In my early 20s, I was hospitalized with what my doctor called a “complicated migraine.” I wasn’t in pain—but I’d lost vision in one eye and feeling on the right side of my body. A magnetic resonance angiogram (MRA) test showed nothing abnormal about my brain. The hospital sent me home saying that I just needed to rest.
There had been warning signs for years—bouts of frantic anxiety, exhaustion, and overwhelming urges to drink alcohol. But I was too busy to truly rest. Too caught up in the grind of working hard and partying harder. Too worried about making other people happy.
I now know that I was suffering from what’s known as “burnout.” There’s the stress of everyday life—the cracks and potholes in the road while trying to live a decent, meaningful life. Then there’s the stress that just won’t leave. The chronic tension and ruminating thoughts that stretch for days or even years.
What is burnout?
Burnout doesn’t always show up as a migraine. According to the psychologist who coined the term in the 1970s, has three main symptoms:
- Emotional exhaustion—being drained from caring too much.
- Alienation—cynicism about things that used to be meaningful.
- A decreased sense of accomplishment—as the sisters Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski write in their book Burnout, “the feeling that nothing you do makes a difference.”
Physical symptoms can include extreme fatigue, frequent headaches, and gastrointestinal problems. Mentally, burnout can show up as restlessness, an inability to pay attention, increased anger, and (literally) over 100 other ways.
One of the most prominent symptoms is a near-constant feeling of numbness, that decreased sense of accomplishment. A nagging feeling that there’s more to do, yet you’re too exhausted to do it. Or at least do it as well as you’d like or are expected to.
How I treat burnout
We will start by identifying the burnout symptoms you’ve been experiencing. We will also identify the situations and circumstances (“triggers”) that cause the symptoms. I will teach you practices to address the symptoms as they arise in the moment, like mindfulness meditation. We will also discuss potential changes at your workplace, at home, and other areas of your life.
Using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, we will identify the “parts” of you that are contributing to your burnout symptoms. These parts often include a part that feels like you have to constantly prove that you’re a hard worker and/or a part that feels like you have to strive to be perfect or the best.
In IFS, parts are internal subpersonalities we developed as children. They get “frozen in time … and keep doing whatever extreme things they did to protect [us] when [we] were young,” says Richard Schwartz, the therapist who developed IFS.
We will get to know your parts and help them release their childlike, extreme beliefs about how you need to be.