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The burnout factor

By Mary Pettigrew

What is burnout?

Basically, burnout is usually caused by stress (or stressors) that has been going on for too long and has not been addressed or managed. 

Although burnout is not a formal diagnosis, it is a condition that can affect our mental, emotional, and physical health as well as our social interactions because of the intense exhaustion that takes during our day-to-day lives. Burnout can last for days, weeks, months, or longer.

It is quite a common phenomenon amongst patient advocates (of which I am one). Even if you’re a patient living with a chronic illness, the burnout factor is real. It’s absolutely exhausting being a patient. Besides our MS care, many of us also have other health conditions to address. In fact, think of all the other wellness and healthcare items one must address on a regular basis. We have dental care, skin cancer screenings (dermatology), mammograms, colonoscopies, labs/blood work, MRIs, vision exams, psychiatry/psychology (mental health), in-person doctor appointments, and many other medical services needed for health maintenance and living well. 

Keeping up with healthcare needs while trying to maintain a decent quality of life is sometimes challenging and can lead to patient burnout. I get tired of being a patient – I’m a person first. I can’t stand to have my calendar filled up with back-to-back medical appointments, so I try to spread things out if possible. Otherwise, anxiety takes over and my stress level becomes unhealthy. I’ve been known to cancel or postpone appointments at the last minute when this happens. I don’t like to do this.

The burnout factor has been an issue for me several times during the past several years. With each setback I’ve learned how to better recognize what’s going on, how to address what is needed, and the tools I can use to move forward. I’ve heard people use the phrase, “make sure to keep your tank filled with fuel.” I get what they’re saying here, but for me, it takes me a little bit longer to find a gas station. 

Symptoms of burnout include:
  • Feeling run down, drained of all physical, emotional, and creative energy
  • Increased anxiety, depression, fatigue, and self-doubt
  • Low motivation
  • Feeling trapped, defeated, frustrated, and a sense of failure
  • Feeling restless
  • Nothing feels enjoyable and you don’t want to do anything 
  • Negative thoughts about your work, projects
  • Increased irritability, feeling resentful, bitter
  • Finding your patience being tested too often 
  • Easily angered and annoyed with small problems
  • Feeling misunderstood by others
  • Feeling an unrealistic level of pressure to do or be better
  • Feeling there’s not enough time and energy to do what’s needed 
  • Unrealistic thoughts as to what’s needed for good quality and satisfaction.

Take stock of the situation and ask yourself, is it burnout or something else? Look at the symptoms in play, the intensity, and duration. It’s important to recognize the difference between what is a temporary situation versus something more serious (i.e., depression, anxiety, situational, and life/family stressors). Are things getting better or worse? If symptoms have been going on for more than two weeks, it could be burnout or depression. If feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness are in play, pay close attention to this. When significant changes in sleep, appetite, and activity have become problematic, depression may be a factor requiring a more invasive therapy and professional intervention. 

When I find myself in a burnout phase, I try my best to acknowledge it and use this time to increase my level of self-care. This is the time for setting boundaries and self-kindness. During these timeouts, I must remember it’s okay to say “no” to what I’m not responsible for. My support system is always at hands’ reach and it’s important to keep the lines of communication open with friends, family, and patient community.

Addressing and treating burnout:
  • Acknowledge it
  • Look at tasks and responsibilities
  • Assess current abilities
  • Be honest and open with yourself
  • Take a break, tell others you’re taking a break (without guilt)
  • Let yourself take a break (without guilt)
  • Reassess needs, priorities, projects, and goals
  • Let go of those people, projects weighing you down 
  • Move on

So, what is your self-care plan for handling and preventing burnout?