Running on Empty: Experiencing Emotional Burnout

As the academic year comes to an end, it is common to feel like your metaphorical tank is empty. It is common to hear someone say when they’re having a hard time that they’re “burnt out.” But what exactly do people mean when they talk about burnout? And what does burnout include? The other day, the World Health Organization has officially classified “burnout” as an “occupational phenomena”. It is not a medical condition but rather a syndrome that is caused by the intense stress workers are put under (especially in high-stress environments, such as medical professions). An individual cannot have a previous mood disorder in order to be considered as experiencing burnout, but the gist of it is that it drains someone to the point of high stress, depression, and even suicide (especially in medical professions).


When people talk about burnout, they’re usually referring to an overwhelming workload, but emotional burnout is about how overwhelming emotions tire someone out. Emotional burnout has also been documented as “compassion fatigue” for those in caregiving professions (social work, nursing, trauma care, etc) where people listen to countless stories about traumatic experiences. Caregivers, who are often predisposed to be empathetic to the people they are helping, may have secondary traumatic experiences. Although this is officially categorized for those who work in high-stress-classified environments, the emotional burnout that is experienced in compassion fatigue can affect anyone.


On a social/survival level, it’s hard not to feel emotional burnout. The news tells us far more problems than solutions and bombards us with negative news about all the sad things in the world. But emotional burnout also occurs on the personal level. If you have friends and family going through a tough time, or even are constantly focusing on the bad parts of your life, sometimes it gets to the point where I feel if I care anymore I’ll be paralyzed with all the caring I have to do. Add to that getting my own stuff done and dealing with my own issues. What’s the point of doing homework when the world is ending anyway? How can I talk about my own issues when my friends also have their own?

A lot of the symptoms of burnout and compassion fatigue are similar: insomnia, depression, bottled-up emotions, preoccupied with other’s problems, or feeling apathy towards others. While it’s not quite as drastic, emotional burnout also includes mental and physical symptoms of stress. This creates a vicious cycle of lacking the motivation to care for yourself or others, feeling guilty for not doing enough, constant demands in work and life, so on and so forth. There are a couple of factors that can worsen emotional burnout, including high demands on the individual, perfectionism, and poor self-care.


So what can you do to prevent emotional burnout? Firstly, limit the amount of bad news you receive. Yes, it is important to be educated on what's going on in the world, but reading the same sh*t every day isn’t going to make anything better. Also, the news gives you a gloss-over of what’s going on, but it doesn’t really educate you, intentionally playing off of the viewer’s emotions to get more views. Protect yourself from this cycle by looking for positive news (I like this website) or devoting a little time each week to educate yourself on a topic you care about without bombarding yourself with emotional stories. Another thing is keeping track of your gratitude and compassion for things and people in your life. I find that if I not only remind myself of all the good things in my life but really sit and be grateful for them, it leads to a more positive feeling that can fuel further compassion rather than guilt. Finally, recognize that many things are just out of your control. This is the hardest pill to swallow, and I don’t think I can ever cement this in my mind. But I try, because it’s important to recognize that I can’t fix the world in a day, nor can I fix all the bad things happening around me, even to my friends and family. Focusing on what you can do versus what you can’t is always going to get you farther in the long run. Along with practicing your own form of self-care, emotional burnout can be remedied, or even prevented. Though emotional burnout always seems to be around the corner, the good news is that it isn’t permanent, and it is something that is fairly common to go through, and it becomes another obstacle in life that we learn to overcome and manage.