Things had been getting worse all spring. I snapped at my boyfriend almost every time we were together, blaming hunger or fatigue for my attitude, and wondered if the constant irritation was a sign we shouldn’t be together. One night in June, I called my best friend in a panic. I told her I wasn’t sure if I loved my boyfriend anymore.
Then she spoke the words that changed my life. “Do you feel anything at all right now?” My body felt frozen, my mind swirled wildly, and I realized: I didn’t. I had no emotions left. I was numb.
This, my friends, is what we call burnout.
Let me give you some context. I was in a serious long-distance relationship, so my weekends were spent with my boyfriend in one town or another, and I crammed the rest of my life into five days a week. I got up at 5 a.m. to put in an hour of freelancing before getting ready for work. Evenings were filled with more work, young adult groups, baking or “unwinding” with Netflix, and I usually crawled into bed around 11. Oh, and did I mention I was praying the Magnificat three times a day, plus Morning, Midday, Evening and Night Prayer from the Divine Office, plus half an hour of lectio divina? Not to mention participating in WeightWatchers, exercising twice a week and walking 10,000 steps a day. (We won’t mention how often my day fell short of this ideal I’d set.)
I was living the American Catholic dream. Man, I was proud of my life — right up until I realized just how deep in trouble I was.
I’d been slowly realizing that something was wrong. After reading and identifying with an article on burnout, I knew I was overcommitted and under-maintained, and a couple of anxiety spirals had terrified me. But until I heard my friend’s words, I hadn’t admitted I was sick.
When you come down with a bad cold, you have two options: push through with the help of cold medicine and a couple extra boxes of Kleenex; or stay home, eat chicken noodle soup and watch cheesy rom-coms until you feel better. Those of us who are most likely to end up in burnout probably fall into the first category. And that tends to be how we treat burnout, too — if I just push through, if I make it through this week’s obligations, I’ll be fine. I’ll slow down after the holidays. I’ll feel better when this project is done.
There’s a problem with that. A cold will run its course in a few days, one way or the other. Burnout is a long-term diagnosis. It will not get better without treatment. I’m not sure what the next stage after burnout is, but given the experience of the friend whose wisdom pulled me out, there’s a decent likelihood of some level of breakdown.
Since I can’t be your personal burnout recovery coach, here are some tips I’ve learned along my own journey:
- Decide that the next month is Burnout Recovery Month. Start today. You are sick and need to heal.
- Make sleep a priority. Get eight hours of sleep per night, and keep to a routine. Schedule half an hour before bedtime to wind down, putter around and shut off all electronics. Go to bed at the same time every night, and get up at the same time every morning. (Bonus tip: I found that syncing my body with the sun helped a lot — I would turn down the lights as evening fell, and use candles or dim lights for the last couple hours after bed.)
- Assess your current outside-of-work activities. What are you in charge of/have responsibility for? Ask someone to take over that for the next month. Don’t ever feel the need to explain that you are in burnout. You are sick. That is your reason. If you can, don’t even show up at anything for a month. And above all, don’t let yourself feel guilty about it. You’ll be back to full strength soon enough.
- Evaluate your prayer life. Are you sacrificing quality for quantity? Check with your spiritual director or a friend and make sure you keep the essentials, but cut out all the extra devotions that are not bringing you life. Mass, Rosary, 20-30 minutes of daily lectio divina. That’s it. Add weekly adoration only when you feel like you can manage it, or go to adoration but don’t beat yourself up when your mind wanders or your eyes close. A half hour of loving meditation will draw you closer to God than will extra devotions prayed with an empty heart and a tangled mind.
- What do you have in your schedule that you are “supposed to be doing” but can’t and then feel guilty about? For me, it was trying to lose weight. I needed to relieve myself of that internal sense of obligation, and just unsubscribing to WeightWatchers felt like a weight lifted. Maybe you feel like you must cook all your meals. If so, switch to frozen food just for the next few weeks. Look at your hobbies. What have you been doing under a time crunch or for someone else? Set them aside for now. If you truly enjoy them, you’ll be able to get back into them later with no trouble.
- One last note: Burnout is a roller coaster. Be gentle with yourself. This is a process of detoxing and building new healthy habits. You’ll likely slip back close to burnout again, but when you do, just remember “sleep and prayer.” This is your new mantra. You feel overwhelmed, reason clouded by emotions you don’t understand? Time for another week of having absolutely no priorities besides getting eight hours of sleep and making time for half an hour of really focused prayer.
If this sounds like you, spend January — and maybe February and I highly recommend March, too — detoxing from burnout. You’ll discover that you’ll think more clearly, love more joyfully, give more generously. You’ll find hidden strength within yourself. You’ll come out on the other side of Easter in possession of yourself and maybe even a new you, in the best way.
Rebecca Willen serves as Associate Editor for Our Sunday Visitor’s trade books, a role she describes as “book midwife” — ensuring the happy delivery of a healthy new book in the OSV family. Rebecca is under first promises as a Lay Dominican and is engaged to be married in May. Out of the office, you can usually find her singing, baking or reading.