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You wake up almost as tired as when you fell asleep, four hours ago. After hitting the snooze button twice, you stumble to the kitchen and chug a quart of coffee. It doesn’t help. Your face in the mirror looks like the child you might have had with Voldemort. You can barely squeeze into your last-resort “fat pants.” Getting your kids off to school feels like climbing Mount Everest; driving to the job you once loved, an uphill slog to the salt mines. You dread interacting with your coworkers. It’s not that you aren’t a caring, compassionate person; it’s just that you hate everyone.
If this sounds familiar, you may think you’re depressed. But you might be dealing with a subtly different problem: burnout. Scientists differentiate the two, and it’s a crucial distinction. If you confuse burnout with depression and address it only with antidepressants or therapy, you’ll overlook the behavioral changes you must make to restore your depleted physical and hormonal reserves. Left unchecked, burnout can be lethal. So if you’re anywhere between lightly toasted and totally charred, it’s time to chill.
The Biology of Burnout
There’s no specific medical disorder called burnout, but every doctor knows that prolonged stress has negative consequences. One of these is adrenal fatigue, which comes from overstimulating the hormones that fuel high-energy behavior.
Initially, it feels fabulous—you can work like Hercules, compensating for exhaustion with adrenaline, caffeine, or straight-up willpower. But eventually your high-activity hormones run low. You slow down while trying to speed up. Illness, memory loss, and accidents replace achievement. Jesse Lynn Hanley, MD, coauthor of Tired of Being Tired, has identified five levels of burnout. See if one fits you.
You’re working flat-out, in a nonstop blur of accomplishment. You feel you can go on like this forever! You can’t!
You’re sucking up sugar and caffeine to fight fatigue, maybe popping over-the-counter sleep aids to help you “sleep faster,” and feeling unpleasantly chubby.
3. Losing It
You’re definitely tired, visibly plump (or alarmingly preskeletal), and perpetually grumpy. You lie awake at night, thoughts racing, longing for sleep. At work and at home, you’ve developed a charming habit of biting people’s heads off.
4. Hitting the Wall
You’re racked by aches and pains, gaining (or losing) weight, prone to temper tantrums or crying jags, hard-pressed to remember things like computer passwords or your children’s names.
5. Burned Out
By now you may have a serious illness (heart disease, an autoimmune disorder) or have been in a car accident. To stay marginally functional, you depend on drugs you obtain either from a shrink who innocently believes you’re just depressed or from a man you know only as “Viper.” Nobody likes you. The silver lining? As Hanley writes, “If you do not die during this stage, there is no place to go but up.”
How to Chill Out
Research burnout on the internet, and you’ll find a trove of helpful hints like “Learn to manage stress!” and “Live life in balance!” This is like hearing a financial manager tell you, “Have several million dollars!”
In contrast, authors like Hanley offer wonderfully detailed instructions. Of course, when you’re burned out it’s hard to read a shampoo bottle, let alone a book. The following abridged advice may help cool the burn.
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Chill Principle 1: Become a Grazer
Since burnout often includes weight gain, many people try to eat less as stress levels climb. Yet going hungry can itself be very stressful. And feeding a body infrequently creates the alarm state that encourages fat storage.
The solution: Eat more. I don’t mean doughnuts and lattes, though. I mean low-calorie green food that you eat throughout the entire day. Adding food with lots of antioxidants, water, fiber, and other nutrients can calm you and help your body relax. (I favor smoothies made from fruit and leafy veggies—tastier than they sound.) In addition, take daily omega-3 supplements such as fish oil. These healthy substances reduce inflammation, the physiological part of the “flame” that’s burning you out.
Chill Principle 2: Sleep as If Your Life Depends on It
Some people feel superior when they work around the clock. This is like proudly pouring Tabasco sauce in your eyes. Sleep makes you smarter, better-looking, more creative. It can add years to your life. It does more to improve the long-term quality of that life than money, fancy vacations, or hot sex. Not giving high priority to sleep is, frankly, insane.
Because our culture doesn’t teach this, many people feel they don’t have time to sleep. There are certainly days, even weeks, when this is true. But when sleep deprivation drags into months or years, we’re making choices that sustain it. Because I’ve been all the way to burnout, I’ve become vigilant about getting enough sleep—and I started when I was unemployed and in debt.
