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  • Writer's pictureAudriannah Levine-Ward

Coping with Burnout Throughout the Pandemic

In the last couple of months, you might have noticed that “pandemic fatigue” or “pandemic burnout” has become a phrase that is ubiquitous in our culture. In addition to pandemic burnout, there are other forms of burnout that folks are currently experiencing. Although everyone may have different reasons for their burnout, a global pandemic, racial unrest, record unemployment and food scarcity are all currently contributing to a general sense of stress. So what is burnout? It can be best described as a mental, emotional or physical state marked by chronic or intensive stress. The term burnout is used often in the context of work, relationships, emotions and has been extended to larger current events. It makes sense then that it has been applied to the largest event we are all going through- the pandemic. Much like the stages of grief or stages of change, burnout also occurs in stages. Specifically, there are 5 stages of burnout; the honeymoon phase, the onset of stress phase, the chronic stress phase, the burnout phase and the habitual burnout phase. In order to better understand these stages, I will describe them in more detail.

The honeymoon phase is marked by the undertaking of a new project, increased optimism, responsibility and commitment. Often this requires giving over more energy and is marked by satisfaction and increased creativity. In many ways, the honeymoon phase is exemplified by the psychological and emotional experience one feels when a new job is started or a project is taken on. There is excitement and energy flowing that counteracts any feelings of intensified stress or demand. The second stage of burnout, also known as onset of stress, is marked by an increased awareness that aspects of life are feeling harder to get through than before. During this phase, optimism begins to trend downward. Additionally, the symptoms of stress begin to impact the physical, mental and emotional systems of the individual. For many, this can be marked by increased fatigue, a slight dip in interest or motivation, changes in the individual's emotional experience and increased awareness of the effects of stress. During this phase, the optimism, excitement and motivation that was initially driving the individual's behavior tends to diminish.

Third stage of burnout is called chronic stress. It refers to marked changes in the individual's level of stress. Additionally, the individual experiences an intensifying of the symptoms that they became aware of in the second stage. In this stage, there are significant changes to the individual's motivation and increased stress becomes a common occurrence. This is the stage in which the individual makes change in order to prevent entering burnout. The fourth stage of burnout is what society and media traditionally describes as burnout. When burnout is discussed more generally, this is the stage that is often referred to. During this stage, approaching life in the same way the individual had before is not possible due to the increasing impact of stress. When the individual arrives at what is traditionally referred to as burnout, they are often irritable, overwhelmed, exhausted, sad, isolated, anxious and unable to re-engage in the activities that previously made them happy. The last and fifth phase of burnout is called habitual burnout. This occurs when the symptoms of burnout mentioned above are integrated into the individual’s life. This makes noticing and changing the symptoms slightly more difficult as they might be hard to pull apart from the individual’s day to day life. Just as the symptoms in the other phases impact the individual, by the time one has arrived at habitual burnout, the physical, emotional and psychological cause significant distress.

More specifically defined, the symptoms of burnout include: a sense of failure and self-doubt, feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated. Experiencing detachment, feeling alone in the world and loss of motivation. Lastly, the individual may experience decreased satisfaction, exhaustion, anxiety and the individual might become increasingly cynical with a more negative lifeview. The symptoms that come up during times of stress are different for everyone and may take different shapes than those listed above. If this individual notices that they are feeling at least 3 of these symptoms, it is important that stress be mitigated through the use of coping skills. Similarly to the discussion of symptoms listed above, there are a number of helping coping strategies to proactively and retroactively address burnout. Although not exhaustive, here is a list of coping skills that can best address burnout. They include: taking breaks, internal check-ins, going outside of getting fresh air, consistently attempting to tap into enjoyment, body movement, staying hydrated and nourished and resting when needed without guilt.

Learning about the phases of burnout and how to cope can be the best ways to make it through trying time such as the ones we all find ourselves in. Protecting against or recovering from burnout is a process that takes time and is important for mental health and wellbeing.

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