A recent Asana study showed that 40% of employees believe that burnout is an inevitable part of success. While more of us feel burnt out than ever before, that does not mean you have to remain stuck in the burnout cycle to reach your goals. The secret? You have to recognize where you’re at in the burnout cycle in order to break free and move on to burnout prevention.

Here’s how.

What is the Burnout Cycle?

In order to perform your best, you need a full tank of mental, emotional, and physical resources. If you’re in the burnout cycle, you drain your resources before being able to refill the tank. When you reach this point, you don’t have the internal resources you need to manage stressors. 

The worst part is that it is a cycle. In other words, your own actions keep you stuck in the loop.

Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North have narrowed down the burnout cycle to 12 steps:

  1. You want to prove yourself and demonstrate your worth.
  2. You start working harder.
  3. You neglect your needs, disrupting your normal eating, sleeping, and social patterns.
  4. You dismiss concerns about being overworked and begin feeling jittery or panicky.
  5. Your values shift, with work becoming more important than hobbies, friends, and family.
  6. As you deny emerging issues resulting from this behaviour, you feel intolerant or cynical of others.
  7. You withdraw from social life.
  8. Family and friends become concerned about your behavioural changes.
  9. You dissociate and lose sight of the value in yourself and others.
  10. Life feels empty or mechanical.
  11. You feel lost, exhausted, unsure, and depressed.
  12. You hit true burnout, with both mental and physical collapse possible.

You may not go through them in exactly that order and there is often overlap, but in my professional and personal burnout experience, these 12 elements are nearly always there in one form or another.

Do any of them sound familiar?

If so, keep reading…

Breaking Free From Burnout

So – you think that you’re in the burnout cycle. How do you get out? Try these 3 tips:

1. Make time to rest and recover

In order to step out of the cycle, you must first recover so you have the energy to change your behaviour down the line. Give yourself time to rest, then identify your stressors and reduce or remove them.

Once you get support and establish boundaries, you can get back in the driver’s seat. More on that here.

2. Learn to complete your stress cycle

Emily and Amelia Nagoski outline the stress cycle in their book Burnout.

In essence, they explain that even after a stressor is removed (for example, you turn in a big project) your body still holds onto the stress (physical, emotional, and mental).

It’s still in the middle of that stress response. In order to step away from burnout, you must process the stress, or as they refer to it – complete the cycle. That way, you get your energy back and are better able to cope when the next stressor comes. 

The authors identified six evidence-based ways to release stress and move on: 

  • Physical activity
  • Creativity
  • Laughing
  • Crying
  • Physical affection
  • Deep breathing

Different ones will work better at different times, so experiment with them. Keep a note of how you felt before and after and use this to guide you to better manage your stress in the future.

3. Get back in the driver’s seat

Psychologist Taibi Kahler defined five common unconscious drivers that determine how we’re motivated to behave in situations.

These drivers can positively impact you and help you reach your goals, but they can also lead you towards destructive and dysfunctional behaviours if you go into autopilot and allow them to take over. 

They are:

  • Be perfect: Everything has to be right and perfect. You have impossibly high standards and spend too much time making sure you get things just right.
  • Be strong: You want to have everything under control and can stay calm and steady in every situation, never showing stress or admitting you need help.
  • Hurry up: You get a lot done quickly and deadlines motivate you. Sometimes you make mistakes because you value speed. You may also delay work until it is urgent.
  • Please others: You want the approval of others above all else. You’re understanding and pleasant to be around, but you lack assertiveness and courage.
  • Try hard: You’re enthusiastic, energised, and interested in many different things. You might become bored with detailed work, leave work undone, or turn small tasks into much bigger projects.

Behaviours that help & harm

Let me give you an example to bring this to life. Imagine that you needed an operation – nothing life-threatening! You would want the surgeon operating on you to have very high standards,  right? You would want them to get everything just right during the procedure so there were no complications afterwards.

Now, imagine that same surgeon in front of you in the supermarket. Packing their bags with precision. Delicately placing each item slowly and meticulously into the bags. Oblivious to the fact that you are starving / desperate for the bathroom / have a child to collect or a parking ticket that’s about to expire.

Can you see how the drivers, when utilised in the right context, are beneficial, necessary, and may even be a superpower?

But when used at the wrong time or for the wrong, those drivers can have quite the opposite effect. Not just on you but on those around you. 

By identifying your drivers – aka dysfunctional behaviours – you can use your unique strengths to your advantage. You will become more in-tune with your behaviours, notice when they become destructive, and reign yourself in to avoid the burnout cycle.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Once you get stuck in the burnout cycle, it can be hard to get out. And it can be even harder to know what to do to prevent yourself from getting sucked back in. Learning how to create healthy, sustainable ways of working will help and act as the foundation of your burnout prevention toolkit.

Regardless of where you’re at in the cycle, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Burnout can be a really lonely place, but it doesn’t have to be. 

If you’re feeling frazzled and aren’t sure what to do, start by taking my free burnout test. It will help you get your stress levels in check and give you tips on how you can break away from stress and stay burnout free.

If you’re ready to really make a change, check out my 1:1 coaching services – I specialise in helping ambitious but overwhelmed humans. If that sounds like you, I can help you flip the script so you get back in control. Of course, feel free to reach out to me with any questions!

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