Overwhelmed? 8 Tips to Avoid Burnout and Balance Your Life

For so many people these days, our life is like a house of cards. We teeter along shakily, just barely managing to hold up our sky-high pile of commitments and stressors. Sometimes it feels (accurately) that if you try to put just one more card on top, the whole mess will come crashing down. It’s not a good feeling. It’s not a fun way to live. Yet it’s normal for most of us. And we’re exhausted.

One of the things I remember most from the psychology courses I took in university is the classic Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. These researchers examined medical records to determine the relationship between life events and the likelihood of getting sick. They ranked the 43 most stressful life events, assigning points to each based on the potential negative impact on health.

Some of the stressors are thankfully rare, such as death of a spouse (#1) and imprisonment (#4). But others are much more common, such as divorce (#2), marriage (# 7 – positive life events can be stressful!), change in health of a family member (#11), business readjustment (#15), change in financial state (#16) and even things we dream of, such as outstanding personal achievement (#25).

I recently went through a series of life shifts, some really wonderful and some more challenging. I held up pretty well for a while, but eventually started to feel a lot more moody, tired, and just plain overwhelmed. Whenever I go through a transitional season like this I’m always grateful for those early psych courses and my awareness of “The Life Events Scale”.  Too much change, too many demands, and eventually the human mind and body will cave in under all the pressure.

This has happened enough times now that I know what to do to get myself, my health, and my sanity back. If you’ve got too much change (or just too much, period) going on in your life, here are some tips to get yourself and your life back, ASAP:

1) Get the best sleep you can

If you’re stressed out, getting enough sleep should be your number one priority. Give yourself time to wind down before going to bed, and create the quietest, darkest sleeping space possible (my husband and I use black-out curtains, ear plugs, and white noise from the bathroom fan to block out street sounds). The more stressed out we are, the earlier we try to get to bed.

2) Meditate or pray in the morning

I normally spend quiet time in meditation every morning, but the numerous recent changes in my life had made it hard to maintain my old routine. I felt unhinged, and quickly felt so much better when I forced myself to find a few quiet minutes every morning again. Sitting for just five minutes, breathing deeply in and out, has been shown to create a sense of calm (and even lower blood pressure!) that lasts throughout the day.

3) Make yourself eat, no matter how crazy things are

The more stressed I am, the more I try to do before breakfast (and breakfast often ends up eaten at lunchtime). Skipping meals and snacks leads to low blood sugar, fatigue and brain fog, making you feel unable to cope. Discipline yourself to get some real food into your mouth as soon as you get up – you’ll feel much calmer, clearer and more focused. Make sure you eat throughout the day and don’t let yourself ever get too hungry. Don’t ignore your body’s cues for needing food and water, no matter how busy you are.

4) Load up on greens the easy way

I get a physical and psychological boost from superfoods, as I know how much my body appreciates them when stressed. I try not to go a day without the simple green smoothie I make in my blender, it takes less than five minutes to make and less than a minute to drink.

5) Get through one day at a time

As the ancient saying goes: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” When life is particularly stressful, it really helps to just focus on getting through each day. I use my morning quiet time to get centered and ready to face the day, and that day alone. Life feels so much easier when you face it one day at a time.

6) Make no your default answer

I read a great blog post from Paul Angone the other day called “Stop Trying to Balance Your Life”. His thesis was that our fundamental problem isn’t our inability to balance it all, it’s overcommitment. I totally agree. I’ve written about this before: when you say yes to something new, you say no to something else. (see my previous post on Saying No) There isn’t an infinite amount of time available to you. When you say that yes it will mean something really important will be squeezed out: that time alone you desperately need, or that extra hour of sleep that would make all the difference, or the precious time with your spouse or kids that you all long for.

7) Take sanity breaks

Lose the go-go-go mentality, it will kill you. Take breaks whenever your body or mind start to feel tired. Have a snack. Get up and do some stretches. Rest your brain. Take your lunch outside and sit by a fountain with the sun on your face (I did that the other day, it felt so good). You need breaks, don’t tell yourself that you’re better off just plowing through.

8) Give yourself a Sabbath day every week

In this 24-7 world we live in, it’s easy to treat every day as another opportunity to tick off to-do list items. For a long time now I’ve saved my sanity by taking Sundays off, no matter how busy my life is. Whenever I’m tempted to work because I’m feeling panicked about some upcoming deadline, I remind myself that in the past I’ve somehow always gotten done what needed to be done, even if I’ve taken a day off.

One day a week, try to avoid doing anything that feels like work. Turn off your phone. Don’t go online. Take a nap. Read a good book. Spend some time with your family and friends. Go for a walk together. This day of rest and rejuvenation will refresh you and give you the energy you need to face the trenches yet again for another week. And you will still somehow get everything done.

Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, health and happiness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer, and the author of Live a Life You Love: 7  Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You, dedicated to helping people worldwide get healthy, find happiness and enjoy more meaningful lives that they love. 

Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2013

Lawyer Burnout

Burnout is nature’s way of telling you, you’ve been going through the motions your soul has departed; you’re a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker. False optimism is like administrating stimulants to an exhausted nervous system. – Sam Keen

Sitting across from Tom, a lawyer for the past 15 years, I was struck by his ashen face.  Before he even said a word, before I asked him how his practice was going, his slumped shoulders spoke volumes about a good man weighed down.

As we spoke over coffee at Starbucks, he asked if I thought he was suffering from clinical depression.   I didn’t think so, I told him.  I thought he was burnt out.  

Tom burnout

According to an article on burnout in the ABA Journal, lawyers facing increasing pressure to “value engineer” their services have adopted a “better-cheaper-faster” approach to practicing law because that’s what their clients are demanding.

