What Can I Do About Burnout?

Burnout is the feeling of exhaustion that helpers sometimes experience when they have taken on more than they can handle. But there is much we can do to prevent it, and to work with it when it occurs.

Karen Kissel Wegela2 June 2021

This week my husband Fred and I were standing in a small windowless room with our veterinarian, looking at x-rays of one of our dogs, Ziji. The vet, Alan, pointed to an area in the lung and indicated that there was a mass that could be malignant.

At that point I sensed a wave of dizziness and heat, and felt like I was about to keel over. Fred and Alan quickly noticed and came to my assistance. They walked me out to the waiting room and tended to me, suggesting I sit down and lower my head. I have never actually fainted in my life, so I was quite surprised and not a little frightened by how I was feeling.

Physically, burnout can manifest in exhaustion, muscle tension, clumsiness and dizziness. Emotionally, we might find that we have hair-trigger reactivity, feelings of anger, sadness, depression, and inadequacy.

In the past few months I have been feeling overwhelmed by a variety of events in my personal and professional life. Among other things, I am about to step down after fifteen years as director of the M.A. Contemplative Psychotherapy program at Naropa, and I feel like I am handing “my baby” into other hands.

As I’ve said before in this column, transitions, even ones that we seek out, are challenging. I am experiencing what helpers call “burnout,” and it is showing up in my body, my emotions, and my mind.

Burnout refers to the kind of exhaustion or feeling of overload that professional and other helpers sometimes experience when they have taken on more than they feel that they can comfortably or appropriately handle. Physically, burnout can manifest in exhaustion, muscle tension, clumsiness and dizziness. Emotionally, we might find that we have hair-trigger reactivity. Feelings of anger, sadness and even depression are not uncommon. We might feel hopeless and inadequate.

Angry outbursts and tears might pop out at seemingly silly things, and our minds might feel chock full of thoughts that whirl rapidly from one topic to another. One of the most pernicious symptoms of burnout is the belief that there must be something terribly wrong with us to find ourselves in such a state. We lose all sense of maitri (unconditional friendliness to all aspects of our experience). Instead we become self-aggressive. This is especially easy for helpers to do. We are likely to habitually buy a storyline about ourselves as being helpful, useful people, and in situations where that storyline is not being supported, it is a blow to our attempts to create an ego based on seeing ourselves as “helpers.” Doubts about who we are get added to our other feelings of distress.

Often the way we deal with what comes our way is at the root of burnout. There is much we can do to work with preventing it, as well as with working with it when it occurs.

One of the biggest causes of burnout is the desynchronization of body and mind.

First we ignore small cues that we are not fully present: we don’t get enough sleep or food, or we over-schedule ourselves. This leads to still more separation of body and mind, as we speed up to accomplish more. If we ignore these initial signs of burnout, we might become physically ill or even more mentally frazzled.

An additional cause is becoming attached to outcomes. If we are focusing on what will happen in the future, we lose track of the present moment. This happens a lot for professional helpers: we want so much for the situation to improve, we want the person we’re trying to help to feel better. This is exhausting, and it makes us less helpful since we’re only partially present.

In order to synchronize mind and body, we need to reconnect with the nowness of this very moment. Underneath all of our obsessive worrying, our mindless ditziness and poor judgment is the fact that body and mind are not together.

There are four key ideas in working with and preventing burnout. The first is bringing ourselves into contact with nowness. The second is learning to make realistic choices about what we can and cannot accomplish. The third is cultivating maitri. The fourth is getting help from others instead of trying to do it all alone.

In order to synchronize mind and body, we need to reconnect with the nowness of this very moment. Underneath all of our obsessive worrying, our mindless ditziness and poor judgment is the fact that body and mind are not together.

If we can bring ourselves gently back to this moment, this body, this place, we can start to slow down our wild minds. Bringing body and mind back into connection in the present moment helps us discriminate between what is actually happening and what we fear or hope is happening. This is an enormous help. Making choices about what we can and cannot realistically do is also based on being grounded in the present moment.

The simplest thing to do is to breathe.

Taking some breaths and paying attention to that experience can help us feel grounded. When we feel burnt out, especially if we are anxious, we tend to hold our breath.

Noticing our sense perceptions can help us reorient to this place in this moment. While writing this morning, I suddenly realized I’d forgotten to start the crock-pot for dinner. I dashed off to take care of it and then left for my day’s appointments. On the way home, I forgot to pick up the cat and had to circle back to the vet’s.

So, now that I am back at my computer, I am taking some of my own advice. I am enjoying some mindful breaths. I am looking up and noticing the trees and fields outside the window. I am getting up and petting Ziji where he rests awaiting his lung surgery. These things are helping me be right here, right now. My mind is slowing down a bit, and my heart is softening. As I tell you of the mindless things I did today, I feel some humor and maitri. I am practicing feeling whatever arises and letting it be just what it is, instead of what I’d prefer it to be. So these are some ways to practice the first three key ideas.

The fourth thing that I can do is to get some assistance and support from my friends, family and colleagues. I can go for a walk with a friend. I can ask someone to help with all of the picking up and dropping off of animals. And for professional helpers, it is always important to engage in on-going supervision or peer consultation to prevent personal difficulties from affecting one’s work with others.

Most importantly, I can walk myself into my meditation room and sit down on my cushion. I can let go of the false sense of urgency that there is something else that I must be doing at this second.

A number of years ago I worked with a client who was a Naropa student and a meditation practitioner. He told me something that I often reflect on. “You know,” he said, “when I’m really busy and don’t have time to practice meditation, I never have enough time. But if I do practice, then somehow there’s more space, and I have enough time for everything.”

Karen Kissel Wegela

Karen Kissel Wegela

Karen Kissel Wegela, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice and a professor in Naropa University’s MA Contemplative Psychotherapy and Buddhist Psychology department. Her most recent book is Contemplative Psychotherapy Essentials: Enriching Your Practice with Buddhist Psychology.