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I Survived Burnout More Than a Few Times, and Here’s What I Learned

I Survived Burnout More Than a Few Times, and Here’s What I Learned

Burnout used to be like an old wild and disruptive friend who would show up in my life at the most unlikely times. One summer in particular when I was on a vacation with my family, I was a wreck. I couldn’t enjoy my time with my husband and daughter who were soaking up the sun, swimming, and enjoying their free time. I, however, could only see life through a very negative lens and spent more time brooding than playing. In the weeks and months leading up to that vacation, I had worked myself to the bone, was feeling under pressure on some personal family matters, and hit the proverbial wall. I had nothing left in my engine for myself or anyone else.

Burnout is a regular visitor to my life as I always step in to help others

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first time burnout showed up. A hard worker and high achiever dating back to elementary school, my primary focus was on achieving at all costs. I am also a caregiver by nature feeling the need to step in and help when others need help. Through law school and then working in the nonprofit sector, I would work and work and work ignoring my building stress until I flamed out.

On that particular vacation though, I finally grew tired of burning out. Because after I came home, I decided to do something different. I decided I was tired of hitting the burnout wall and instead wanted to figure out how to avoid it the next time around.

In time, I came to learn the early warning signs of burn out and how to face it off before it took over. And here is what I learned.

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The fine line between “stressed” and “burned out”

Burnout happens when you are under excessive and prolonged stress. People are often able to respond to short bursts of pressure and demand without much trouble. But when that pressure continues day after day without a break, the stress can mound and potentially become burnout.

Importantly, you can be stressed but not burned out.

When you are stressed you are facing a lot of different pressures both mentally and physically but even still you can imagine getting things under control. On the other hand, if you have burnout, you are feeling empty, a lack of motivation, and don’t see a hope of positive change. Burnout is when you begin to detach and feel cynical or ineffective.

You may not recognize burnout when it’s right in front of you

We often think “burnout” looks like someone who is so incapacitated they are unable to work. Burnout doesn’t have to look so extreme. You can continue to work when you have burnout but instead feel every day at work is a bad day. You could be feeling disinterested in your work or maybe even depressed by it. You could feel overwhelmed by responsibilities and turn to distracting activities like drinking or social media.

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The most common sign of burnout is when your stress is so high you start to see diminishing returns at work and you are lacking interest in work or life.

Some of the other warning signs:

  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of sleep
  • Lack of appetite
  • Inability to focus
  • Physically and emotionally exhausted
  • Drained and depleted
  • Low or no motivation
  • Forgetful
  • Physical stress (e.g. chest pain)
  • Getting chronically sick
  • Anxiety
  • Anger

To be clear, there is not an official diagnosis of burnout – unlike depression which is a widely studied condition. And sometimes burnout may start to look more like depression which is why it can be important to seek professional attention. What is most insidious about burnout is that it creeps up on you over time. All of the indicators may be there but you may fail to recognize it when it is right in front of you.

Types of people who are more prone to burnout

The best place to start is to identify what is causing excessive and prolonged stress in your life. This can come from the workplace, home, or both.

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So while there isn’t any one type of person that is prone to burnout, there are some common themes of the types of people who are more likely to face burnout:

  • People who face heavy workloads or high stress positions.
  • High achievers
  • Caregivers including healthcare professionals at the front line of care
  • Working parents
  • Students

Burnout may not simply come because of excessive work

Keep in mind that burnout doesn’t just happen because of significant demands on people lives. It can happen if our mindset shifts.

In my coaching work, I have clients that exhibit signs of burnout but it may not come necessarily simply because of excessive work. Take, for example, Jennifer (name changed to protect confidentiality). She has an intensive job that has her working many evenings and most weekends. This is something she has been doing for years. But recently she has realized how exhausted she is from work. She is getting more upset with demands made on her than she has in the past. She is beginning to hate her job and can’t understand why all of a sudden she can’t “deal” with work. For Jennifer, the cause of the emerging burnout wasn’t the demands of the job itself. It began when she felt unappreciated and ignored. Therefore, burnout can manifest when we become disappointed by dashed expectations.

Create ‘margin’ in your reschedule

We tend to over schedule our lives. So our days can be jam packed with work, appointments, and other obligations. This has us running from place to place without a moment to breathe. Look at how you can start to schedule breathing room in your day. Avoid scheduling meetings back to back in your day. Schedule out time on your schedule to do some important catch up.

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Adopt resilience tools at work

While work itself can be stressful, there are ways to build in strategies that allow us to de-stress during the day. This includes doing some deep breathing, meditation, or just taking a walk outdoors. Productivity hacks suggest dedicating specific chunks of uninterrupted time (read: no email or social media) and then taking solid breaks around 10 or 15 minutes to clear your mind.

