The word “burnout” usually refers to work related circumstances. People who toil long hours, have demanding jobs or difficult bosses often throw that expression around loosely. But the term is defined more broadly in my handy Merriam Webster’s Medical Dictionary:
Burnout, noun- exhaustion of physical or emotional strength usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.
Sound familiar? With Covid-19 in its second year and the delta variant raging across the world, pandemic fatigue has given way to full-on burnout. The onslaught of negative news, the constant threat of illness, working-from-home, hybrid classes, unemployment, businesses closing and so on are enough to dismay any optimist. The “new normal” feels unsettling and it is difficult to navigate and regain one’s mental, physical, and emotional composure.
I have treated many different issues these past two years, from herniated discs, migraines, neuropathies, tendonitis, neck pain, fertility, digestive disorders, menstrual disorders, PTSD, addiction and more. However, almost every single patient- regardless of illness, injury, age, or status- has reported high levels of stress, anxiety and/or depression! Mental and physical exhaustion are rampant and may well contribute to the ailments I’ve just described. Right now, people are particularly vulnerable, and acupuncture proves to be a good intervention, as it prompts the body to heal itself. The restful state one experiences during a treatment is integral to that process. I employ points that address the individual patterns of disharmony, which always involves reinforcing the deficiency. Needling points that target the shen, or spirit, and ear points which release a lot of endorphins are also very grounding. Over time, the physiological effects of reducing inflammation, calming the nervous system, increasing immune function, influencing cortisol, improving circulation and reducing mental anxiety are a welcome respite for many weary souls during this pandemic.
Chinese Medicine and Burnout
What is the Chinese medicine perspective on so-called “burnout”(aka adrenal fatigue)? Yin and yang are oppositional and interdependent energies and always in flux as they ebb and flow in relative balance. When a person is chronically stressed- for example, working excessive hours, partying too much, not eating well or sleeping enough, or in a constant state of worry or fear, that balance is upended. Yin and/or yang will eventually become depleted, as will qi and blood. This state of intense disharmony disrupts the communication between the vital organs, constrains the liver and can consume kidney qi, which affects reproduction, aging and longevity. As this deterioration progresses, various patterns of disharmony may emerge, depending on the individual. For example, one person might develop tension headaches, while somebody else experiences disrupted digestion with no appetite. Still, others might lie awake at night unable to sleep, while another feels exhausted and depressed. Once this type of stress has been endured for long enough to reach “burnout,” depletion is something to reckon with and recovery takes some time to replenish these vital resources.
I have read several articles on ways to soften this experience of burnout. Humans do not like change, and we have been forced to adjust constantly to the regulations and new data for almost two years. I believe managing expectations and focusing on what you DO have control over may be very helpful. Here are some ideas for how to feel less affected by the negative goings on:
- First and foremost, give yourself the compassion you deserve! It’s been a terribly hard year for everyone, so allow yourself the space to feel whatever you feel about it.
- A little self-care goes a long way. Many people have stopped doing big and small things for themselves since the pandemic began- haircuts, for example. Remember that self-care is NOT indulgence, it is an investment. Self-care is something you do for yourself that gives you a positive feeling or more energy. This might be making an appointment with a therapist, exercising, writing in a journal to clear your head or express gratitude, meditating, connecting with nature, engaging in hobbies you once enjoyed, making a point to connect with friends and family regularly.
- If you’re feeling stifled or disconnected, what can you do to fill that void right now? If you are nervous about contagion, weigh the pros and cons of the activity you are considering: is it something that would make you feel alive again? Is it truly risky, given what we know about the virus and how it spreads? Will you be able to enjoy yourself?
- Take a break from social media. I have done this recently and it feels genuinely beneficial to my overall contentment.
- Try and make the covid precautions automatic, so you don’t have to think about them. Keep extra masks and sanitizer handy and your vaccination card photographed into your phone images.
- Having a plan in place if you or loved ones fall ill- expect to quarantine and do what’s necessary.
An Exercise for Burnout
Here is an exercise that illuminates the duality of yin-yang. Think of 5 things you hate about this pandemic that you are fed up with. For each of these negatives, come up with a positive aspect of each. For example: I hate the constant threat of catching covid and feeling ill; the upside of this is that I am not taking my health for granted; I feel extremely grateful to be able to breathe clearly and live me life without physical impediment. When you identify these positives, you will see that there is yang (positive)within yin (negative). It is a way to shift perspective which may help maneuver pandemic fatigue and burnout.