top of page

Overcoming Burnout by Rediscovering Yourself

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

(to stream or download the audio version of this article, click this link. For a Dutch version, click here.)

The tourism and retreat business in our new Italian home is not up and running yet, but we’ve already had many visitors. Friends, family, acquaintances and future business partners. Sitting by the campfire, enjoying a glass of wine grown on the next hill over, one of them told me she recently suffered a burnout. A little over five years ago, so did I. Talking about this, I asked her if she would find it useful if I wrote down any tips I might have. I had been thinking about writing it all down for a while, so her saying yes gave me the perfect excuse to finally get down to it. So here goes, my guide to overcoming burnout.

(By Dylan Paauwe-Roberts, MSc)

Now of course this is all from my personal experience of (largely) recovering from a severe / double burnout, combined with insights from my academic background in medical sociology and professional background in psychiatry. So I can’t say for sure if all of this, or even any of this will work for anyone else. One important lesson I have drawn from the whole experience is that you need to see what works for you specifically. So just consider them suggestions and ideas to try out. Of course, the ease at which you can implement these is also influenced by your financial conditions and work environment. I would like to make two points about this. First, unless you are a business owner, join a union. Unions are usually very far from perfect, but my recovery was greatly helped by being a member. This allowed me to call on a union lawyer. She helped me escape extremely damaging attempts by my employer to force me back to work, with a good amount of money in my pocket. Unions are also an essential line of defense for working conditions, and can also work to improve these. Be aware, though, that it might take time before the payment of your first union dues and being able to call on the full assistance of the union. And union activism to defend or improve working conditions can be quite stressful. It is therefore definitely reserved for those far from having a burnout. Secondly, even if you have a good financial situation you still need to make use of it. And if you are not so lucky, you can still try to implement the tips below to the greatest degree possible. Additionally, being a 35 year old, non-disabled, white, mostly cis heterosexual male from western Europe, I'm sure there are many things I don't have a clue about. Still, being human, I'm also sure there are many similarities between my experiences and those of other humans.

In any case, my life has radically changed for the better since my burnout. I have come a very long way since being bed-ridden for weeks and not even being able to take a walk around the block for months. In fact, I am now more fit than I have ever been at any point during my life. That said, there are still some lingering burnout symptoms at times. I still need to take my scheduled rest moments on most days, and I am a bit dependent on taking certain supplements. Doing this, however, I am able to be productive five days a week. And often my weekends are pretty active as well. I don't think I'll ever be able to work for a boss again, but I actually consider that a sign of health. I am happy I am able to be in this position, and to be in charge of my own work. I realize this is not achievable for many people, and I am not going to pretend "hard work" or "being smart" will automatically get you there. Both are important to achieve just about anything, but they can just as likely lead to burnout. As it did for me in the past.

No seed can grow without finding fertile soil. Which is an important reason I am committed to building a truly free and just economy of democratic workplaces, from a solid foundation of physical and mental health embedded in nurturing social relations. Part of this “fertile soil,” however, is you. The suggestions below all point in the direction of making yourself and your direct environment the best it can possibly be, for your hopes and dreams. Because that’s what overcoming burnout is about. Not just reducing symptoms and being able to get by. But making a qualitative shift away from what got you into the burnout in the first place, and putting you on the path to achieving your goals in a sustainable way. To turn it into an oversimplified soundbite, it's all about overcoming burnout by rediscovering yourself.

1. Make Sure It’s Not Something Else (But Don’t Get Side-Tracked)

Ask a doctor to make sure you are not suffering from a physical illness or are insufficient in basic nutrients (e.g. iron). It is also good to know there are overlaps between the symptoms of burnout and depression. Depression can lead to a lack of energy to do things. However, having a lack of energy to do things can of course also lead to (other symptoms of) depression. My personal advice would be to just try the tips below, and keep an eye on any depressive symptoms. If they stay, then look into that. I wouldn’t try to fix depression and something like past trauma while trying to recover from a burnout. Despite repeatedly indicating that I didn’t suffer from lack of energy because of a depression, but that I was depressed because I had a lack of energy, I was treated not for burnout but for depression and some minor trauma. As I started to work again after about 9 months, I had a relapse. The response from my employer to this then ran me completely into the ground. Realizing I had to make my own path, only then did I start to develop the strategies below that actually helped me overcome my burnout.