Adopt the strategy of “no”

People feeling burnout are often feel they must “do it all.” Stepping back from burnout means finding ways to lessen the stress which means saying the powerful two letter word NO. It may be hard at first but look for opportunities to delegate demands to others, shift priorities off your plate, or delay obligations.

Find regular times to unplug yourself

Don’t be under the illusion you always need to be moving to make progress. Sometimes, doing nothing is exactly what your body and mind are looking for. Find time to recharge by unplugging from it all. Taking real breaks – to eat, sleep, decompress – can give us the energy we need to remain productive.

To be sure, taking a real break can be difficult in today’s world when we are all expected to remain in constant communication though messaging and email. Consider giving yourself an electronics-free time so you can remove yourself from the noise of work, social media, and email.

There was a time I was convinced that I was on a regular cycle of burnout and that my old familiar friend would re-enter my life maybe once a year or every couple of years. I thought I was just a person who faced burnout and that was just part of who I was. But that trip to the beach woke me up and forced me to finally face down how I was the cause of my own burnout.

I now have a personal program to manage my stress and avoid burnout. Sure, I can still get pretty stressed at times but I am much quicker to see the signs and take immediate action. You too can be empowered to tackle and stop burnout in its tracks.

More by this author

Danielle Droitsch

Certified Life Coach for Professionals

I Survived Burnout More Than a Few Times, and Here’s What I Learned How to Say No When You Feel You Can Only Say Yes

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Last Updated on October 30, 2019

How the Stages of Change Model Helps You Change Your Habits

How the Stages of Change Model Helps You Change Your Habits

Change is tough, there’s no doubt about it. Old habits are hard to shift, and adopting a new lifestyle can feel like an uphill battle!

In this article, you will learn about a simple yet powerful model:

Stages of change model, that explains the science behind personal transformation.

You’ll discover how and why some changes stick whereas others don’t last, and how long it takes to build new habits.

What is the Stages of Change Model?

Developed by researchers J.O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente over 30 years ago[1] and outlined in their book Changing For Good, the Stages of Change Model, also known as the Transtheoretical Model, was formed as a result of the authors’ research with smokers.

Prochaska and DiClemente were originally interested in the question of why some smokers were able to quit on their own, whereas others required professional help. Their key conclusion was that smokers (or anyone else with a bad habit) quits only when they are ready to do so.

Here’s an illustration done by cartoonist and illustrator Simon Kneebone about the different stages a smoker experiences when they try to quit smoking:

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    The Stages of Change Model looks at how these conscious decisions are made. It emphasizes that change isn’t easy. People can spend a long time stuck in a stage, and some may never reach their goals.[2]

    The model has been applied in the treatment of smoking, alcoholism, and drugs. It is also a useful way of thinking about any bad habit. Social workers, therapists, and psychologists draw on the model to understand their patients’ behaviors, and to explain the change process to the patients themselves.

    The key advantages to the model is that it is simple to understand, is backed by extensive research, and can be applied in many situations.

    The Stages of Change Model is a well-established psychological model that outlines six stages of personal change:

    1. Precontemplation
    2. Contemplation
    3. Determination
    4. Action
    5. Maintenance
    6. Termination

    How are these stages relevant to changing habits?

    To help you visualize the stages of change and how each progresses to the next one, please take a look at this wheel:[3]

      Let’s look at the six stages of change,[4] together with an example that will show you how the model works in practice:

      Stage 1: Precontemplation

      At this stage, an individual does not plan to make any positive changes in the next six months. This may because they are in denial about their problem, feel too overwhelmed to deal with it, or are too discouraged after multiple failed attempts to change.

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      For example, someone may be aware that they need to start exercising, but cannot find the motivation to do so. They might keep thinking about the last time they tried (and failed) to work out regularly. Only when they start to realize the advantages of making a change will they progress to the next stage.

      Stage 2: Contemplation

      At this stage, the individual starts to consider the advantages of changing. They start to acknowledge that altering their habits would probably benefit them, but they spend a lot of time thinking about the downside of doing so. This stage can last for a long time – possibly a year or more.

      You can think of this as the procrastinating stage. For example, an individual begins to seriously consider the benefits of regular exercise, but feels resistant when they think about the time and effort involved. When the person starts putting together a concrete plan for change, they move to the next stage.

      The key to moving from this stage to the next is the transformation of an abstract idea to a belief (e.g. from “Exercise is a good, sensible thing to do” to “I personally value exercise and need to do it.)[5]

      Stage 3: Preparation

      At this point, the person starts to put a plan in place. This stage is brief, lasting a few weeks. For example, they may book a session with a personal trainer and enrol on a nutrition course.

