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  • Writer's pictureCaitlin Walters

Burnout and Self Care

Do you know when you're about to burnout? Do you see the signs as they accumulate or does it hit you like a wave? What do you do when your energy leaves you but life and responsibilities continue?

Let's start with the basics.

What is Burnout?

Psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger coined the term, "burnout" in the 1970s as a severe stress condition that leads to severe mental, physical, and emotional effects. This is different from general fatigue which is recovered from in a few days, in the intensity and duration of the exhaustion, making it difficult for individuals to accomplish daily tasks and cope with stress.

The American Psychological Association (APA) reported in March 2022 that on a scale of 1 to 10, with1 means you have “little or no stress” and 10 being “a great deal of stress,” the average American reports a stress level of 5. The most significant stressors are reported through APA to be work (66 percent), money (61 percent), family responsibilities (57 percent), personal health concerns (52 percent) and relationships (51 percent) (Alderton).

There are two main types of stress, the first being a response to an immediate threat which heightens adrenaline for immediate response (e.g. running from danger), and the second is a response to long term stress which enables individuals to integrate experience into knowledge (e.g. studying for exams or preparing to file taxes). “The ability to respond to threats in the environment is woven into all mammals. The problem with humans is that we can overthink things in ways that keep our natural fear and vigilance alive a lot longer than they should be. Our stress response is meant to last for a few minutes, or maybe a few hours. But when it goes on for days, weeks or months, then it can really become destructive," says APA CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D. (Alderton). An important note is that regardless if the threat is still present, if the individual replays it in their head, the body interprets the danger as current and will respond accordingly physiologically.

What does Burnout look like?

Burnout varies from person to person, but generally affects individuals in high stress occupations such as first responders, doctors, nurses, people caring for ill family members, and can even people who care for children (Roskam).

Early signs of burnout include individuals exhibiting physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion, cynicism or apathy, decreased motivation, lower performances or even feel hopeless. If left untreated, burnout can develop into other illnesses such as depression, diabetes, and heart disease.

Shared traits among individuals include:

  • Exhaustion - Physically, mentally, and/or emotionally.

  • Cynicism -- Irritability and/or apathy.

  • Isolation -- Withdrawing from community due to depression or feeling overwhelmed.

  • Inefficacy -- Reduced productivity, low morale, inability to cope.

The 12 Phases Leading to Burnout

Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North outlined the 12 phases leading to burnout as (Fraga):

  1. Excessive drive/ambition -- Starting a new job or undertaking a novel task with amble ambition (aka the Honeymoon phase).

  2. Pushing yourself to work harder -- Ambition drives individual to work harder.

  3. Neglecting your own needs -- Sacrificing self-care in favor of work.

  4. Displacement of conflict -- Blaming other factors instead of acknowledging being strained to max capacity.

  5. No time for nonwork-related needs -- Work becomes the sole focus at the expense of family, friends, and hobbies.

  6. Denial -- Blaming others for increase in impatience and irritability.

  7. Withdrawal -- Cynicism and withdrawal from family and friends.

  8. Behavioral changes -- Potential to become more aggressive and sudden mood swings.

  9. Depersonalization -- Feeling detached from your life and control.

  10. Inner emptiness or anxiety -- Feelings empty or anxious. Potential to use thrill seeking behaviors to cope, such as substance use, gambling, or overeating.

  11. Depression -- Helplessness, lack of meaning in life.

  12. Mental or physical collapse -- Impacted ability to cope. Mental health or medical attention may be necessary.

Options to Restore Energy

Recommendations on how to prevent burnout are simple like the recommendations to stay healthy. It's recommended to exercise, eat a balanced diet, incorporate good sleep habits, and of course, ask for help. Many of these require awareness of self and methods that are ideal for your own body.

Exercising is a great way to get out of mental hamster wheels by focusing on physical action. Even short mini-sessions will help give a mood boost. Eating a balanced diet is always good for the body, eating wholesome food gives your body valuable nutrients to function optimally. Foods rich in omega-3s such as fish, flax seed, and walnuts also act as a natural antidepressant. Sleep is valuable to everyone to keep body and emotions balanced. Some healthy sleep habits include regulated sleep times, no caffeine or smart phones (blue light) before bed, or a regular bedtime routine to downshift your mental processing. Finally, while asking for help might be difficult, sometimes it's necessary especially when our own efforts are not enough. Another method external assistance is establishing check-in points with a close family member or friend to check in with one another at intervals regarding self care or other needs. If these don't work, a change in scenery or a break from work can help alleviate burnout symptoms.

Options to Help Someone with Burnout

Since burnout can cause someone to feel isolated, energetically depleted, anxious, or physically fatigued, offering kind acts to help counter these can help rejuvenate someone experiencing burnout. Actively listening and validating their feelings with a phrase similar to "You have a lot on your plate. I can understand why you feel depleted," can do a lot to soothe. Other kind acts such as offering to research resources, or acts of service such as walking the dog, ordering food, or doing dishes can help ease the load of tasks and decision making for the person feeling burntout. Self care and activities that decrease stress are also valuable. Studies have also shown massage therapy to positively affect heart rate, blood pressure, and encourage the body to enter a parasympathetic state (state of rest) which can help decrease stress levels in an individual (Alderton).

In Conclusion

Sometimes we don't realize that we're burnt out until we're extra crispy. And even then we try to push through it. Giving ourselves grace to slow down or even take a pause is a good thing. As Lao Tzu said, "Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished." This is important to remember as even the earth takes a pause to restore her energy during winter.

Last month, I did not write any blogs, because I was over-extended. While my experience was not to such a degree as this extreme level of stress, it's important to recognize our own needs and rest when we need it. We encourage you all to do the same as your own wellbeing calls you to do.

To solidify this notion, here is a beautiful geek comparison:


ClinicSense (26 March, 2023). 7 Ways To Prevent Massage Therapist Burnout in Your Clinic [blog post]. Retrieved from's%20also%20stressful

Malone, D. (1 August, 2023). At Both Ends: Recognizing when you might be burning out—and what you can do about it. [blog post]. Retrieved from

Roskam, I., Raes, M-E., and Mikolajczak, M. (8 February 2017). Exhausted Parent: Development and Preliminary Validation of the Parental Burnout Inventory [blog post]. Retrieved from

Fraga, J. (18 May, 2019). A Guide to Burnout [blog post]. Retrieved from

Additional Sources

Nazari, F., Mirzamohamadi, M., & Yousefi, H. (2015). The effect of massage therapy on occupational stress of Intensive Care Unit nurses. Iranian journal of nursing and midwifery research, 20(4), 508–515.

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