My favorite description for everyone just barely holding it together these days is that we’re under “situational stress.” It has nothing to do with how we individually are acting in our lives. It’s caused by the unrelenting stresses related to COVID and (for many of us) the election and/or environment plus the normal holiday pressures. We have no control over the causes of situational stress but we still somehow need to get thru each day. No wonder we’re burned out.
Your ‘New Normal’ Burnout Is Real
This year has caused a different type of stress epidemic, one that ran us ragged thanks to endless screens, very bad news, and constant health anxiety. Here’s how to control it.
By Macaela MacKenzieDecember 16, 2020
Somewhere between March and Day 10,000 of quarantine, I became the type of person who can barely stay up past 9 p.m. I go from bed to desk to couch, from screen to screen to screen, and then drift off into oblivion mid-doomscroll. The lack of busyness has become even more stressful—instead of running myself ragged commuting and packing my calendar with things to do, I’ve become a Zoom zombie, exhausted by the simple act of living this year. My 2020 burnout is surprising and entirely real.
Yours probably is too. In 2019 the World Health Organization included workplace burnout in its International Classification of Diseases, identifying it as an “occupational phenomenon” that leaves us feeling depleted, exhausted, unable to focus, and feeling cynical or detached from our jobs. And that was before the pandemic hit, triggering mass job insecurity, an unrelenting stream of stressful headlines, millions of parents who became full-time teachers overnight, and reason to add Zoom fatigue to our vernacular.
It is entirely unsurprising that our stress levels have reached historic highs, according to the American Psychological Association. But experts are also warning of an unprecedented mental health epidemic—a new study published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry found that one in five COVID-19 patients develop a mental illness within 90 days of recovery. “We’re seeing this whole new category of burnout in people who’ve generally considered themselves pretty healthy and able to cope with what comes their way developing a sense of exhaustion in their core outlook. That is really hard to cope with,” says Robin Berzin, M.D., founder of Parsley Health, a holistic medical practice with telehealth programs in 48 states that specializes in treating chronic conditions.
Burnout feels, admittedly, more like a made-up millennial buzzword than an actual medical condition. It’s a hard thing to say—to yourself and especially to a doctor—that you’re so stressed you can’t function. But it is very real: “This inability to turn off, to go from 10 hours of Zooms and meetings to looking at your phone, the sheer number of hours absorbing media in front of a screen, is toxic to your brain. It’s toxic to your neurons. It’s toxic to your emotional and mental health,” says Berzin. “And if we don’t acknowledge that as real, we can’t get anywhere.”
We are utterly, irrefutably, burnt out. It’s okay—you can say it.
Burnout has real consequences for your health. “We’re seeing people whose underlying chronic conditions—an autoimmune condition, high blood sugar, heart disease, migraine headaches, eczema, fertility issues, hormone imbalances, digestive issues, the things that 60% of Americans are living with everyday—are worse,” says Berzin.
How to Cope With Burnout
This is not the year to dismiss your stress or force yourself to power through it. Here’s how to address and treat your burnout.Do a self-assessment.
The first step in treating burnout is recognizing it. “Do a mini assessment of yourself. Sit down in a quiet moment and ask—actually ask yourself—Why am I feeling so burnt out and is this in my control?” says Berzin. “A lot of times people have the answer.”
Are you constantly getting work notifications even when you’re doing a workout, or making dinner, or trying to have some me time? Are you reflexively drinking half a bottle of wine every night? “Try to identify your top habit that isn’t serving you, and make that your focus area. Because if you can focus on that one thing and shifting it a little bit, you can feel incrementally better,” says Berzin. Something as simple as silencing notifications after a certain hour or committing to saving the wine for weekends only can have a huge impact on that constant sense of feeling frazzled.Prescribe yourself self-care.
Self-care has never been more vital. “I think we’ve treated self-care historically as optional or like it’s some floofy thing that prissy ladies do in their spare time. But I’m like, No, you’re going into battle—self-care is not optional,” Berzin says.WATCHGlamour’s 2010 Top 10 College Women: Sophia KhawlyMore Glamour Videos
Prioritizing self-care helps you get your body out of fight-or-flight mode—a state known as sympathetic overdrive—which fuels burnout. “If you live in fight-or-flight from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, you are going to feel like crap and a lot of your systems are going to break down,” says Berzin. She’s a fan of baths with epsom salts, which help relax your body. “I’ll take a 25-minute bath at night and leave my phone in the other room,” she says. “There’s so much out there that you can do, but you really have to structure it into your schedule.”Break your routine.
If you’re experiencing burnout, you’re likely in a rut. The year 2020 is basically a twisted Zoom-filled Groundhog Day, and we its anxious hostages. It may feel like a herculean effort, but changing your patterns can help treat your burnout. “I hate working out at night. I do not want to open a screen at 9 p.m. and do a yoga class. There’s no amount of physical exercise I personally would like to do at that hour,” Berzin says. But after realizing she was in a pattern of zoning out in front of Netflix or Slacking late into the evening, she realized she needed a new routine and committed to evening workouts to help her break from the workday. “It’s really liberating, but I had to kind of get over myself and be willing to recognize that I have to change my patterns,” she says. “We all do because the old structures that we had are breaking in this new world we’re living in, and that’s going to go on for a while longer.”Set boundaries.
The digital detox is the queen of all wellness tips (second only to “drink more water”). You know this is a thing you should do, and yet here you are on a screen. But it’s especially important to be mindful of your screen time now that it feels as if we’re living our whole lives on them. “A lot of us are kind of leaking past our own boundaries without even realizing it, staying online all the time,” says Berzin. “And I think it’s because a lot of us suddenly don’t have other things to do when we can’t go out and be social or travel. This is a time to really set boundaries and make sure that you’re disconnecting every day—because that disconnect is your time for you.” Instead of post-work dinners, get into quarantine cooking, read a book, find a new hobby.Do that workout.
Let’s all acknowledge that working out has been really hard this year. Motivation? Who is she? But in a year when you’re also likely more sedentary than you’ve ever been (brave is the soul who dares check their daily step count), working some movement into your day is not about fear of getting “quarantine fat”—it’s a powerful mental health booster. “Exercise goes head-to-head with many antidepressants in terms of effectiveness,” says Berzin. The problem is that burnout only adds to your lack of motivation—so start with a simple stretching routine and work your way up to longer stretches of movement.Don’t try to be your own doctor.
Our culture doesn’t make it easy to address burnout. “A lot of people are trying to be their own doctor and that pressure is too much for us,” says Berzin. Feeling too stressed or frazzled by this year is 100% valid—and worth getting treatment for. Start a conversation with your doctor or reach out to a therapist.