Three Signs of Burnout and What to Do

Burnout Signs Therapist Counseling

For most therapists in the field, feeling “run-down” can be a real hazard of the job. It may be hard to tell the difference between healthy or toxic stress and, beyond that, to gauge if you are handling it well.

If you find yourself asking questions like, “Am I making any difference?” or “Did I choose the right career?,” you may be experiencing signs of burnout.

Just this year, the World Health Organization added burnout to the ICD 11, a long-time companion to the DSM. It defined the experience as an “occupational hazard” marked by three factors: 

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  3. Reduced professional efficacy

It’s likely that we may experience one or all of these symptoms from time to time, but what are the factors that lead to full-on burnout syndrome? A recent Gallup survey showed that certain work environments pose a larger risk for burnout than others. The most common aspects of these environments are: having an overwhelming workload, unfair treatment, role confusion, lack of support from a manager and unreasonable expectations. 

For more information about the signs of burnout, check out this great resource from PsychologyToday.

For therapists and others in the helping professions, there is an additional factor at play. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky identifies this as “trauma exposure response.” Trauma exposure response is defined as “the transformation that takes place within us as a result of exposure to the suffering of other living beings or the planet.” 

For those of us interacting with human suffering on a daily basis, a trauma exposure response can start to consist of: 

  • Never feeling rested enough
  • Diminished creative impulses
  • Difficulty empathizing
  • Numbing with substances or behaviors
  • Anger and cynicism toward clients
  • Constantly feeling on edge
  • The need to always be “doing something”
  • Difficulty embracing complex situations or concepts, 
  • Dissociative moments
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Missing work or “checking out” during the workday

So what can you do to mitigate these factors? Bessel van Der Kolk, a leading trauma expert, identified four factors in his book Psychological Trauma (1987, 2003) that are common in “stress resistant persons.” We’ll flesh them out below and add our tips for putting them into practice.  

Cultivate a Sense of Personal Control

This means believing in your ability to influence the course of your life. It can be so easy, especially with the daunting task of licensure and job search, to feel helpless. Personally, I had a Clinical Supervisor that repeated to me “you can do anything you want” in a way that helped me realize I was not stuck. Let yourself dream about your future, whether by non-dominant hand journaling, the use of a personal mantra, seeking an inspiring Clinical Supervisor or traveling to experience new opportunities. 

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

-Viktor Frankl

Pursue Personally Meaningful Tasks

Whether at work or in your personal life, pursuing tasks you find important furthers your ability to be present and engaged in your life, giving you more of a sense of control. Practice present moment awareness through meditation and grounding exercises.

“There are a number of reasons why being the present moment is helpful…One is that until we slow down long enough to honestly feel how we are doing, we can’t assess our current state and what we need.”

-Laura Vandernoot Lipsky

Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices

van der Kolk makes this one simple. He says this involves decreasing the use of “known dietary stimulants of refined white sugar, caffeine and nicotine; …multiple periods of hard exercise each week; and…time each day for a period of relaxation”. 

Nurture Social Supports

Many times, socializing is the first to go when we are overwhelmed. But for numerous reasons, connection with others is the source of our greatest strength. If you feel like you can’t possibly engage one more human, try going to a coffee shop, mall or park to be in the presence of others without having to expend social energy. Being around nature earns you similar benefits. 

“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much” 

-Helen Keller

What do you notice are your personal signs of burnout? What kinds of things do you do to help yourself? We’d love to hear from you on Twitter @WeAreMotivo.

Katie Woodruff, MAMFT

Katie Woodruff, MAMFT

Katie Woodruff has a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy with a specialization in trauma-informed care. She has worked in community mental health, female prison, and in private practice. A Louisiana native and Tennessee transplant, she is currently living in post-graduate/pre-licensure purgatory and understands the need for Motivo all too well. She enjoys unpredictable weather, her misunderstood pit bull and most of all, a good sense of humor.

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