Six months into this pandemic (no really, we counted twice), most of us are adjusting to the new normal—or at the very least, we’ve forgotten what normal is and are now just living our abnormal lives. But despite the fact that you’re now used to working from home, you’ve given up on trying to start a side hustle and stopped using every spare minute to bake banana bread, you may be feeling like you’re about one Zoom call away from a full-blown emotional burnout—and you’re not alone.
Though you might feel like your stress levels have dropped since this all started (unless you’re still in lockdown in Melbourne, in which case, we have all the feels for you), things are still pretty wildly unpredictable. As human beings, we’re hardwired to want to feel like we’re in control of our lives, at least to some degree. However control is something we’re very much lacking at the moment, which fuels even more worry, stress and anxiety, all while we attempt to juggle working within the confines of home, save money for a scary future, check in on our friends and family and most of all, stay safe in an unsafe world.
According to Kate Blundell, Chief Psychologist at online psychology platform My Mirror, while we can cope with this overload of emotions for short periods of time, we’re currently well past ‘short.’ “When we’re on high alert and experiencing stress arousal for long periods of time this can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout, a state of feeling emotionally and physically run down,” says Blundell.
It takes time to adjust to change and at the moment things seem to change from day to day—so it’s no surprise that most of us are still having trouble coping. On top of this, particularly in places experiencing a second wave and further lockdowns, it’s likely many of us aren’t able to do the things that usually help us to cope when we’re feeling stressed, like hanging out with friends and family, exercising, looking forward to holidays and even just separating work and home. It’s a double whammy—more stress and uncertainty, less coping resources. As Blundell puts it, “the stress bucket is full and it’s harder for us to find ways to drain the bucket.”
What Are Some Of The Signs That We Could Be Heading Towards Burnout?
A certain level of stress and anxiety is normal, and at times actually even helps us perform better (you never know what you can achieve until you get a short deadline, amirite?). But Blundell says that if you notice you’re not sleeping well, feeling irritable or constantly on edge, lacking energy and motivation, having difficulty concentrating, constantly worrying out worst case scenarios or just feeling sad for long periods of time, it might be a sign of burnout, and you should consider chatting to someone about how you’re feeling.
What Are Some Ways We Can Look After Ourselves And Avoid Burnout?
During times like these, it’s more important than ever to look after ourselves, mind and body. Besides the obvious—although not always easy to do—things like eating well, exercising, trying to get enough sleep, staying connected with friends and family, and keeping the laughter levels high, Blundell suggests the following.
Try To Focus On Things You Can Control (And Accept The Things You Can’t)
If you’re constantly battling with the things that are outside of your control, you’re only increasing your suffering. When something is worrying you, ask yourself, “Can I do something about this?”. If the answer is yes, make a plan to make small and manageable changes. If the answer is no, acknowledge your worry but try to let it go—practicing mindfulness might help.
For example, if you’re feeling worried about whether we will have a COVID-19 vaccine soon, acknowledge that you can remain hopeful but that this is outside of our control. Instead, focus on how you can cope as best you can by being kind to ourselves during this time of uncertainty. Make small manageable plans like scheduling something you enjoy, maintain a routine (see below) and follow health advice.
Try To Find New Routines With Some Structure, Predictability And Down-Time
Everything in our lives may have changed, but it is still possible to have a semi-structured routine. Wake up at the same time each day, take some time out for yourself without media and technology (perhaps the first 15 minutes when you wake each morning), and switch off your computer and stop email alerts after a certain time to create a work-life balance if you’re working from home.
Be Mindful And Immerse Yourself In The Present Moment
Being mindful and in the present moment allows us to develop our self-awareness and helps us respond to situations, rather than react (possibly in an unhelpful way). While being ‘in the present moment’ may not seem like much, it can be hugely beneficial. Not only does living more mindfully help us fully engage with the things we’re doing, it can also build resilience, self-awareness and productivity and reduce stress—all of which will help you avoid burnout.
Being on autopilot is the opposite of being mindful—like when you listen to a podcast and get so caught up in your own thoughts that you have no recollection of what you just listened to. Being mindful is about being fully engaging with what you are doing in the present moment. It’s about noticing thoughts and emotions but not getting stuck on them, and being aware of your surroundings.
Blundell has quick exercise to help you start working your mindfulness muscle. Focus on each of your five senses, one-by-one—sight, sound, touch, smell and taste—to ground yourself in the present moment. If you get distracted by thoughts, that’s normal—but just thank your mind for them and re-direct your attention. Try this for a few minutes every day while you’re doing something you always do, like having a shower or brushing your teeth. If you find it easier to be guided, you can check out apps like Headspace, Smiling Mind, insight timer and Calm.
Be Kind To Yourself
This might seem like an obvious one, but we’re often our harshest critics. Sometimes, we even beat ourselves up for feeling stressed and having trouble coping, which just makes things worse. Be compassionate with yourself because it’s okay to be having a hard time—remind yourself you’re doing the best you can. If this still feels difficult, try asking yourself “What would I say to a close friend if they were feeling like this?” You might also like to try a self-compassion audio meditation from self-compassion.org.
If you’re noticing some of the signs of burnout listed above it’s also okay—and expected —that you might need to reach out for further support from a professional, like a psychologist, such as those available online at My Mirror.
Ultimately, we’re just regular people coping the best we can with abnormal circumstances. As Blundell says, it’s time to normalise the process of reaching out to a professional when we feel like we need to check-in with our mental health and when we feel we could benefit from a few strategies to help us manage our mental wellbeing.
Kate Blundell is a Clinical Psychologist with research expertise at Macquarie University and the University of NSW, and she has a particular interest in stepped care and e-mental health. Kate has completed her Master of Clinical Psychology at Macquarie University for which she was awarded the Doctor John Franklin Prize for the Master of Clinical Psychology and the Vice-Chancellor’s Commendation of Academic Excellence. She has experience as a clinical psychologist in a variety of settings, including telehealth, face-to-face private practice, research, hospitals and schools.
Image credit: Ben Weber, Karsten Winege