      Someone who drinks to excess may make an appointment with a drug and alcohol counsellor; someone with a tendency to overwork themselves might start planning ways to devise a more realistic schedule.

      Stage 4: Action

      When they have decided on a plan, the individual must then put it into action. This stage typically lasts for several months. In our example, the person would begin attending the gym regularly and overhauling their diet.

      Stage 4 is the stage at which the person’s desire for change becomes noticeable to family and friends. However, in truth, the change process began a long time ago. If someone you know seems to have suddenly changed their habits, it’s probably not so sudden after all! They will have progressed through Stages 1-3 first – you probably just didn’t know about it.

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      Stage 5: Maintenance

      After a few months in the Action stage, the individual will start to think about how they can maintain their changes, and make lifestyle adjustments accordingly. For instance, someone who has adopted the habit of regular workouts and a better diet will be vigilant against old triggers (such as eating junk food during a stressful time at work) and make a conscious decision to protect their new habits.

      Unless someone actively engages with Stage 5, their new habits are liable to come unstuck. Someone who has stuck to their new habits for many months – perhaps a year or longer – may enter Stage 6.

      Maintenance can be challenging because it entails coming up with a new set of habits to lock change in place. For instance, someone who is maintaining their new gym-going habit may have to start improving their budgeting skills in order to continue to afford their gym membership.

      Stage 6: Termination

      Not many people reach this stage, which is characterized by a complete commitment to the new habit and a certainty that they will never go back to their old ways. For example, someone may find it hard to imagine giving up their gym routine, and feel ill at the thought of eating junk food on a regular basis.

      However, for the majority of people, it’s normal to stay in the Maintenance period indefinitely. This is because it takes a long time for a new habit to become so automatic and natural that it sticks forever, with little effort. To use another example, an ex-smoker will often find it hard to resist the temptation to have “just one” cigarette even a year or so after quitting. It can take years for them to truly reach the Termination stage, at which point they are no more likely to smoke than a lifelong non-smoker.

      How long does each stage take?

      You should be aware that some people remain in the same stage for months or even years at a time. Understanding this model will help you be more patient with yourself when making a change. If you try to force yourself to jump from Contemplation to Maintenance, you’ll just end up frustrated. On the other hand, if you take a moment to assess where you are in the change process, you can adapt your approach.

      So if you need to make changes quickly and you are finding it hard to progress to the next stage, it’s probably time to get some professional help or adopt a new approach to forming habits.

      The limitations of this model

      The model is best applied when you decide in advance precisely what you want to achieve, and know exactly how you will measure it (e.g. number of times per week you go to the gym, or number of cigarettes smoked per day). Although the model has proven useful for many people, it does have limitations.

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      Require the ability to set a realistic goal

      For a start, there are no surefire ways of assessing whereabouts in the process you are – you just have to be honest with yourself and use your own judgement. Second, it assumes that you are physically capable of making a change, whereas in fact you might either need to adjust your goals or seek professional help.

      If your goal isn’t realistic, it doesn’t matter whether you follow the stages – you still won’t get results. You need to decide for yourself whether your aims are reasonable.[6]

      Difficult to judge your progress

      The model also assumes that you are able to objectively measure your own successes and failures, which may not always be the case.[7] For instance, let’s suppose that you are trying to get into the habit of counting calories as part of your weight-loss efforts. However, even though you may think that you are recording your intake properly, you might be over or under-estimating.

      Research shows that most people think they are getting enough exercise and eating well, but in actual fact aren’t as healthy as they believe. The model doesn’t take this possibility into account, meaning that you could believe yourself to be in the Action stage yet aren’t seeing results. Therefore, if you are serious about making changes, it may be best to get some expert advice so that you can be sure the changes you are making really will make a positive difference.

      Conclusion

      The Stages Of Change Model can be a wonderful way to understand change in both yourself and others.

      While there’re some limitations in it, the Stages of Change Model helps to visualize how you go through changes so you know what to expect when you’re trying to change a habit or make some great changes in life.

      Start by identifying one of your bad habits. Where are you in the process? What could you do next to move forwards?

      Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

      Reference

      [1] Psych Central: Stages Of Change
      [2] Boston University School Of Public Health: The Transtheoretical Model (Stages Of Change)
      [3] Empowering Change: Stages of Change
      [4] Boston University School Of Public Health: The Transtheoretical Model (Stages Of Change)
      [5] Psychology Today: 5 Steps To Changing Any Behavior
      [6] The Transtheoretical Model: Limitations Of The Transtheoretical Model
      [7] Health Education Research: Transtheoretical Model & Stages Of Change: A Critique

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