How do you recover from burnout? 8 steps I took
How do you recover from burnout, or prevent it altogether? Let’s start with what it is. Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an insidious thing that happens over a long period of time when you experience chronic stress, exhaustion or anxiety.
It can be both emotional and physical, and cause a range of symptoms from chronic fatigue, brain fog, digestive issues, lowered immunity, forgetfulness and insomnia, to feelings of detachment, cynicism and depression.
I know first hand just how overwhelming burnout feels, when, for as long as you can remember, you’ve been able to juggle all the spinning plates with ease, and suddenly even holding one feels like a mammoth effort.
It is completely possible to recover from burnout and to prevent it altogether, and by making changes now the likelihood is you will find a happier, healthier and more balanced you as a result.
Whether you feel you’re at risk of burnout or you’re already there, there is no better time to start taking action. Read on to find out important steps to take now, to get you back on track to good health.
Of course, if you are at all concerned about symptoms, whether physical or emotional, it is important to seek help from your GP as a first port of call.
8 steps I took to recover from burnout
1. Reduce chronic stress: Delegate, de-prioritise and dump
Those that tend to burnout are perfectionists, high achievers, and have a tendency to put others’ needs before their own. Sound familiar?
Those traits that make you a hardworking and diligent employee, and a supportive friend and family member, can undermine your health without you even realising it, if not kept in balance with self-care and healthy boundaries.
What is the cause of your chronic stress? There might be an obvious cause like a toxic work environment, or the answer may be less clear cut if you’ve had multiple commitments piling up over time.
Make a list of all your commitments and causes of stress, however small. Think seriously about what you actually need to do right now, and what could be delegated, delayed until you’re better or dumped completely.
You will need less pressure and more time for yourself to focus on recovery. It’s healthy to say no to commitments that are more than you can handle right now, and although this may feel uncomfortable at first, it will get easier with practice.
Seek support from your manager at work, explain what is happening and how you need things to change to support your health. You may be on sick leave, but if you are continuing to work – exploring the option to go part time, take time off or reduce your hours to support you while you recover, may be helpful.
Each morning ask yourself: What do I need today? Adjust commitments to suit your changing needs on a daily basis.
2. Practice diaphragmatic breathing
Breathing exercises are important because when you suffer from chronic stress, the chances are you have gotten into a pattern of “over-breathing” with your upper chest which is linked to the “fight-or-flight” state or sympathetic nervous system.
Think of a recent time you’ve felt acute stress: you may have had sweaty palms, rapid breathing or an increased heart rate. This is your sympathetic nervous system kicking in.
In this mode, your body releases a burst of stress hormones to prep you to run from or fight a perceived threat. This was an extremely useful short-term mechanism when our ancestors needed to flee from a sabre-toothed tiger. But in modern life, when the “threat” or source of stress is sustained over a long period of time, it leads to exhaustion.
Diaphragmatic breathing retrains the body to breathe into the belly, stimulating the vagus nerve and turning off the “fight-or-flight” response. With practice, the body will start entering this state automatically but after a long period of stress, we need to retrain it to do this. Use this simple exercise:
Lie, or sit, with your back straight and shoulders relaxed.
Have one hand on your chest, and one on your belly.
Close your eyes and take a gentle but deep breath into the belly.
Slowly breathe out.
Continue to breathe in this way. You should feel the hand on your belly gently move, but the hand on your chest should stay mostly still.
Practice for 5 minutes a day to start with, and increase as you feel more comfortable with it.
3. Daily relaxation
Because burnout is the product of chronic stress, an important part of prevention and recovery is retraining your nervous system to relax more frequently – letting it know you are “safe."
A bit of stress is crucial for us to function, but when your body is trained over time to be in a constant state of alert, the inflammatory effect of high levels of stress hormones are where significant physical and emotional symptoms come into play.
Take at least half an hour each day to dedicate to relaxation. Find whatever works best for you. That could be taking a bath, some gentle stretches, reading, meditation or a yoga routine. It could be calling a friend or taking a walk in nature.
