When Melissa Bunkers went back to work as a nurse practitioner after having a baby, she couldn’t do anything like she used to — from getting out of bed to doing any exercise whatsoever. “I started to experience extreme fatigue, anxiety, nausea, insomnia and mood swings,” she tells me. As a medical professional, she knew something had to be terribly wrong. “I was missing out on precious time with my family because I was always in bed, so I had my primary care provider run a few basic labs.”
The good news and bad news was that her tests came back fine and her doctor pronounced her perfectly healthy. “But I wouldn’t accept that as an answer,” Bunkers recalls. So she started doing her own research, and finally diagnosed herself as completely burned out. The thing is, she didn’t know where to start in terms of fixing that, or how to keep it from happening again.
To the latter point, unlike physical illnesses such as COVID, burnout doesn’t produce antibodies that will help you fight against it in the future. “Experiencing burnout once doesn’t provide any protective benefits — it’s actually the opposite,” Bunkers says. In other words, if you’ve burnt out once, you’re probably more flammable in the future.
That said, other experts believe that it’s possible to inoculate yourself from another round of burnout, as long as you catch it early and take it seriously. When therapist Bridgit Dengel Gaspard first started her private practice years ago, she was simultaneously working at a clinic and wearing herself down in the process. One day, when she was giving a demonstration to her colleagues about a therapeutic practice known as “voice dialogue,” she found herself on the verge of a breakdown. “I was constantly running against the clock and ignoring my achy, fatigued body,” she tells me.
After some self-reflection over the weeks that followed, she realized her work at the clinic was making it harder to pursue her true passion of helping people through her private practice. “Work at the clinic felt suffocating and not aligned with my values,” Gaspard explains, which is what motivated her to fully gamble on herself.
Gaspard acknowledges that a majority of people don’t have the privilege of being able to quit their jobs and work for themselves. For everyone else, she suggests starting small and pragmatically. “Check your schedule and your body,” she says. “Make a list of all the tasks and obligations that can be put off until tomorrow.” Gaspard also recommends making use of the mental-health acronym HALT, which usually serves as a reminder to not make any decisions when you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.
However, in the context of burnout, HALT is a signal to stop pushing yourself when you feel any of those ways. Moreover, attend to your body as much as you can by going to bed early at least once a week, exercising regularly and keeping up with preventative health appointments. Overall, “how you handle the current episode of burnout predicts whether or not you’re protected against future burnout,” Gaspard says. “It takes longer to recuperate the longer you don’t pay attention to the warnings.”
Beyond the HALT foursome of feeling hungry, angry, lonely and tired, the biggest indicator of being burnt out is feeling like nothing will get any easier no matter what, and that there will always be more work to do. When this happens, our first instinct is to power through when what your body desperately needs is time to recover.
Bunkers agrees, saying the most common mistake people make — after attending to her own burnout symptoms for the better part of nine months, Bunkers eventually shifted her career to helping others treat and prevent burnout through her own practice — is “trying to push through the symptoms by drinking more caffeine, ignoring self-care and refusing to slow down and allow their body the rest it needs.”
Perhaps that’s why when someone burns out once, they’re much more prone to doing it again — i.e., the impulse to fight burnout is what keeps it coming back with a vengeance. So if you’re in a battle with burnout, it may be worth letting the burnout take the first round. That way, you can rest up for the remainder of the match, which is only the rest of your life.