2. Think Long-Term

Accept that this is going to take a while. You got into this by doing too much in too little time. That is what you are used to, how you learned to act in the world. You need to un-learn this. Trying to get better right away or quickly will only make things worse. Relatedly, if you have been trying a lot of things to recover and it is not working, stop trying and just accept where you are right now. In fact, my own recovery started with a health worker telling me: “stop trying to recover.” You got into this by doing too much, by forcing yourself and/or being forced by others. You cannot forcibly do yourself out of this, the same way you cannot make yourself go to sleep by shouting “SLEEP!!”

Recovery from this type of illness goes in stages: overwhelm, struggle, living-with and living-beyond. At first, you are overwhelmed by it. You can’t do anything, or in any case you don’t know what to do. You might wonder, painfully, "will I ever be who I was before I got this?" Then, you struggle with the illness, trying to find a way to deal with it. Probably becoming desperate, because it’s so hard and complicated. Then, you learn to live with it. You accept your limitations, and try to make the best of it. And then, finally, you will learn to overcome and live beyond your illness. Realising that like any experience, it will always be part of you. But that it does not define you, and that it has taught you many useful things. Thinking back, you might remember your question "will I ever be who I was before?" Well perhaps not, but you can realize that's OK. Maybe even better. After all, who you were before got you into this burnout. Better to be different, so it doesnt happen again.

Progress through these stages is not a given, and it’s not linear. If you completely give up on the hope of healing, you will forever be overwhelmed. If instead you refuse to accept your situation, you may get stuck in an unproductive struggle. If you become attached to your illness and/or afraid to try to move beyond it, your life might forever be defined by it. Moreover, you can move up and down these stages of recovery. Struggling one day, overwhelmed the next. Living with it relatively comfortably for a week, and then struggling for days. Or almost forgetting you even had a burnout for a month, doing a little too much, and then being confronted again with some limitations. But, as a general trend, if you think long-term and proceed with wisdom, caution and courage, you’ll be able to progress. So how do we do that?

3. Rest!

This much is obvious: not only did you do too much, you also did not rest enough. The burnout has probably stopped you from doing much, or even anything at all. Especially initially, sleep. Alot. Do make sure that you keep a normal day / night pattern. That is, definitely get out of bed before 12.00h, even if that is just to sit on a couch. And definitely get into bed before 00.00h. But as the first period of more or less forced rest comes to an end, you will probably start doing things like you did before. Without resting. So learn this: when you feel tired or stressed, rest and relax. Early on in your recovery, do so immediately. Or at least as soon as possible. To avoid creating anxiety around doing certain things, try continuing what you were doing after taking a moment of rest. For example, at some point even making a sandwich was too much for me. So I would sit or even lie down on the couch in the middle of that. As you progress, you get more space to postpone the necessary rest and relaxation to a later point in time. And finish what you are doing first, whether that’s making a sandwich or, later, a big work-related task. But you should always make sure you rest enough.

And when you think you have rested enough – rest a little more! Remember, part of your problem is that you are not used to taking enough rest. In other words, when your mind or body send you the signal “I can do stuff again,” this is almost definitely too early. Importantly, it’s not just that you need to have rested enough to feel up for whatever task you have planned. Life is full of situations where you wind up spending much more energy than you expected. So you need to build your energy reserves. If you’re in a burnout, your reserves are zero. And if you have no reserves, spending more energy than you expected can destroy you for weeks. And then you have to start all over again.

