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"Understanding Burnout: The Impact of Sensitivity and How to Navigate Burnout Recovery"

As I put pen to paper (or fingertips to keys), I recall all the times I have burnt out myself and reflect on what has changed for me in the way I approach my own health & wellbeing. This has been increasingly on my mind, as I have had a particularly busy time of late and by the end of June I noticed those familiar feelings of weariness and overwhelm starting to creep into my bones - a sure signal that I am close to my limit. Yet I have been to this rodeo many times before! I now know my body well enough to give it what it needs (most of the time) to replenish so that I can largely avoid that deep and dark descent into complete exhaustion and burn out. However, I am aware that this is not the case for everybody and that it is a skill I have had to actively learn. Plus there seems to be so many more potential stressors now that can contribute to burnout - it can almost feel like it is an inevitable part of life these days.


As if the universe could look into my mind and know what my current musings are about, I also ended up in a conversation about burnout in recent weeks which added another dimension to it. After the conversation, I was left with this sense that there can be confusion over exactly what burnout is, what helps when you are burnt out and crucially, what does not. I also started asking myself why high sensitivity makes a person more prone to it and how we can better support ourselves in life so that burnout does not become cyclical. The result of my research and musings is this blog! Whether you are experiencing burnout right now, have done in the past, have a loved one who is in burnout, or have an interest in the relationship between high sensitivity and burnout, I hope you find the following information of value.

A person feeling overwhelmed, stressed and burnt out

What is Burnout?

With the word burnout flying around with ease these days, it is important to ask what it is exactly. The World Health Organisation (WHO) define burnout as an 'Occupational Phenomenon' that refers to 'complete energetic exhaustion relating to the workplace'. This was interesting to me as the term is often used conversationally for anyone who has entered a deep exhaustion, that can be related to work but not always. In my own experience of burnout, it has sometimes been work related, but also from parenting, social overwhelm and sensory overload too. In wider terms, it seems that the definition of burnout is not limited to the stress that comes from the workplace, but from any prolonged experience of stress. Such things could be through experiencing divorce, a bereavement, or supporting a sick family member for example. Burnout is not currently classified as a medical condition. However, it does encompass a wide range of physical, emotional and psychological symptoms such as;


  • Lack of energy or motivation

  • Feeling fatigued & drained

  • Low mood and having a negative outlook on life

  • Low self-esteem and doubting yourself

  • Feeling trapped, alone, defeated and detached

  • Feeling overwhelmed and finding it difficult to get things done

  • Bodily aches & pains

  • Lowered immunity - picking bugs up often

  • Increased blood pressure & heart rate

  • Sleep difficulties

  • Increased desire to numb out with alcohol, drugs, TV, food, etc...


The effects are wide ranging and often impact your whole life. According to researchers on the topic, who write with specific reference to work-related burnout, there are different types of burnout. Overload burnout, is quite simply when you have a lot to do and work harder and harder in an attempt to get things done and 'achieve success'. Under-challenged burnout, is what happens when you feel bored, under appreciated and stuck, leading to feelings of apathy and cynicism. Neglect burnout is what happens when you feel helpless due to a perceived lack of control. With this kind of burnout, you may end up doubting your abilities and feel that nothing you do is good enough. While these terms are in reference to the workplace, they could easily be applied to home and personal life too


With any kind of burnout, it can seem to just creep up on you. Yet there are in fact stages to becoming burnt out and it is often the earliest stages that are missed. At the very beginning of burnout, there is a need or drive to 'work harder', 'do more', or 'push through' to either get things done, meet deadlines, expectations or even to prove yourself. This drive often means personal limits are ignored and boundaries around your time and energy become 'flexible', or even non-existent. At this point, you may become more irritable, snappy and find it harder to connect with your loved ones, sleep-wake cycles can become disturbed and eating patterns may be impacted. This in turn can affect mood and general outlook on life. You might start feeling resentful, apathetic, cynical and you may start to withdraw from others. In later stages of burnout, you may start to dissociate from your body, feel helpless and lose a sense of yourself and your purpose. This is when feelings of despair, emptiness, anxiety and depression can land, along with a complete emotional, mental, physical and spiritual exhaustion.


