What is burnout?
Emily and Amelia Nagoski, PhDs, authors of the book “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” describe burnout as, “If you feel overwhelmed and exhausted by what you have to do and still feel like you’re not enough, that’s burnout.”
Burnout is defined as a sign of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. To read more about the specific physical, mental, and emotional symptoms read this article in Psychology Today.
If this sounds familiar, keep reading.
What is Spoon Theory?
Spoon Theory is an energy management framework for people with chronic illness, but I’ve also found it to be immensely helpful when recovering from burnout. Checking on my energy (aka Spoons) quickly became part of my life after a near-death experience and the recovery from burnout that followed.
One big similarity between chronic illness and burnout is that in both scenarios sleep doesn’t always guarantee a recharge of energy. Those of us with chronic illness fall asleep each night hoping for the best when we plan our lives but don’t know how much energy we’ll wake up with in the morning or how much energy our chronic illness will require that day.
Using Spoon Theory in your life means checking in with yourself to see if you are having a low, medium, or high energy day and adjusting accordingly. The goal is to make it through the end of the day with enough energy to do what you need to do. (Notice that I wrote “need” and not “want.”) It also means making sure that you don’t overdo it in a day of high energy and end up depleted the next day.
You can read more about this at the But You Don’t Look Sick website. This story by Christine Miserandino provides an impactful explanation of what it’s like to navigate the world with chronic illness.
Why should you use Spoon Theory when recovering from burnout?
As someone with multiple autoimmune conditions and having recovered from burnout I know first-hand the benefits of treating burnout like a diagnosis. I’m also a blend of science and spirit, which you’ll see a bit of here.
Often with autoimmune conditions, there are multiple symptoms no clear diagnosis. Unfortunately, the same is true for burnout.
Burnout can often be the trigger of underlying conditions. Another, not-super-scientific, way burnout shows up is when the body is stressed and starts creating mysterious symptoms. It can be our body's way of telling us something is wrong in hopes of getting us to slow down. Unfortunately, we can’t always get a diagnosis in these scenarios. (more on that in a few paragraphs)
In autoimmune conditions, the body flares up (gets irritated) and attacks itself causing a wide variety of symptoms. There are good days with no symptoms and not-so-good days with symptoms. We don’t always know the trigger that leads to a flare-up. We can’t always prevent those triggers and flare-ups either, but we do the best we can to alleviate them.
One thing is for sure, stress often leads to flare-ups.
It's not all in your head.
Stress is a beast. There is no organ system that is safe from being affected by it. The medical community may be quick to make it sound like our symptoms are in our heads because they don't fit in a clearly defined category.
Is it stress-related? Probably
Do you probably need more sleep? Who doesn’t
Does that mean you don’t have a valid medical issue? No, but the medical community can only treat what shows up in labwork with clinically significant values.
I know first-hand that "Not Clinically Significant" can still be Quality of Life significant.
Often, we need a balance of medicine and lifestyle change. If you can get medical help, awesome. That will help ease the pressure on you to make changes in your life.
If you can’t get clear answers from the medical community, I feel your pain. Truly.
Either way, it’s wise to do your part in your lifestyle to get to a better place with your health. If you’re in survival mode right now and can’t even imagine that luxury, I understand. I’ve been there, too. Be in this for the long haul and trust that you’ll be able to gradually make healthier and healthier decisions. Every little bit of hope and success that you feel in your life has the power to keep growing with tender loving care.
Learning about Spoon Theory in 2015 meant honoring the diagnoses I already had and doing my part to not make things worse.
When recovering from burnout the goal becomes to figure out your triggers for mysterious symptoms and flare-ups, and do your part to avoid them. Also, have a plan in place when flareups happen.
I know this is way easier said than done. I also know it can be done.
For example, I'll never get rid of Type 1 Diabetes. No amount of self-care or positive thinking will change that. A cure would be the only way for my body to produce insulin again. That being said, I can make choices for my life that lead to less stress, less insulin resistance, and slightly less need for insulin. I don't try to be the perfect diabetic anymore. That would be stressful for me. That's what led to my burnout in the first place. I do make choices that allow me to have a healthy-ish and enjoyable life. (I talk more about think in the blog post, "Spoon Theory and Type 1 Diabetes: How to Manage Your Energy and Your Blood Sugar.")
If you’re in burnout, then you’re probably the kind of person that is often told they are "doing too much." Sometimes that’s an internal drive, but it can also be a means of survival in life. We all need food to eat and a roof over our heads. Either way, it’s not easy to change. (I know from experience.)
It takes time to slow the momentum of your life and redirect it in a healthier way. There’s no quick fix or reset button. It won’t happen overnight. We can attempt to quit everything, but we also have to change the habits and patterns that got us to burnout in the first place.
I believe in you.
To learn more about how to recover from burnout and create a strong foundation of self-care and stress management for yourself, check out Spoonful of Burnout Relief. It's a toolkit of practical self-care and stress relief options that you can experiment with and add to your life.