What comes to mind when you hear the word “burnout?” Or, more likely, what comes up in your body when you hear that word? “Burnout” triggers a very visceral response because nearly all of us have experienced it. Being a visual person, my definition is the image of a matchstick burning at both ends. Stress from work or any aspect of our lives, which is not successfully managed, can lead to burnout symptoms like feeling rundown mentally and physically, brain fog, and impatience. Understandably, this doesn’t make for a very pleasant person or effective employee.
So, where do we go from here? What does the roadmap out of “Burnoutville” look like? The good news is we have a ton of options — but it takes practice.
The first step, as with many things, is acknowledging there is a problem, with self-awareness and acceptance of where we are right now. If we don’t have a starting point, we can’t map out where to go from here. Even if we identify some burnout in just one area of our lives, we want to douse that fire now before things spread and get worse.
The second step is bringing some self-compassion and kindness. Once we accept what’s going on, we can stop and say to ourselves “hey, it’s ok, this is how it is right now and I’m human, not perfect.” Be very aware of the instinct to go straight to judgment and berate ourselves for not being enough. Think of what you would say to a close friend if they were in the same situation.
From here, the path has many forks, but luckily, all are the correct choice. Most people experiencing burnout symptoms want to build resiliency to restore a balance they once felt. Resiliency is a great tool to invest in that will not only help with current burnout, but build a habit to help recover from future ups and downs. One of my favorite quotes is the Zen proverb, "you can’t stop the waves from coming, but you can learn to surf."
How do we learn to surf? By building our mental fitness with mindfulness techniques. I like using the term “mental fitness,” because we all know keeping our physical fitness in check requires routine exercise, healthy eating and occasional checkups with a doctor. Our mental fitness is maintained through the same principles. Having a mindfulness routine, which can take many shapes, is essential to our mental health.
Here are a few mindfulness techniques to try right now - I call them mental fitness reps:
- Take one minute to breathe in through the nose and sigh out the exhale
- Bring attention to the feet or hands and notice any sensations
- Notice the little ambient sounds around you (great to do in nature!)
- Pick a color and notice where it shows up on your commute
- Give gratitude to each person you pass (silently counts)
- Go for a walk noticing the pressure on your feet with each step
- Scan the sensations in the body part by part from head to toes
What do these practices do except take up a couple of minutes we could be returning emails? For starters, these break our auto-pilot mode to allow our brains a mini-break. They also trigger our parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” part, which in turn deactivates its counterpart, the “fight or flight” response. We think clearer, communicate better and reset our mood. Just like practicing our childhood musical instrument, we get better with repetition. Think of these tools as the extinguisher to our burning matchstick.
Once you find a practice that feels natural and fits with your life, stick with it. Don’t try to force something you think will work better just because there are thousands of articles in the news on how great of a stress-buster it is! To bust a myth right now, most of our stress is outside of our control — we can only choose how to respond to it. If that response involves resetting our perspective and doing a mental fitness rep, then we balance out that stressor.
If you are still thinking “why do this?” — allow me to give my personal testimonial. The height of the pandemic was an extremely tough time for me and my husband, as it was for many. We were both recently unemployed and moving halfway across the country to see if we could start a life someplace else during extremely uncertain times. Any of these individual stressors could have broken me, but thanks to my more than 10-year-old mindfulness practice, I was able to take it one day at a time.
Our move ended up not working out, which could have been another huge upset, but I chose not to let any of these stressful times derail the journey. How would getting so stressed out about something I could barely control be helpful to me? It wasn’t, so I was able to let it go.
Maintaining our mental and emotional fitness takes intentional repetition, but you get out of it what you put in. The next time you find yourself losing balance, stretched beyond your capacity or trying to control an uncontrollable situation, take a breath, be aware and compassionate, and decide to respond with wisdom.
Katie Garrett, CPRP (she/her), is the Marketing & Digital Communications Manager at Fox Valley Park District in Aurora, Illinois. She has been in parks & recreation for seven years. Katie started practicing mindfulness meditation 10 years ago after being diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Since then, she has become trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and maintains a daily practice. Katie is passionate about bringing the conversation of mental health to parks and recreation professionals. She has led workshops, appeared on podcasts, authored articles, and collaborated with state associations in Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, and North Carolina. Katie credits mindfulness for getting her through career changes, cancer, gettingmarried, and all the other ups and downs of life. Connect with Katie on LinkedIn.