We can be at any of those stages and be in burnout. We don't need to be in the final stages to warrant intervention. The earlier we recognise where we are at, the sooner and more easily we can help ourselves recover.


What Makes Sensitives More Susceptible to Burnout

While anyone can experience burnout, there are some people who are more likely to experience it and increased sensitivity is one such trait that can predispose you. Being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a neurodivergence, meaning that the nervous system and behaviour of HSPs are fall outside of what is 'typical'. High Sensitivity is a normal trait and part of the diverse nature of the human population. Being highly sensitive means having a nervous system that is wired to take in more information through the senses, as well as a brain that will process that information more deeply. HSPs are more finely attuned to their physical environment and the people in it. So if the environment they are in is stressful and the other people in it are experiencing difficulty (or are difficult to be around), then the HSP is going to be more greatly impacted than a less sensitive person. Additionally, HSPs actually require more sleep than a less sensitive person. This is so that their brains can integrate all that extra information that is taken in and processed. If sleep is disturbed due to extra stress, HSPs will be more greatly affected by it and alongside other factors can contribute to burn out. As well as this, HSPs have greater levels of experienced empathy for others and are often drawn into roles (official or as a relationship dynamic) that are caring and supportive in nature. This means that on an emotional level, HSPs can attract those who are experiencing stress and take on the emotions of them as they seek to offer help and support, adding an emotional fatigue into the mix.


For those whose sensitivity also comes along with other neurodivergent types, such as Autism and ADHD, there are additional and more nuanced factors that can make burnout much more likely in this population. The first factor is navigating sensory overload, in a world that is increasingly noisy, bright and 'on' 24/7. Being hyper-sensitive to stimuli such as noise, light, smell, etc means that being in environments such as a busy office, school, or supermarket, adds even greater amount of activation for their nervous system. Another factor for the neurodivergent community, is the stress of having to keep up with societal expectations that are based on neurotypical people and often does not work for those with neurodivergent wiring. Things such as the standards of how we socialise, how frequent we socialise, or following a 'typical' working pattern, are examples of this. There is also the added stress relating to the feelings that many neurodivergent people feel about constantly being misunderstood and having to continually advocate for and explain themselves when trying to support their needs. Finally, the amount of energy neurodivergent people expend in order to mask their neurodivergent traits, so as to fit in and be acceptable to society/the workplace/family/social groups, etc can be utterly draining and yet another source of stress that contributes to burnout in this community.


Those who are extra sensitive - however they identify, also tend to have a predisposition towards seeing the fine detail and small subtleties that others do not. This can make it more likely that these people develop perfectionistic tendencies, as well as an avoidance of making mistakes. These traits can often lead to overworking and overthinking, beyond their limits and to the detriment of their physical body. Those who find that their attention can get so absorbed in a task that they forget basic things such as drinking, eating, taking breaks and going to the loo, are particularly prone to disconnecting from their body during stressful times. The experience of emotions can also be more intense in the sensitive and neurodivergent community, perhaps even finding emotional regulation a struggle. This can also combine with a tendency to be highly sensitive to criticism, or 'Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria' as in the case of ADHD. Again, this is just more 'stuff' that their minds and bodies have to process and manage, in comparison to less sensitive, neurotypical people. These traits and aspects are simply more contributing factors that make extra sensitive folk more prone to burnout.


What is Truly Unhelpful for Burnout

Whether you are sensitive or not, in burn out right now or not, it is essential to know what helps, and importantly what will not. Firstly, it goes without saying that ignoring the signs of burnout is going to be unhelpful. It sounds so obvious, but so many of us ignore those early signals. We tell ourselves stories like, 'I just need to push through', 'I haven't got the time to stop', or 'I will just get this done and then I will deal with it'. Of course, it does not help that we live in a society which actively encourages us to keep going until we are spent. Our entire culture is built upon the premise that productivity equates a successful life. Yet the hard truth is that it does not. In our hearts, I think we all know this. At the end of life, we are not unlikely to think 'well I am really glad I pushed myself to the brink in order to get X done'.


