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How To Recover From Burnout, According To Mental Health Experts

Sarah Regan
June 29, 2023
Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor
By Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, and a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.
June 29, 2023
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Since 2019, burnout has been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an "occupational phenomena," impacting the mental wellbeing of people all around the globe. But what is it exactly? And more importantly, how can you overcome it?

Here's what to know, according to mental health experts.

What is burnout?

The World Health Organization defines burnout1 as an occupational phenomenon with symptoms including, "Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one's job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy."

Burnout is not classified as an illness or disease, and while WHO does note burnout refers specifically to work-related struggles, it can manifest into far more areas of your life.

As licensed marriage and family therapist Tiana Leeds, M.A., LMFT tells mindbodygreen, symptoms of burnout can persist over a long period of time and can range from emotional, to mental, to physical health factors. "Individuals going through burnout often experience symptoms in all three areas," she explains, such as irritability (emotional), difficulty concentrating (mental), and headaches (physical).

"Mental exhaustion is one component of burnout," adds psychologist Carolyn Rubenstein, Ph.D. "but burnout consists of other elements like cynicism and detachment, [along with] a decreased sense of accomplishment."

Why does burnout happen?

According to clinical psychologist Nicole Pensak, Ph.D., burnout is the result of chronic stress at the workplace [and] is characterized by "exhaustion, lack of meaning and drive, and loss of interest at work." As she previously told mindbodygreen, burnout presents more closely to depression than anxiety, for instance, and can take a serious toll on your motivation and energy.

We are built to handle some stress, after all, but without any opportunity for respite, chronic stress becomes unsustainable for the body, mind, and spirit.

As functional medicine physician Robin Berzin, M.D. previously wrote for mindbodygreen, continuously high cortisol levels (the stress hormone) can leave you perpetually exhausted no matter how much sleep you get, and in some cases, even result in low DHEA and thyroid hormone levels.

Worst of all, many of us will tolerate or ignore initial symptoms of stress (i.e. feeling wired yet tired, or anxious) because there are things to do, bills to pay, etc., until it's too late and we reach full blown burnout.

It's also worth noting that recent research on burnout and the big five personality traits found higher levels of neuroticism, and lower agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness, are associated with higher levels of burnout.

Signs you're experiencing burnout

Emotional signs of burnout

  • Irritability
  • Apathy
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Overwhelm
  • Detachment
  • Dissatisfaction
  • Short temper
  • Lack of emotional resilience
  • Lack of emotional stability
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Cynicism
  • Sense of ineffectiveness
  • Lack of accomplishment
  • Lack of motivation

Mental signs of burnout

  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty retaining and/or recalling information
  • Declines in productivity and efficiency
  • Brain fog and decreased mental clarity 
  • Scattered thoughts

Physical signs of burnout

  • Low energy levels
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Weakened immune system
  • Muscle tension
  • Appetite changes (either increased or decreased eating habits)
  • Physical exhaustion

How to recover from burnout


Prioritize rest

The first thing to do if you're experiencing burnout is prioritize rest without feeling guilty, Leeds says. "Breaking the cycle of pushing past your limits is essential, as is embracing restorative downtime. As you regain your energy, reintroduce fun, novelty, and quality time with loved ones back into your life," she suggests.

And according to co-author of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Amelia Nagowski, DMA, "The physical impact of living in a world of unmeetable goals and unceasing demands is slowly destroying our bodies—especially the bodies of women and people of color."

As she previously told mindbodygreen, this requires us to "replace the toxic view of rest as sloth or laziness with the understanding that when we celebrate rest for ourselves and others, we make the world safer for everyone."


Move your body

We understand the irony of suggesting to workout here, especially if you're feeling physically burnt out—but according to Leeds, engaging in gentle to moderate exercise is important for burnout recovery.

"Avoid pushing yourself too hard or going to extremes—find a form of movement you enjoy that doesn't leave you feeling exhausted, and for an even bigger payoff, combine exercise with spending time in nature," she advises.

Mindfulness-based forms of exercise, such as gentle yoga or walking meditation, are also two simple ways to get more mindful movement in that doesn't deplete your energy.


Practice mindfulness

Speaking of mindfulness, a mindfulness practice itself is another good way to combat burnout, according to both experts and research.

As one 2021 study published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing2 found, mindfulness meditation was effective in decreasing stress and burnout in nurses, noting that it "has the potential to decrease stress and burnout in nurses by decreasing self-judgment and over-identification with experience, and by increasing resiliency, compassion, and emotional regulation."

And as licensed therapist Kimberly Martin, LMFT previously told mindbodygreen, "Mindfulness practices could be any healthy activity/skill that allows you to practice shifting your mind to the present moment rather than in the past or the future," such as breathwork, mindful eating, or engaging your senses.


Explore new hobbies and habits

Sometimes we're so focused on curbing the things that are stressing us out, we forget to lean into the things that bring us peace and joy. And according to Leeds, the latter is essential for recovering from burnout.

