert, remember?). Last week, I took a few days off to attend to the things that are important to me at home, and felt quite a bit better. This week, I was working, but was on a solo work trip wherein I visited interns out working in the field (literally digging in the dirt and looking at plants), and had lots of time in between as well, and few of the nebulous office work demands I’m normally dealing with. Came home feeling so much better today. The simplicity of the field work was the perfect antidote for the burnout of dealing with policies, redtape and computer screens.

  33. Hi Mark, would it be possible to make a visual distinction between which links go to scientific studies and which point to other posts on your website? I like to read the references you give, and this would save a lot of time.

  34. I never really got to this point, but I was on my way (and a teacher, big surprise). I think that following a lot of this helped for a long time, but ultimately, for me, getting out of the rat race altogether was the only solution.

    1. I’m wondering how to get out of the rat race and not live in poverty. What was your strategy?

  35. “I find it very interesting to observe how a society that puts financial frugality on such a moral pedestal gives virtually no thought or respect to the cautious application of these other resources.”

    I’m puzzled by this statement. In mainstream American culture, I find that frugality is usually derided as “being cheap” or miserly. You are simply expected to buy the biggest house, the nicest car, and the fanciest clothes you can “afford.”

    And frugality is certainly not practiced by the vast majority of Americans, most of whom need to take out loans just to meet their daily spending habits. Frugality may have, at one time, been a core American value, but those times are long gone.