Recovering from burnout is an individual process and one that MUST be tailored to where you are at in the journey - it is not a one size fits all. Yet some things to definitely avoid if you are anywhere in the burnout stages include:

  • Keep Calm and Carry on - If you are experiencing signs of burn out, your body is trying to tell you something. Keeping going with wartime mentality is just going to exacerbate the situation.

  • Run Your Way Out - While some specific exercise can help with burnout, in my experience, some take this to excess with copious amounts of cardio or other fast-paced exercise. We have all been told that exercise is good for us and boosts our mood, and all of this is true, but is it always the right thing? Getting clear on what you are exercising for and what kind is right for you in the moment is crucial. Doing so will ensure that the movement you do is beneficial, and not just another way to stress your system and/or escape difficult feelings.

  • Buy into a Solution - Of course you may well benefit from a supplement, or a particular herbal tea, a new app, or whatever product out there suggests it can help with burn out. Yet it is important to understand that while these things may help us ease symptoms and be part of our recovery, at the heart of burnout is getting in touch with yourself and your needs.

  • Sleep it Off - Yes rest will likely be part of your recovery. And yes, good quality sleep is absolutely fundamental. But sometimes over doing rest can further that slide into depression, especially if we choose copious amounts of sofa and TV time. It is a cliche, but it is all about balance.

a person running looking stressed

What Can be Beneficial for Burnout?

So, what can we do if we are somewhere in the stages of burnout? What might we support someone else with if they are experiencing burnout? And how might this be different for those of us who are extra sensitive? As mentioned, there is no set strategy for burn out that works every time and for all people. Recovery is definitely possible, but needs to be in response to the individual and their circumstances. This being said, the following are key components that anyone in burnout recovery would benefit from:


  • Honesty is the Best Policy - Being truthful with yourself and where you are at is the most important step. This can be hard, especially if there is a belief that burnout equates to failure in some way. However, when we are honest with ourselves about how we are feeling, we can begin to access support and get in touch with what we need. Being honest, also means we can begin to communicate what is happening for us with others. This might mean informing your workplace, family members and anybody else you have a connection with and/or obligation to. Doing so helps to reestablish boundaries and any expectations around any responsibilities that you have and allows those people to find ways to support you. If you are extra sensitive then this can be harder, because your needs are likely to be a little (or a lot) outside the norm. In order to advocate for your needs, being honest with your needs also involves a huge amount of self-acceptance.

  • Mindful Body Awareness - The modern lifestyle begs us to disconnect with our bodies in favour of spending copious amounts of time in the thinking mind. Overthinking and staying in the cognitive often leaves our bodies behind and any whispers of discomfort go unheard. It might only be when the body shouts loudly that we stop to notice. Reconnecting to the felt sensations in the body through mindfulness, allows us to understand our bodily needs in the moment and develop our emotional understanding. As well as this, we increase our ability to be present for difficult feelings and allow them to pass through us rather than holding on to them as unexpressed tension.

  • Self-Compassion - Alongside mindful awareness, cultivating compassion for ourselves allows us to 'give ourselves a break' and permission to make choices that are in our best interest. It also means that when stressful times come, we are more practised at providing kind words and actions towards ourselves and less likely to let the inner critic take centre stage. The inner critic is often the part of us that drives us beyond our capacity, so developing greater self-compassion can help us remember where our limits are. While it may seem hard at first to build this attitude towards ourselves and often can go against what we have learnt growing up, compassion is something that you can get better at through kind action - whether you feel it or not in the beginning, it is a muscle that can grow if given practise.

  • Intelligent, Conscious Rest - Getting enough sleep is not always the solution. Oftentimes we go to bed with unexpressed emotions, unresolved conflicts, tension in our bodies and a deluge of anxious thoughts and worries. Intelligent, conscious rest is what happens when we prepare for and practise the art of deep relaxation, and the result is complete nourishment and restoration. There are many routes to practising relaxation - guided audio recordings where you lie down and progressively relax your muscles, receiving massage, restorative styles of yoga, relaxing breath practices... Whichever method allows you to enter into a place that is as close to being free from tension as possible, is going to be the most healing for you. Interestingly, by practising how to relax, our sleep often improves too - meaning that we gain even greater benefit.