"Cultivating healthy habits that promote calmness, enjoyment, and stability is crucial. This may include mindfulness or meditation, pursuing new or existing hobbies, spending time with loved ones, maintaining a balanced diet, and prioritizing quality sleep," she explains.


Establish boundaries

If you're experiencing burnout, that's a clear indication your current way of doing things is not working, and boundaries need to be put in place.

Leeds recommends establishing clear boundaries between work and personal life, delegating tasks where you can, letting go of perfectionism, and of course, learning to say no when you feel overwhelmed.

It can be tough to ask for help or feel like you're letting someone down, but if trying to "power through" is costing you your wellbeing, it's imperative to advocate for yourself and be honest about what you can and cannot do.


Manage stress

This one might go without saying, but since burnout does typically stem from prolonged stress, Leeds says that managing it during recovery is essential. "Incorporate stress management techniques like deep breathing, restorative yoga, journaling, or spending time outdoors," she suggests.

Here's our full guide to how to combat stress naturally for more ideas.


Figure out what's sustainable for you

This one ties back to both managing stress and enforcing boundaries—which you'll have a much easier time doing if you know what a sustainable lifestyle actually looks like for you.

As Leeds suggests, "Reflect on your priorities and objectively assess what is sustainable for you, [making] necessary adjustments to your commitments and responsibilities. She adds to remember that time and energy are limited resources, "so it's vital to ensure your life aligns with your values and remains manageable in the long run."


Confide in someone you trust

Leaning on your support system is vital whenever you're going through a tough time, and that includes if you're experiencing burnout. "You don't have to go through this alone," Leeds says, suggesting to opening up about your experience with close friends and family.


Work with a professional

Along with confiding in friends and family, it's also not a bad idea to seek the support of a mental health professional who can work with you to find healthy coping skills and unpack why you're feeling burnt out. Leeds adds that you could even find a support group for burnout near you, too.

"A mental health professional can assist you in processing your experience, challenging unhealthy beliefs or coping patterns that led to burnout, and providing accountability in your recovery journey," she adds.


Take care of your physical health

As aforementioned, there are a number of health factors that can be impacted by burnout—but you can also impact your burnout levels by minding your health. Everything from your sleep schedule, to your diet, to your immune system can be affected by burnout, so make sure you're taking care of all those things.

Think getting enough movement, going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday, eating foods that help mitigate stress, and working with your primary care doctor to figure out what you can best do to take care of your body.


Give yourself grace

Last but not least, don't forget to be gentle with yourself as you're moving through burnout recovery. According to self-compassion expert Kristin Neff, Ph.D., self-compassion involves taking the compassion your feel for others, and turning that inward.

Self-compassion allows us to relate to all the difficulties we face in a way that doesn't sugarcoat things or deny reality, but rather offers us a sense of warmth and care because it's so difficult, Neff explains. It's about acknowledging that, "Yeah, this hurts. And it's difficult. It's painful," she adds.

So don't be so hard on yourself—acknowledge that you are going through a tough time, and treat yourself the way you would treat a friend going through the same thing.

How long does it take to recover from burnout?

According to research published by the American Psychological Association3, recovering from burnout is a long process that can take anywhere from one to three years. Of course, it will depend on the level of burnout you're experiencing, how long you've been feeling that way, and how smoothly your recovery process goes.

Typically, however, the same research notes that the burnout recovery process involves these six consecutive stages:

  1. Admitting the problem: You cannot deny that you feel burnt out and something has to change
  2. Distancing from work: You begin to disengage with stressors, either taking time off work, going on vacation, delegating tasks, or otherwise limiting overwhelm
  3. Restoring health: You start to feel an improvement of symptoms through healthy lifestyle choices such as getting enough rest, exercising, spending time with loved ones, etc.
  4. Questioning values: As you start feeling better, you have the mental space to explore your priorities and values, figuring out what you want to do going forward
  5. Exploring work possibilities: You begin the process of moving forward, either by thinking about how you can make adjustments to your current workload, or looking for a new job altogether
  6. Making objective changes: The last leg of the burnout recovery journey in which you are able to implement changes necessary to limit stress and overwhelm and regain peace and life satisfaction


How long does it take to recover from a burnout?

Recovering from burnout can take anywhere from one to three years, depending on your level of burnout, how long you've felt that way, and how smoothly your recovery process goes.

Is there a way to recover from burnout?

Yes, you can recover from burnout by limiting stressors, cultivating healthy habits and hobbies, and making changes to your current job or workload.

How do I know if I'm burned out?

According to the World Health Organization, burnout is characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one's job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy.

The takeaway

Work-life balance is a tricky line to tread—especially in today's age of midnight emails and working from home—but it is possible. The recovery process can be lengthy, involving a lot of self-care, rest, and reflection, but on the other side of burnout, regaining peace and joy in your life is well worth it.

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