4. Clean up your diet
What you eat and drink can play a big role in recovery and getting back on track.
The catch-22 with the slippery slope to burnout is our biology changes and we crave sugar and carbohydrates to cope with the increasing demands, so you may be reaching for the sweet stuff more and more.
When stress hormones are released, the body releases glucose which causes a spike in our blood sugar levels. When you are continually stressed, this makes it challenging to maintain stable blood sugar levels which can lead to anxiety, insomnia and cravings.
Reducing or eliminating sugary treats, and eating whole grains (think brown rice, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, millet and oats) instead of processed grains, will help stabilise your blood sugar levels and prevent the rollercoaster of blood sugar highs and lows.
Chronic stress puts your body in a pro-inflammatory state so it’s also important to think about supporting your body with anti-inflammatory foods like a broad variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins and healthy fats (e.g avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds).
5. Keep hydrated
When we are dehydrated, our cortisol levels increase. Aim to drink 6 to 7 glasses of water slowly over the course of the day to stay hydrated.
Caffeine will stimulate the “fight-or-flight” response, so I would urge you to think long and hard about reducing or cutting out caffeine altogether while you recover.
If you continue to have some caffeine, drink an extra glass of water for every caffeinated beverage, as this will also be dehydrating you.
6. Gentle movement
Incorporating movement into our daily routine is a foundational part of good emotional and physical health. Vigorous physical activity introduces additional stress, and it’s good to avoid this when you’ve been under intense emotional pressure for some time, so choose activities that are gentle like walking, swimming or yoga.
Not only is physical activity extremely beneficial for our mental health and mindset, but it will support your immune system and recovery from burnout.
7. Prioritise sleep
When I was ill, I had insomnia and sleep felt like a distant memory! That horrible feeling of being “tired but wired” at night is very common when you’re suffering with chronic fatigue and burnout, but you can slowly improve your sleep by taking practical steps.
Stick to a consistent bedtime routine, even if you aren’t immediately sleeping any better. Routine helps our body clock adjust, and gradually you’ll find it easier to fall asleep earlier. The most restorative sleep for recovery is caught between 10pm and 2am so aim to be in bed by 10pm if you can.
Getting sun exposure in the morning has been proven to increase serotonin levels and improve sleep quality. Start your day with a short walk outside, or sit in the garden with a cup of tea.
If you are struggling in this area, my blog post on sleep goes into more detail on steps to take to get restorative rest.
8. Seek help
Burnout is the result of a huge emotional and physical toll, and you may be feeling overwhelmed, frightened, or even be processing feelings of guilt and failure for no longer being able to work or look after your family to the level you have been.
Being unwell is in no way a failure. Talk about how you're feeling and seek support from friends, family and your workplace.
Please seek professional help from a therapist if you are struggling with your emotional state. Speak to your GP for a referral or you can find private counselling support through this directory.
Recovery from burnout takes time
Time heals all wounds but it might not be to your timescale, and that’s okay. It’s not possible to overcome months, or even years, of chronic stress within a week or two.
Manage your own expectations that this will take time. I know from my own experience that this may be a hard pill to swallow, but there will also be great benefits from using this time to learn to listen to your body’s needs as you recover.
As a result of being ill and suffering from burnout, I changed my lifestyle and mindset considerably. This wasn’t an easy process (I still need to manage my perfectionist tendencies and find balance!) but I’m truly happier, healthier, stronger and have more energy and focus than I can ever remember having.
As an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, I specialise in supporting women to prevent and overcome burnout and chronic stress, helping you to regain your energy levels, focus and passion for life.
I offer a free 50 minute consultation online, to discuss your concerns and see if working together is the right next step. Contact me today to schedule your consultation.
This post is not intended to treat, diagnose or prevent any medical condition. It is intended for educational purposes only and not to replace medical advice. If you have concerns, please speak to your GP.