  • Nourishing Movement - The right kind of movement at the right time of your burnout recovery helps to energise in the moments of fatigue, lift mood when you feel low, relieve aches, pains and tensions, as well as to help you reconnect with your body. Whilst our differences will mean our movement modality of choice may look slightly different, in general seek out those kinds of movement that are gentle to moderate in intensity, that allow a feeling of freedom in the body and encourages you to pay your body more attention. Slower styles of Yoga, Qi Gong, swimming, walking, some styles of dance and somatics are all great examples that may be most beneficial.

  • Caring Connections - One part of burnout that can be most debilitating is the sense of isolation and detachment from others. However, a strong support network is important when you are going through burnout, as with all kinds of heath issues - healing is more possible when we receive help from another. Talking to family and friends about what you are going through and what support you might need could be helpful for some. For those where this is not possible, connecting with others going through a similar experience though online groups could be the way to go. Even if it is just one trusted person whom you can share how you are feeling with, may make all the difference. Another option might be to work with a mental health professional who can support you in your burnout recovery.

  • Slowly Building Resilience - This is important. When recovering from burnout, there can be the temptation to 'get back to normal' as soon as you feel energy returning, only to feel an even quicker slide into burn out the next time. This is how some of us get stuck in cycles of burn out. Allowing enough time for your whole self to recover may take longer than you think. As you recover, slowly bringing in small amounts of 'challenge' at the right moment, which gently increase in intensity and include pauses to rest in between, can help to build your inner resources back up. For some, that 'challenge' might be simply getting dressed in the morning, or taking the kids to school, or even doing the food shop. For others it might be taking part in a gym class again, or completing a full day at work, or going to a social event. It will all depend on you and where you are at. Either way, building resilience is about helping your nervous system practice moving from stress (the challenge) to relaxation again, without the extreme depletion that is experienced in burnout.

  • Taking Stock - When we hit burn out it is a sign from our body that we need to stop. In that moment, we have gone past our limits and something about how we have been living has not been in alignment for us. As we begin to recover, we can be faced with some hard truths about our life that can be difficult to digest. While this is not pleasant, it can be the perfect opportunity for us to reflect on our lifestyle, choices and events that led up to our burnout. In these moments of reflection, we might ask ourselves questions to get a deeper sense of who we are, what we need and to avoid burning out in the future. Such questions may include;

    • How long have I been feeling this way? When did the signs first show up?

    • What causes me the most amount of stress? How often does this show up in my life right now?

    • How well have I been looking after my body? Which areas of my health & wellbeing are in most need?

    • What barriers get in the way of tending to my needs? Are there any patterns I have gotten into that stop me from looking after myself in the way I need?

    • In which aspects of life do I feel out of alignment? How does this aspect of life make me feel?

    • What brings me the most joy? How much does this feature in my life?

    • What changes and/support do I need now to better suit me moving forwards? What help might I need in implementing them?


A woman feeling relaxed and stress-free

Life can sometimes bring along circumstances that are out of our control and make the likelihood of burnout high. There are definitely many aspects to our lives that we cannot do anything about, and surrendering to the ups and downs can be the most conscious and kind act we can do for our wellbeing. However, the attitude we bring to ourselves and how we look after our bodies, minds and souls can also make a massive difference to our experience of life, including as we recover from a period of difficulty and burnout.


 

Are You in Recovery From Burnout, or Struggling with Chronic Stress & Anxiety?


One-to-one Yoga Therapy is an excellent way to support yourself with the guidance of an experienced professional, as you journey your way through recovery. For more information about my Yoga Therapy Packages follow the link: https://www.nicholaday.co.uk/one-to-one-yoga-therapy

At the time of writing, there is a special summer discount of £100 off all packages- Quote 'Summer 2024 'upon enquiry.


If you are looking for support, but not quite ready for one-to-one work - why not join our membership 'Sensitive Soul Space'? This gives access to Therapeutic Yoga, guided meditations & relaxations, a monthly self-care e-book and live events, all designed to provide you with self-care tools tailored to your needs. There's also a 2-week free trial so you can give it a go before committing! Click the link to find out more: https://www.nicholaday.co.uk/sensitivesoulspace

 

Article Sources

WHO Article


Mental Health UK


WebMD


9 Signs of HSP Burnout


Autistic Burnout


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