How I Knew I Was Burned Out—And What I Did About It

Tired and busy is one thing. Being unable to get out of bed is another.

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Shot of a young businesswoman looking stressed out while working in an office

Stress, left unchecked for too long, takes a massive toll on body and mind. That’s when we’re at risk of burnout. (Photo, iStock)

I should have realized that I had a problem well before last December, when I could no longer get out of bed. For months beforehand, my usually extroverted self had no energy to go out with friends and zero interest in attending events. “I’m just really busy,” I had been telling those around me. “Busy and tired. So tired.”

And I had been very busy. My first book had been published, and became an instant bestseller. Suddenly, there was a lot of attention directed my way. Media interviews, speaking engagements and the travel it all entailed began to occupy my time, alongside my usual freelance writing and homeschooling our tween.

While I was in the midst of writing the book, my wife and I had decided to adopt a teenager—our fourth child—which then meant jumping through various hurdles, including plenty of meetings with social workers and two extensive home studies.

Oh, and we rescued a puppy, too.

The fatigue began slowly. I started to go to bed an hour earlier than usual, then two. I had reduced patience for my children and found even the simplest tasks overwhelming.

Then, my work performance began to slip. I forgot to get back to people and emails piled up. That’s dangerous for an entrepreneur: opportunities slipped through my fingers, and I damaged more than one professional relationship. Friends and family became annoyed as their texts sat on my phone, unanswered.

Despite all these ominous clues that I needed to slow down, I couldn’t seem to shut off. Work consumed me at all hours of the day, especially as attention to my book grew. It’s a memoir about my LGBTQ family, and though it was well-received by both readers and critics, the trolls were relentless. Social media became a constant scroll of negativity that brought my anxiety to new heights. Hate mail came in from around the world, and a peek into my Twitter mentions was perilous. I received death threats, worried constantly about my children’s safety, and looked over my shoulder whenever I left the house.

My initial response was to double up on my anxiety medication and keep extra busy. But ignoring what’s happening doesn’t make it go away. And it all came to a head in early December, when my body suddenly felt like an anvil I had to drag out of bed.

I had gone from hyperemotional to nearly numb. I felt nothing but anger and anxiety. The job I love—writing, speaking and advocacy—now felt like a chore I resented. I wanted to pack it all away, throw away everything I had worked so hard for.

“This isn’t like you,” my wife said, gently. “I think you need to take a break. Please, Amanda, take a break.”

What is burnout?

Stress, left unchecked for too long, takes a massive toll on body and mind. That’s when we’re at risk of coming apart at the seams. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice until I had become completely undone, lying in bed with no motivation to leave it. That’s when I finally listened to what my body (and wife) were telling me: I was suffering complete emotional, mental and physical exhaustion. I had burnout. My doctor agreed, and I was encouraged to take some time off.

Burnout isn’t an official medical diagnosis, but it is considered a “workplace phenomenon” by the World Health Organization. It was first brought to the medical community’s attention in 1974 by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger, and an increasing number of health professionals are recognizing it as a valid medical issue.

Some experts classify “job burnout” (brought on by work) and “caregiver burnout” (brought on by caring for others) separately, but the symptoms are similar. These can include irritability, a decreased sense of satisfaction, sleep issues, a lack of motivation, attention problems, negative thinking, decreased work performance, lowered immunity, digestive issues, headaches and bone-weary exhaustion, among others.

Sadly, burnout is not uncommon. Many of us are either dealing with it or on the cusp of it right now. A U.S. survey of 1,000 professionals found that 77 percent of respondents had experienced burnout in their current job, with over half of them having more than one incidence. We need to take burnout seriously.

Why we burn out

There are many factors that can contribute to burnout, and certain demographics are more at risk. Millennials report higher levels of burnout than other generations, which might be attributed to the instability of the gig economy many face in the workforce. Entrepreneurs tend to work extra-long hours to grow their businesses. Prolonged injury or a serious illness can compound stress, for both patient and caregiver. And the “sandwich generation”—those balancing the care of children and aging parents—face additional demands on their time and energy.

Technology is a modern culprit. Thanks to email and texts, we’re constantly connected to work—it’s hard to leave the office when the office never leaves your hand. Then there’s social media, which has been craftily designed to grab and keep our attention. We compare ourselves to others, spend endless hours building our brands and promoting our businesses, discover what our relatives really think about politics, and get into arguments with complete strangers.

While studies have shown that any social media use can negatively affect mental health, some circumstances can leave us more vulnerable, as I learned after the success of my book. Take the musician Lizzo, who is celebrated for her body-positive mindset, but also hounded relentlessly by fat-shaming critics. In January, the American artist left Twitter, stating there were “too many trolls.”

Chronic online vitriol is not only hurtful, but exhausting. Similar stories have played out many times before, with noted journalists, authors, actors and others leaving social media platforms after receiving heaps of hate. Author Lindy West left Twitter in 2017 and has been commenting on the toxicity of social media ever since. As she told Refinery29 last November, “The idea that the internet and real life are separate, and that online hate doesn’t bleed into real life, is an absolute falsehood. […] I miss Twitter, it was really fun, but the bad parts were very, very bad.”

Boundaries and self-care

I chose setting boundaries as my primary focus for the new year. I say “no” more often—before I get too overloaded—and am working on not feeling guilty about that. I took a solid month to rest over the holidays, lying in bed, watching TV, reading books, trying new recipes and learning to meditate. Slowly, my energy and attention span returned. My body began to relax and my mind stopped racing. I started to feel emotion rather than detachment.

I’m not walking away from social media just yet, but I did come up with a list of guidelines to make it healthier. I turned off all my notifications and only check in at certain times. I set filters on Twitter so I don’t see a lot of the worst replies, which are often from newer, anonymous accounts. If I start feeling anxious, I walk away. Nothing online is worth sacrificing my mental health for.

I’ve learned that downtime is critical if I want to have healthy and productive uptime. I no longer glorify being busy, choosing instead to celebrate a more balanced life. I make my weekends as work-free and relaxing as possible. And on workdays, the dogs will sometimes hear me say “this can wait,” as I close my laptop at lunchtime to get ready for the gym. “I am worth taking care of.”

Not every stressor is avoidable, of course—with three teenagers still living at home, I remain in the sandwich generation for the next few years. And life will always throw us some unexpected curveballs. But if we manage daily life in a healthy way, it will give us more energy to handle those curveballs when they arrive.

Getting back on my feet after burnout is likely going to take a while. That’s okay. There’s a valuable lesson in all of this, and I’d rather learn it now than have to take the course all over again.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have a good book to go curl up with.