Generally speaking, all this has to do with activating your “rest-and-digest” or parasympathetic nervous system. As opposed to your stressy “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system. Burnout seems to lock you into sympathetic nervous system activation, so it’s essential you regularly switch on the parasympathetic one instead. A general tip on how to do this is to pretend you’re 85 years old. Go slow in everything. Plan rest moments throughout the day. For instance one at 11.00h, one at 14.30h and one at 18.00h. Lie down or meditate for 15-20 minutes. Do relaxing things. Stretching and taking short walks are good ways to start doing some relaxing physical activity without going too far. While going on a walk, sit on benches a lot, and look around. Swimming, light jogging (such that you can breathe in through your nose or talk without getting out of breath), light strength training and yoga are also good things to try. Go out into nature, but be careful not to go on gruelling hikes. Like cardio and other intense work-outs, this activates your fight-or-flight system. So wait to do this until you try to live beyond your burnout, and even then build it up slowly. If you get stuck in a cycle of accidentally doing too much and then having to start all over again from zero, contact me. Like I did, this means you need an extremely structured and extremely slow building up of your level of activity.

4. Learn to Feel

Although a rational approach of slowly increasing activity can help, in reality this is just a poor substitute for actually listening to yourself and your body. Mindfulness meditation can help you get into this, specifically the socalled Body Scan. Another great exercise is called Progressive Muscle Relaxation. By doing these and related exercises you can learn how to recognize tension, emotions and other sensations in your body like tiredness and stress. Burnout happens because you either do not feel what’s going on inside of you, or you do feel it but choose to ignore it for whatever reason. Usually it’s a combination of the two. This is partly because ignoring what you feel also undermines you capacity to feel in the first place. Having become more able to feel while being inactive through the mentioned exercises, you can start trying to do this while you are active. Slow forms of yoga and the light exercises mentioned before can be good places to start.

As you start doing things, it is essential you become conscious of your limits. Burnout is caused by constantly pushing yourself or being pushed over your limits. So you need to learn to feel when you cross your limits. Because burnout drastically reduces what you are able to do, during the early stages of your recovery you will very quickly cross these limits. And, in general, with our culture of “pushing yourself” and “faster, stronger, better” people are constantly crossing their limits without being aware of it. Crossing limits has become the new normal, and is often wrongly considered as the only way to improve and grow. Depending on the severity of your burnout, you may want to not cross your limits for a very long time. In fact, it might even be the only way you will be able to increase your energy and strength at all. It was for me. In any case, when you do cross your limits this means you should take extra time to rest after. For an exercise specifically designed to help you figure out where your limits are, see this old blog post.

Here it is important to try to distinguish crossing your limit from feeling anxious. Anxiety can become a major issue during burnouts, with the idea of “doing too much” triggering anxious feelings. Which then might be mis-interpreted as actually doing too much. The result is that you can get stuck in the early phases of recovery. For me, a clear indication of anxiety is having a tight chest while I feel crossing my limits in my gut. This does not mean you should simply ignore anxiety. But, in my experience I can have a tight chest while my gut is giving me the signal I can keep going. So then I keep going, although I do slow down a bit. Sometimes, the anxiety then disappears as I am doing things. At other times, it only disappears after I rest. Similarly, try to distinguish between different ways of feeling energetic. I am now pretty good at distinguishing between feeling energetic because I am stressed, or feeling energetic because I am well-rested and relaxed. In my experience, stressy energy turns into tiredness as I manage to calm myself down through rest or meditation. Whereas relaxed energy stays or even increases as I rest or meditate for 15-20 minutes. Both types of energy also do feel different. Stressed energy is more “hyper” with a feeling of tension in the body. Relaxed energy is more calm.

5. Do Things for Their Own Sake

Burnout can also be seen as goal-oriented behavior that has gotten completely out of hand. In trying to (avoid) go(ing) somewhere, you completely lose sight of how what you are doing actually makes you feel. So it is important to learn to do things for their own sake. Because you simply enjoy them, find them meaningful in some way, or preferably both. The difference here can be explained as going to the gym because you like the feeling of working out, versus going to the gym because having a fit body makes you attractive and popular. You can also see that whereas in the first case of just liking the feeling, you are prone to stop when you don’t like how it feels anymore. Whereas in the second case, you are prone to keep going as long as necessary to give you that “sexy body” no matter how horrible you feel in the process.

