This 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.