Exert every ounce of your will and ingenuity to do the same. Hire someone to help with the kids, even if it means living in a smaller house. Refuse to work for bosses who expect frequent all-nighters. Don’t take on tasks that disallow sleep, any more than you’d say yes to a job that deprives you of oxygen.
For “driven” patients, Hanley suggests six to eight hours of sleep each night, with naps as needed. For “dragging” patients: eight hours a night, with one period of relaxation during the day (sitting somewhere quiet, even in a restroom stall, for 10 to 15 minutes).
If you’re “losing it,” you need eight hours of sleep plus two 10- to 15-minute relaxation breaks. “Hitting the wall” means eight to nine hours each night, plus two breaks. And once you’re “burned out,” you need eight to ten hours of sleep, plus three 15- to 30-minute naps or retreats. Ignore these minimums, and your body will eventually end up lying still anyway—in your bed, a hospital, or the morgue. You choose.
Chill Principle 3: Exercise for Fun
Almost no one ever tells you to exercise less, but if you’re burned out, you should. I fried myself into chronic pain by forcing workouts when my whole body wanted to rest. Ironically, when I began exercising less, I got leaner and fitter. Some exercise helps prevent burnout, but too much, at the wrong time, only turns up the heat.
If you’re “driven,” aim for an hour of vigorous exercise three to five times per week. “Dragging” folks should limit hard exercise to one hour three times a week, or one to three sessions of moderate activity like light yoga. If you’re “losing it,” do three gentle hours a week. “Hitting the wall” calls for 30 gentle minutes one to three times a week. If you’re totally “burned out,” roll over in bed occasionally until you’re stronger.
The key to gauging how much you should exercise is a mysterious thing called fun, which you may remember from childhood. While exercising, ask yourself, Is this fun? If running isn’t fun, walk. If walking isn’t fun, sit. If even that feels wearisome, take a nap. Your body-mind fun barometer is sophisticated and accurate. Use it.
Chill Principle 4: Unplug Heaters, Plug in Coolers
Make a list of all the people with whom you regularly interact. Next, list environments you inhabit—your office, your car, rooms in your home. Finally, list your usual activities, from relaxation (ha-ha! just kidding!) to laundry to office meetings. Now imagine each item separately while noticing how your body reacts. Tension, jaw-clenching, or churning are signs you’re plugged into a heater. Muscle relaxation, spontaneous smiles, and sighs of relief show you’re chilling.
You may not be able to eliminate the “heaters” from your life, but you can—and must—unplug from them every few hours and plug into “coolers” instead. Detach from your sick child, even for a few minutes, to call a healthy friend. Stop doing paperwork and read a novel for 20 minutes. Leave all technology and reconnect with nature—petting puppies, walking in the park—whenever possible.
Chill Principle 5: Practice Peace
I love watching TV cooking contests where grown adults go into full-scale hysterics over things like over boiled pasta. Since I’m not a foodie, I find it hilarious when people sacrifice their peace of mind to the Cuisine Gods. On the other hand, when my computer recently contracted a virus, sending early drafts of work instead of the final draft, my head nearly exploded like a popcorn kernel.
The fact is, all of us can eat soft pasta, correct computer errors, even fight an illness—in panic or in peace. But choosing peace doesn’t just happen; it’s a skill that takes regular practice to master. Choose and use such a practice, whether it’s prayer or simply clearing your mind. Though you may never reach Yoda-level equanimity, devoting even five minutes a day to telling yourself I am all right in this moment builds increasingly effective air-conditioning into your body and mind.
I’ve been to the bleary-eyed burnout stage, and I’m here to attest that these simple suggestions work. They aren’t difficult. Today, start grazing. Lie down for 10 minutes and just breathe. Unplug from the chaos of life long enough to connect with whatever calms you. Tonight, choose to sleep; finishing that project or supervising that homework isn’t worth your health, and you’ll do it faster when you’re rested, anyway. In fact, everything works better when you stop playing Joan of Arc. Refuse to burn. Claim the time it takes to be happy. Everything you value will benefit as you learn to keep your cool.