So as you learn how to feel yourself, choose to do the things that make you feel good. For instance, just sit down and listen to music. Music can create intense feelings, and therefore can also be a gateway into feeling (yourself) better. Play an instrument. And not to try to get better at it, but simply because you enjoy doing it. Play stupid video games. Sing, especially if you aren’t good at it. Watch kids’ movies and reality TV. Draw, paint, without any purpose. Not even wanting to show it to anyone else. Just lay in the grass on a sunny day. Write horrible, bad poetry. Incomprehensible indictments of the status quo. Stare out of your window. Get drunk. Embrace uselessness.

6. Evaluate & Set Goals

“Did he really just write, ‘Get drunk’?!” Yes. Obviously, don’t become an alcoholic. In general, evaluate how what you do makes you feel. During the worst part of my burnout, I actually found that, I felt better after a night of heavy drinking with friends than I did on a “normal” day. But of course I was conscious of the fact that you can’t just keep getting drunk all the time. I did feel it also took a toll on me in a different way, but it just weirdly decreased some of the burnout symptoms. The point is: learn how to do things just because they enjoyable to you. And then analyze how they make you feel after. And then limit those things that make you feel worse afterwards, and expand on the things that make you feel better.

From the outset, even as you are overwhelmed by burnout, it can be useful to have some grand goals in mind. These can give you hope and motivation. Religion or political ideology can play this role. But it is also a good idea figure out what your personal goals and values are, if you don’t know already. There are many ways to do this, and I’ll discuss a few. You could ask yourself: "on a scale from 1 to 10, how do I like my life right now?" Say it's 3. Then ask yourself "what would 10 look like?" That is your end-goal. Be as detailed and imaginative as possible, perhaps write it down. Then ask yourself "what would 4 look like? What is necessary for that to happen?" That is your intermediate goal. Another way is to look at what you enjoy and find important to do. If you visit family alot, then clearly "family" is an important value for you.And "a good relationship with family" is an important goal. Similarly, if you work out a lot, then health or being fit is. If you go to protests, then things like solidarity, freedom, fairness, the environment etcetera might be important values / goals. Being good at specific things, love, knowledge, friendship, strength, beauty, harmony, etc are other examples of values and goals. Finally, another way to figure out your values and goals is to write down how you want your life to look like in 1, 3, 5 or 10 years.

Then try to achieve your values and goals by doing things you like doing, as much as possible. But as you move to living beyond your burnout, also do not avoid the things you don’t like. Don’t be afraid of stress, tiredness or other negative experiences if it is necessary to live according to your values and towards your goals. Just see these as important signals to be aware of, and remain conscious of your limits and the need for rest. You don’t become happy and energetic by simply maximizing pleasure and avoiding unnecessary pain. You get there by having a “meaninful life”: by living in accordance with your values, working towards your goals and overcoming painful experiences (like burnout!) along the way. The only way out is through.

7. Stand Your Ground & Communicate

Now it is great you are conscious of your limits and try to respect them yourself. But you also need to guard them as boundaries towards others. Burnout is often the result not (just) of you pushing yourself, but (also) of being pushed around by others. Here it can be useful to connect to your socalled “shadow self.” This means all those parts of yourself that you think are “bad” in some way. Of course there are many things that it is smart or simply better to not do. But nobody is hurt by your thoughts or fantasies. There is actually a lot of strength and energy there. Combining your socalled dark impulses with more socially accepted ones, as well as your capacity for reason, can help you recover from and overcome burnout in a lasting way. For instance, accepting violent impulses can help you stand up for yourself. While it is generally a bad idea to punch a dominating boss or mean person, connecting to angry energy like that is very useful in protecting yourself. You just combine it with other aspects of your self, so that you come up with an intelligent, slightly aggressive, socalled “assertive” attitude.

