Elizabeth Millard shared with email@example.com with daunting work tasks, never-finished housework, and raging political firestorms, it’s easy to feel depleted. But when does that frazzle turn from temporary stress into chronic stress and burnout?
“We’re not machines, we all have a limit,” says Jephtha Tausig-Edwards, M.D., a New York–based clinical psychologist. “If you hit that, then you come to the point where you can’t function effectively,” she tells SELF.
Clinically, burnout is defined as having three distinct components: a feeling of low personal accomplishment, detachment from others, and emotional exhaustion. This might come from overwork, but almost any aspect of life can deliver chronic stress if there’s a sense of being overwhelmed.
For example, you could get burned out from volunteer work, exercise, family responsibilities, or any combination of the above. So you’re chairing five committees, dog sitting for a neighbor, and just took on a major basement cleanout? That cracking sound you hear is your self-care abilities splintering.
Here’s how to recognize when you’re suffering from over-the-top stress and burnout:
1. Those stupid-funny videos on social media suddenly don’t make you laugh anymore.
Jokes that would have seemed sidesplitting before are now just meh. Funny movies seem more annoying than amusing. Even the sneezing baby panda video has you rolling your eyes. Welcome to grim burnout land.
“Loss of your sense of humor is very common in burnout, and that’s related to a shift in your emotional perspective,” says Dr. Tausig-Edwards. When you’re under pressure, your sense of playfulness and spontaneity fade, she says. Nothing feels light and fun anymore, just kind of a dreary slog.
2. Your back kills, and now you’ve got an endless cold, too.
Stress increases cortisol, the hormone responsible for your fight-or-flight response. When that’s activated, your immune system is temporarily depressed in order to get you the hell out of whatever danger you’re in. But if you’re dealing with such chronic stress that you become burned out, your immune system is taking a major hit all the time.
“If you push through the warning signs, then it’s hello back pain, poor sleep, and respiratory infections,” says Michael Jonesco, M.D., a sports medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
High cortisol levels can also cause a breakdown in your musculoskeletal system as well as your immune and nervous systems. You might feel achy, like you’re fighting the flu constantly, or have tight shoulders and neck muscles.
3. You’ve gone from being an expert multitasker to fuzzy-brained and frantic.
Maybe you used to be a multitasking pro, and now single tasks feel demanding. Or you simply lack the focus to do anything well, and you’re basically half-assing whatever you take on—no matter how motivated you may be.
Burnout causes a significant drop in mental resources, says Dr. Tausig-Edwards. “The mind becomes distressed,” she notes. “There’s a sense of pressure that causes it to withhold its energy to protect itself.” That results in feeling distracted, inefficient, and easily frustrated. You can’t seem to devote all your mental energy to anything.
4. You just cannot deal One. More. Day with these people!
It’s possible that every single one of your coworkers, clients, and supervisors is incredibly annoying—let’s face it, most of us have worked at that place—but if that feeling is a recent shift, burnout might be more to blame than personality clashes.
“At some point, working with other people requires greater and greater effort,” says Carol Bernstein, M.D., in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center. “It might even feel that way with friends.”
One distinctive aspect of burnout is seeing other people more as objects than humans, says Michelle Dossett, M.D., Ph.D, of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. That results in a drop in empathy and increased feelings of detachment, she says.
To soothe the burn, adjust your expectations and reprioritize your life.
If you’ve gone through this list and realized it sounds all too familiar, what are the next steps? For one thing, start saying no, advises Dr. Bernstein.
Recognize what’s causing chronic stress and cut down where you can. Let your house be messy, go to bed unfashionably early, put your phone away for at least an hour before sleep, exercise daily, and get outside more. This is all common advice, but people tend to put tasks like these way down on to-do lists, when they should be up top, says Dr. Bernstein.
Also, keep in mind that what works for someone else might not be best for you. “If journaling about your feelings feels like one more task you need to take on, don’t do it,” she says. “Instead, recognize what actually makes you feel less stressed and more resilient.”
Burnout can happen for an hour or for months, she adds. When you begin seeing the signs, switch over more often to stuff you enjoy doing. Then keep doing it.
“Most people have a sense of what nourishes them,” Dr. Bernstein says. “When you’re feeling depleted, focus on getting replenished, in whatever way feels healthy for you.”