Burnout: Tips for Coping When You Can’t Just Quit

Medically Reviewed

If you’re burned out from caregiving or parenting, it’s not necessarily an option to leave that role. Even just a few moments in your day for yourself can help.Getty Images

Once burnout sets in, it can be difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. You may feel emotionally exhausted and full of dread; you may feel hopeless, with no motivation or energy to keep going, says Cassandra Aasmundsen-Fry, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Mindwell Modern Psychology and Therapy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Though official definitions of burnout specify that burnout is the result of work-related stress, many experts think that definition is too limited.

“I have absolutely seen burnout apply to other areas,” says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Jewish Family Services of Greenwich in Connecticut. It could set in as a result of overwhelming childcare responsibilities or after taking on the role of caregiver for a sick family member, for example.

If burnout is due to career work, one solution is to quit that job and find one that you’re more passionate about.

But what if quitting your job isn’t an option? Or what if you’re feeling burned out as a result of an activity that you can’t just quit (like taking care of someone who is ill, old, or very young)?

RELATED: Unusual Signs of Burnout

5 Tips for Managing Burnout When You Can’t Just Walk Away

Dealing with burnout typically involves first recognizing that’s what you’re feeling — and then trying to lessen the stressors.

But things that lead to burnout are usually not totally within our control. There are cultural and systemic issues that cause burnout that we may not be able to change (at least not quickly or individually).

“Getting over it” is much easier said than done, says Dominique Thornton, a licensed professional counselor and therapist in Fort Washington, Maryland.

Here are five steps that can help — and if they’re not helping, keep reading for other resources you can turn to.

1. Reframe Your Mindset

Consider the role you’re burned out from and remind yourself why you started, Thornton suggests. It could help you view your situation in a more positive light. “Burnout causes many people to hyper focus on the negative aspects of our job or role,” Thornton says. “That makes the job or role seem more frustrating, unbearable, and stressful, and can lead to even more burnout.”

If you’re burned out with parenting or caregiving responsibilities, for example, remind yourself why you took on these responsibilities. Remind yourself what you like about the role.

2. Make Time for Self-Care

“Lack of self-care is one of the most significant contributors to burnout,” Thornton says. “Many of my clients believe that they don’t have enough time in their schedule for it.”

If that sounds like you, start small.

“It does not have to be an hour each day. It may look like spending 10 minutes a day engaged in a gratitude practice or a guided visualization,” Dr. Aasmundsen-Fry says. “What is important is that you intentionally carve out time.”

How you spend that dedicated time may change according to your needs of the day, she says. Prioritizing adequate amounts of sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise are good places to start, according to Midwestern University.

RELATED: How to Start a Self-Care Routine You’ll Follow

3. Ask for Help

Let your boss, coworkers, family members, or whoever else is close to your situation know you’re exhausted and maxed out. “They can’t fix a problem they don’t know is there,” Thornton says.

Don’t be afraid to ask them for help, and be specific about what you need, Aasmundsen-Fry says. “When doing so, don’t beat around the bush,” she says. Ask for help with meals or carpools to pick up kids from school or activities. “This will make it easier for your helpers and supporters to make sure that no boxes go unchecked,” she says.

At the end of the day, self-sacrifice does not help anyone, Aasmundsen-Fry says.

4. Maintain Your Social Life

Sometimes it helps to talk about what you’re going through with family and friends. Sometimes it helps to use social time to step away from stressors and simply use the time to enjoy another person’s company. Either way, social contact can be an excellent way to de-stress.

And when it comes to carving out time for friends: “Don’t wait for more free time — create it,” Aasmundsen-Fry says. “Prioritize it and hold on to it dearly.”

RELATED: Why Friendships Are So Important for Health and Well-Being

5. Set Boundaries

When you’re not working, leave your work behind, Thornton says. And when you can step away from other responsibilities that are causing burnout (like caregiving), do so.

In your family life, it can help to create a child-free “you” space, for example, Thornton says. It could be a corner in your bedroom or any space where you can reset and relax. Spend time there intentionally, not worrying about whatever is contributing to your burnout. “Mentally being in your role or workspace can be almost as triggering as actually being there,” Thornton says.

Setting boundaries also means not overextending yourself. Don’t be afraid to turn down an invitation on the weekend if your schedule is already full and you need extra time to recharge. Saying no can help when it comes to coping with burnout, according to Penn Medicine.

“Never be ashamed about setting boundaries,” Thornton says. “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

Resources That Can Help You Overcome Burnout

“It’s always better to prevent or to immediately address present challenges rather than opt to put out fires later,” Thornton says.

If you feel unable to manage burnout, it’s lasted for six months or longer, or it’s impairing your ability to function, it’s time to seek additional help, Aasmundsen-Fry says. (If you experience suicidal thoughts at any time, you should call 988 immediately, she says.)

Here are three resources that can help.

  • Support Groups Religious groups or support groups can connect you with people who may be having a similar experience and are wanting to listen and share.

    Try the online community 7 Cups. You can specify what’s stressing you (such as work, relationships, or finances) and find others to listen and offer advice.

  • Guided Meditation Apps “Try using apps like Calm, which offers guided visualizations and progressive muscle relaxation, both of which are excellent self-care strategies to help you recognize and separate from your daily stress,” Aasmundsen-Fry says. Other popular options include Waking Up and Headspace.
  • Therapy “Therapists provide the tools and continued support to make changes to your boundaries and habits over time,” Aasmundsen-Fry says. Plus, a therapist could help determine if you’re dealing with something greater than burnout, as many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with those of depression. Carol Bernstein, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, says symptoms that persist over time and start to interfere with your daily life — to the point where you’re not eating, not sleeping, and not wanting to go to work — may be signs of depression and indicate that it could be good idea to see a mental health professional.
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