Many people who suffer from burnout are instead used to being the opposite of assertive. When they get stepped on, they tend to shrug it off with things like “it’s not so bad” and “I don’t want to cause conflict.” Relatedly, while of course trying to be respectul of others, it is at least as important to respect yourself and speak your truth. Suppressing what you feel to be true is stressful in itself. I thought the best idea was to keep “my head down” until I got into a more secure position, but the result was that I was walking around with a lot of bad feelings and no way to do anything about it. So, instead, you need to embrace all of this and turn it into a productive energy that allows you to stand your ground and communicate your truth. Now of course, in certain scenarios it is necessary to lie or withhold information, exactly in order to be able to stand your ground and protect yourself (as well as loved ones). But this should be taken as an indication that such scenarios are toxic, and should be avoided or changed if in any way possible.

In general, communicating your dreams, values and goals is an important key to overcoming burnout. Get feedback from important people in your life. Make plans together. Try to get them to cooperate with you, or at least get out of the way. Ultimately, of course, you need to trust yourself. To do this, follow your “gut.” Follow your feelings. Use your intellect / mind / brain to help do what you gut wants to do. Of course, use that brain to check if you are not doing something stupid or downright evil. Ideally, try to harmonize doing what you feel to be right with the interests of those around you (including the natural environment). And even all people and the planet as a whole. But where these interests (seem to) conflict and it is not possible to come up with a solution, embrace the conflict.

8. Some Final Tips

Now as I tried to turn all of this in a coherent story, there were a bunch of things I could not integrate into the above. First of all, initially it can be helpful to reduce all stimulation to a minimum. That means no social media, tv or even music. Just be, and allow your body to start to recover. Secondly, there are many different meditations I have found to be useful. Like mindfulness, visualizations, affirmations, (self-)hypnosis and chakra mediations (starting with the root). You can find a great many of these online, for instance on youtube. As you meditate, it is important to remain connected to the physical body and not use meditation to dissociate from painful experiences. But instead to learn how to be fully "inside" your body. To be able to feel tension and other physical sensations, be aware of emotions, and to deal with painful experiences without denying or suppressing them. And to simultaneously learn how to relax. Third, have a good social life but be conscious that it can also be tiring and even stressful.

Fourth, look into alternative therapies. Acupuncture might help. If you notice it being sunny or not has a big influence on how you feel, you can try light therapy. For me, getting dietary advice from an ayurveda specialist was a game changer. She also recommended some supplements, specifically ashwagandha and brahmi. I still take brahmi regularly, once a day or every other day (down from three times a day). I currently take a similar amount of lion’s mane. Other possibly useful supplements are multivitamin, vitamin B12 (especially when vegan), magnesium, omega 3, camomille, valerian, reishi and creatine. Evaluate how you feel when you take them. Pick one or a couple, stick to the daily guidelines and don’t overdo it. It’s probably not a good idea to take any of this for the rest of your life. Part of fully recovering will be getting rid of many or all of these supplements and instead just being able to rely on a healthy diet.

Importantly, eat enough healthy, unprocessed food on a regular basis with enough protein, carbs and fat. Although of course you don’t want to be gaining a lot of weight, accept if you gain some. And don’t cause yourself unneccessary stress by trying to lose weight while trying to recover from your burnout, especially in the early stages. Your mind and body need nutrients to repair themselves. If you make sports a central element of the new life your are building, you’ll wind up being fit and healthy anyway. Also drink enough water, of course. Finally, at least initially, do not take any stimulants like coffee, black, green or white tea, and many recreational drugs. Such drugs, in general, tend to have the side-effect of messing up your sleep patterns. They all make you feel like you have more energy than you actually do, activating your sympathetic nervous system and depleting your energy.

Well, that’s it! I hope this is helpful. Contact us for any comments, questions, critiques and additional suggestions. Feel free to share this in whole or in part, just mentioning me as the source. Perhaps we can even expand this document with insights from others who have suffered a burnout.

recovering and overcoming burnout

175 views0 comments


bottom of page