6 Steps to recover from burnout

The internet is filled with articles on burnout, but there is very little information available on burnout recovery and the actual steps to take. Disclaimer: you should always consult your health professional prior to making changes.

This article reflects my own journey with burnout and the steps I took. After much experimenting, testing, reading countless articles/books/whitepapers, consulting with a variety of doctors (that cost me a fortune being prodded and poked), psychologists and coaches, doing a 5 day psychoneuroimmunology course, walking a 260km camino and doing a 21 day hormone reset diet, I present you here with the chronological steps if you need to recover from burnout. It took me a long time to recover and then I figured out that there is a much shorter way of doing it.

Let’s deal with the first thing that no one wants to admit, especially if you are a high achiever.

The shame and guilt around burnout.

Initially I thought that burnout was a sign of weakness. I couldn’t possible burnout – not me. I’m a professional for goodness sake. People come to me for help. I should have it together. After all, I’ve studied coaching, psychology and physiology – I should be able to cope and deal with it.

Nope. Those exact qualities that helped me achieve were also the qualities that led me to burnout. Being driven, working hard and long hours, doing more, helping more. There is a dark side to that, that no one wants to talk about, because it hurts. And until you are willing to go there, recovery will escape you.

More is not more. Less is more.

So let’s get to the 6 steps.

Step 1: Calm your nervous system

If you don’t calm down your nervous system your body will continue to produce a lot of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone. Moderate levels are required to help you function effectively. High levels of cortisol are known to lead to:

  • Dysregulation of body’s stress response, making you feel anxious and not “your perky old self”
  • Sluggish metabolism, leading to weight gain
  • Weakened immune system, more susceptible to colds and illness
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Higher blood sugar levels (that could lead to type2 Diabetes)
  • Difficulty sleeping (that makes you feel like a zombie)

Do you recognize any of these in yourself? Have you checked your blood pressure and blood sugar recently? Cortisol is also the reason you won’t lose weight even if you are on a diet.

You need to stimulate your parasympathetics nervous system, also known as the rest and digest system. One way is to start walking regularly at a leisurely pace. Slower than your usual walking pace.

The quickest way to calm your nervous system this is through Deep Breathing. Typically 5-6 breaths per minute is ideal to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system. Whatever you do, don’t skip step 1. It’s super costly. I should know. It took me a good couple of months and a hospital visit with a DVT (deep vein thrombosis) diagnosis to finally realize that I had to slow down.

Step 2: Review, reflect, reset (and recharge)

You need to understand where you are in terms of mental, emotional and physical health so you can take the steps that are right for you. Although I’m giving you steps, this is more of a framework than the nitty gritty actions to be taking.

Recovery is not a one size fits all. You need to adjust for your particular lifestyle, living conditions, type of work, age category, male or female, menopausal or not and support network available to you. You need to be clear on what is not working for you and how it’s showing up in your life.

This requires some deep reflection to distinguish between what you think you should want(other people’s expectations) and what your heart truly desires.

You need to be able to describe exactly what is going on in your body, your mind, your life and relationships. It is absolutely essential to cultivate self-awareness. You also need to be aware of the specific people, places, processes and things that drain your energy according to your unique personality. And then you need to let go of all those things that drain you in a way that won’t be a total shock to the system. This was the hard part for me, as I had my life set up in a way that was so focused on pleasing and helping others, that I lost my sense of true self.

I do get that you might just want to walk out the door and go on a 6 month sabbatical, but you do need some form of planning. I ask all my clients to schedule 2 hours of “Strategic Thinking” time into their week. For me this was life changing to really think about my life and work every week in a strategic manner, to determine what was working and what I needed to let go of.

Step 3: Understand and recognize the signs of burnout

You need to know the signs of burnout at physical, mental, emotional and environmental (toxic workplace) level. It is vital to understand the difference between stress and burnout and what the correct course of action is to mitigate both of them. Give yourself the gift of learning about and applying proven strategies, not just quick google search hacks. Invest in yourself, because you’re worth it.

Step 4: Align your mind, body, soul and environment to support your health

A quick holiday won’t cut it. I tried that. Unless you have a very specific program that you will follow during your holiday, going on vacation is like putting a band aid on open heart surgery.

There are specific strategies, tactics and actions you need to put in place that will nourish you and provide you with energy. These all work exponentially better when you have a clear, personalized plan for nourishing your mind, body, soul and environment in order to recover and then avoid burnout in the future. You need to show yourself some deep love and care.

That means paying attention to what you consume. What do you feed your mind (news, TV shows, conversations, books, articles, etc), what you feed your body (bespoke nutrition for your particular needs, quality sleep, movement that heals) and what you feed your soul (spiritual practices that are uplifting, art, music, nature, etc).

Step 5: Listen to your inner wisdom – you know yourself best

Every person is unique. Your intuition is an early warning system that tells you when things are “off”. Learn to tap into that inner wisdom and guidance system, so you can effectively deal with stresses before they get out of control. That niggling pain in your arm or leg – have it checked out. Your body is trying to tell you something. Usually it’s trying to tell you to slow down. In a world where the media tells you what and how to think, it’s sometimes difficult to even hear your own inner wisdom, never mind listening to it. To hear your inner wisdom you need to slow down and spend time in nature, quietly, without distraction. That’s why I walk.

And then at some point you’re going to have to ask yourself a couple of key questions:

  • Why do I overwork so much?
  • What am I trying to prove?
  • Who am I trying to impress?
  • Whose approval am I secretly yearning for?
  • What do I really want in life?
  • In what way can I live my purpose?

Step 6: Powerful living through better decision making, leadership and improved work practices.

You can choose to empower yourself and live a powerful life. When you know better, you can do better. I had to significantly change the way I work. I used to spend hours and hours on end sitting giving feedback on psychometric assessments and coaching. My doctors advised that all the sitting was not a good idea and I had to find a different way to work. I had to figure out ways to leverage my time and work smarter.

When you’re stressed and burnt out you make decisions based on survival, not on thriving. That will keep you stuck in survival mode. When you’re stressed, you are also more likely to make silly mistakes. If you’re lucky, those mistakes won’t cost too much. If you are not so lucky, those mistakes can cost a fortune.

If you are a leader that is burnt out, you are most likely causing your team to burnout as well. (Not nice to hear, I know). We can’t send people back into the same environment that caused the burnout in the first place, so we need to change certain work practices starting with:

  • Setting clear boundaries and role clarification,
  • Recognizing and rewarding appropriately and
  • Ensuring the right support systems are available and functional in the workplace.
  • We have to distinguish between Agreements vs Expectations.

I highly recommend reading The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. (Do yourself a favour and read the original text, not the summary versions available all over the internet. There is tremendous potency in going to the source and full text.)

If you liked what you’ve read so far and you want to go a bit deeper then you can do any of the following:

Schedule a conversation with me

Consider joining the Sacred Professional Selfcare Program

Take the Free 7 Day SelfCare Challenge