I burst into tears on a recent house party call with my three best friends. “I’m really stressed out,” I sobbed and surprised myself. “I think I’m going COVID crazy.”
Our calls are usually a hoot, but we all felt used up. Jessi’s husband had heart surgery and no one was able to visit him because of COVID-19 restrictions. Katie is a flight attendant who can go on vacation anytime. Erica is an Infectious Disease Nurse – and a teacher – now that her 8 year old is studying from home.
Our brain is in a constant loop of: Virus. Family. Safety. Masks. Mail-in reconciliation. Racial injustice. Health care. Social distancing. Eat. Money. Job. Plastic never collapses. To repeat.
Experts say burnout is what happens when you have reached your limits mentally, emotionally, and physically. Most of us are already there: in a recent survey, 53% of adults surveyed said their mental health was negatively affected by pandemic stress – up from 32% in March.
Stressed or Burned Out?
Everyone feels overwhelmed from time to time, but the mental and physical consequences of prolonged stress can lead to serious health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity.
Burnout – the chronic state of physical or emotional exhaustion that brings with it a feeling of decreased performance and loss of personal identity – is a direct result of excessive, persistent stress.
The scary part is that you may not even know that you are about to burn out. Common symptoms of stress include headaches, muscle aches, and insomnia – which can be downplayed or overlooked because you’re stressed.
According to Lori Gordon-Michaeli, LCSW, who specializes in experiential psychotherapy, stress management is not an option – it is a necessity.
“Stress creates energy in the body and mind, so it is important to do something mental and physical every day or at least weekly to remove the energy,” she explained. “Otherwise you can have all sorts of things besides anxiety, depression, racing thoughts, or overthinking – it can cause anything from bad decisions to physical illness.”
Research before the pandemic showed a strong link between social isolation and poor mental and cardiovascular health. So what can we do to stay mentally fit when we are stuck at home?
If you have access to the great outdoors, a 15-minute walk around the block can make a huge difference, according to Gordon-Michaeli. But any physical activity you do, such as yoga, dance, or weight lifting, will have positive effects on your mental and physical health.
Another great way to relieve stress is to bring out your best Lady Gaga. A 2016 study linked singing to decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol in cancer patients. Previous studies also showed that music can reduce stress in surgical patients.
Dealing with burnout
Today, due to the pandemic, women are more than twice as likely to experience symptoms of stress and burnout as men.
“It feels like there is an obstacle in front of you that you cannot overcome because you are so overwhelmed,” said Gordon-Michaeli. “The best you can do is acknowledge that it’s okay. Give yourself permission to feel burned out,” she said, adding that this will help remove resistance.
Gordon-Michaeli recommends taking a day off to feel burned out. Distract yourself with a fun TV show or movie. The point is to take a break from thinking by keeping your mind engaged in an activity and breaking that connection with negative thoughts.
After enjoying that day, Gordon-Michaeli recommends incorporating stress management and rearranging your time to make sure you are taking time to rest. If you don’t, your body and brain will ask for it.
Another tip: plan something that inspires you. “When you’re burned out, there’s something to look forward to,” said Gordon-Michaeli.
Find your happy place
Businesses are starting to open again, but many of us are still working from home or faced with the uncertainty of getting back to work.
A recent study found that the multiple stresses people face from COVID-19 are likely to have future effects, such as burnout and stress-related absenteeism.
It is important to be proactive about your mental health, even when you are not experiencing symptoms.
Gordon-Michaeli said rethinking your work routine can help prevent burnout. If you can, designate a room that is only for work and only enter that room when you are at work. For those who don’t have that luxury, get in your car and drive around the block after getting dressed for work. When you return home, consider yourself at work. At the end of the day, close the store, get in your car, and drive around the block on the way home.
“It’s a psychological thing to set up your brain to understand that you’re at work …” said Gordon-Michaeli. “And if you go and come home, you can leave the workday behind and you don’t mix the two.”
For those who are really struggling with negative thinking, Gordon-Michaeli recommends adding a positive to every negative thought. You may think I’m stuck at home. Follow-up with: At least I am healthy. (Reluctantly though.) “It neutralizes negative thinking a little,” she said.
And when you are struggling with stress management or awareness exercises, think of your days as 24 hours and anything beyond that is not in your reality. “Take care of today and tomorrow will take care of yourself,” said Gordon-Michaeli. “For most people, it helps minimize worry.”