This was certainly true in Tom’s case.  There was no end, no limits to the demands put on him to be better, to be cheaper to run faster.  As if he were a machine.  He hunkered down into a survival mode, had little positive energy to invest in himself or his family and ultimately burned out like a meteorite entering the earth’s atmosphere.

Burnout isn’t just a consequence of trying to keep up with an insane schedule, however.  It’s also about how lawyers actually think.

Author of the book Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal & Professional Satisfaction in the Law, Amiram Elwork, PhD  writes:

“Because law requires objective logical analysis and close attention to details, the legal profession attracts perfectionists. These are people who live by the rule: “If I don’t do a perfect job in every detail, I will fail.” Perfectionists tend to be workaholics who are often viewed as inflexible, uncomfortable with change, and obsessed with control but unconvinced that they have it. Since perfection can’t be achieved, striving for it can cause constant dissatisfaction.

“My clients are perfectionists,” says Alden Cass, a therapist to both corporate attorneys and men on Wall Street. “They have very rigid ideals in terms of win-lose,” he continues. “Their expectations of success are through the roof, and when their reality doesn’t match up with their expectations, it leads to burnout—they leave no room for error or failure at all in their formula.”

Elwork opines that “another reason that some lawyers experience burnout is that their core values are not aligned with their own behaviors. Sometimes this problem reflects an internal psychological conflict, whereas at other times it is a conflict between the lawyer’s values and those of the organization at which he or she works.”

My friend Tom is also in this boat.  He works for an insurance defense litigation firm.  He’s a compassionate man who tries his best to be a good person.  The culture of his firm tells him to “hammer” personal injury victims at their depositions and trials.  He hates to do this, but doesn’t know what else to do.  He has a family to support and feels stuck at his job.

He suspects other lawyers at his firm are burned out, but doesn’t really know what a burned out lawyer looks like.  There are, however, telltale signs.

BURNOUT’S TEN MILESTONES

  • Over-commitment (always in motion)
  • Inadequate breaks and rest (continuous client involvement)
  • Idealistic standards
  • Constant low-grade stress (occasionally interrupted by crisis!)
  • Lack of help and assistance
  • Chronic fatigue from pushing oneself (“hitting the wall”)
  • Strong sense of responsibility, even when others “dropped the ball”
  • Guilty feelings about missing church events/activities
  • Heavy job and family responsibilities/expectations
  • Inability (or strong reluctance) to say no

DEPRESSION vs. BURNOUT SIMILARITIES

While they share some similarities, there are some important differences between the two conditions.

Both depressed and burnout sufferers show symptoms of withdrawal and fatigue.

  • Depressed individuals also show signs of hopelessness and disinterest. Severe depression can already alter the sleep-wake pattern of an individual thus triggering insomnia.
  • The most serious cases are those involving persons who possess some recurring thoughts about death. Those who experience a burnout are often accompanied by feelings of helplessness, self-doubt and failure on top of the other feelings similarly experienced by depressed individuals.

DEPRESSION vs. BURNOUT DIFFERENCES  

Burnout is a state that is just induced by severe stress. Depression, on the other hand, is a clinical behavioral disorder affecting one’s mood. As such, it is therefore more appropriate to say that when you are having a burnout you are also at risk of experiencing or developing depression rather than the other way around.

  • Researchers have successfully found important physiological differences between people who suffer from burnout and those who suffer from depression: individuals suffering from burnout do not produce enough cortisol, as if the body decided to go on strike. As a reversal, those who suffer from depression produce too much of it.
  • When one is suffering from depression, he or she is unable to attain or experience a state of pleasure. As a result, you often see depressed individuals shrouded in extreme sadness. Burnout sufferers look different because they feel overly exhausted to the point of doubting their own ability to carry out their regular activities of daily living. Severe burnouts may also lead one doubt his self-worth.
  • Depression is usually rooted upon a number of factors like when one is suffering from an incurable chronic disease or an extreme severance of relationship (death, breaking from a serious romantic relationship) with a very significant other. Depression has also been discovered to have some genetic predisposition and environmental roots. With regard to burnout, this condition is usually tied in with strains in work and high demand stresses of life in general.

A STRATEGY FOR AVOIDING BURNOUT                                                                

It’s easier to avoid burnout in the first place than it is to overcome it. Here a handful of do-able strategies for escaping its clutches:

  • Rest, relax, recreate, renew. It’s the only avenue for sustaining us for the long haul.
  • Give something up before taking on a new commitment or responsibility. Don’t keep “adding floors” onto your already towering skyscraper of activities.
  • Learn to say no and to set up reasonable boundaries around your involvement. Specify the help you’ll need and the constraints on your time.
  • Set priorities and consult with your family. Service work occupies an essential role in our lives but must never take priority over family. Be willing to occasionally say no to low priority activities when they conflict with quality family time.
  • Get away from it all on a regular basis through hobbies, recreation, short “sabbaticals,” and sometimes just being a couch potato.
  • Listen to your body’s stress warning signals, such as headaches, backaches, dizziness, insomnia, and unexplainable fatigue.
  • Cut out the hurry and worry. Stress is the natural byproduct of trying to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5 pound bag. Do only what you reasonably can in the time available and with the resources available.
  • Consider changing jobs.  Sometimes the only thing you can do is leave your job and seek employment at another firm.
  • Consider changing careers.  Some lawyers tell me that they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  Being burned out has forced them to confront this decision.  It can be done and there are many happy ex-lawyers out there.

Further reading —

The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law by Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder

Say Ciao to Chow Mein: Conquering Career Burnout by Christina H. Bost Seaton

Can’t Get No Satisfaction: Burnout – New York Magazine article

Burnout: Avoidable, Not Inevitable – American Bar Association article

Knockout Burnout! – Attorney at Work website article

 

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