As I engage with more and more high achievers, I’m delighted to hear when someone shares that they are doing well. Like Bart, a supreme court lawyer, who shared with me that he’s “very energized” or Diane, an organizational consultant, who says she is neither burned out nor exhausted. If you’re like Bart or Diane, I celebrate you.
That said, according to a recent survey, 77 percent of employees are feeling burned out, so if you find yourself dragging, you’re not alone, and for good reason. In fact, I’ve identified 7 different causes for burnout. They include:
So far, we’ve uncovered what might be blocking you, leading to unfairness, resentment, or neglect. It’s time to take a look at what’s causing you to become overloaded.
Burnout is like an onion – layer upon layer of stress over time. By definition, stress is what happens when you perceive the demands on you to exceed your resources. When you have too much to do in a given time, you start to stress. Similarly, after a long day of work, you might notice you lack the energy or the focus to get things done. If they are pressing matters, you might start feeling the strain of these tasks because you just don’t have the bandwidth to take them on.
Your brain is not unlike a circuit breaker. When you have too much going on at once, it’s like plugging too many devices into the electrical system. This burdens the circuits and can lead them to blow out.
When you take on too much, your version of a circuit blow out is burnout. In addition, if you are someone who is a highly sensitive person (HSP), it may be less about what’s on your plate and more about sensory overload.
HSPs can become overstimulated by exposure to sensory input such as bright lights, loud noises, or crowded spaces, all of which can lead to physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that mimic burnout. When you’re highly sensitive to your environment and work demands are excessive, you’re at even greater risk for burnout.
How Can You Prevent Your “Circuits” From Being Overloaded?
When you build a home and you put in the electrical wiring, you do so knowing how much electricity the circuit can handle. But homeowners may not be as aware of this fact as the builders themselves. That’s where the problem begins. Without this knowledge, you may easily overload the circuit and end up in a power outage.
As a high achiever, you likely don’t know how much you can handle before you start feeling overloaded. If you’re mindful, pay attention to your state, and learn from it, you may be able to avoid overloading yourself moving forward.
This self-awareness is important because it can inform your boundaries. Once you recognize what you can and cannot handle (your tipping point), you can communicate these limits to others and turn down requests as needed.
Your brain does not typically become overloaded in just one day. There is a cumulative effect where day after day you’re taking on too much responsibility, signing up for too many projects, or underestimating how long tasks take as you volunteer to help out colleagues.
All that is to say that if you want to prevent cognitive overload, you’ll need to become better acquainted with what you can handle without being overwhelmed, how long things actually take you to complete, and then plan and prioritize accordingly.
For HSPs, this means becoming mindful of environmental triggers so you can minimize your exposure. Whether you become stressed as a result of interpersonal conflict, the pace of your workplace, or your personal failures, you’ll need to find ways to contain the stress and its effect on you.
Whether you’re an HSP or not, often what contributes to the sense of overload is your inner dialogue. If you are someone who tends to make social comparisons, who is a perfectionist, or is plagued by a critical inner voice, it may not be the external demands that overwhelm your system, but rather your internal ones. This is good news because you have more control over these factors. In these cases, you’ll need to work on transforming your relationship to yourself. And because many HSPs experienced a lack of parental warmth as a child or other negative early childhood experiences, improving your relationship with yourself may require the guidance of a therapist or coach.
What to Do Once You’re Overloaded
If your fuse is blown, you’ll need a reset. But this is a temporary solution. What you need is a permanent fix in the form of changing your habits and being more mindful of what you’re taking on and what you’re capable of absorbing.
That said, prevention is always the way to go, so don’t ignore the warning signs. Pay attention to your physiology. Is your heart pounding faster? Are your muscles tense? Has your blood pressure gone through the roof? You might notice emotional symptoms of irritability, anxiety, or fear.
One of the best signs of being overloaded is when your typical response to a situation is significantly different from the norm. If, for instance, you normally keep your calm, put your head down, and get things done but now you’re yelling at your kids or coworkers, the pressure is getting to you.
As soon as you identify this change in yourself, take a time out to reflect on your situation. In addition to taking time away from work to recharge, what else might you need right now? Would it help if you readjusted deadlines or delegated tasks to others? Do you need to communicate more realistic expectations to your boss or customers? What can cool off your wires so you can plug yourself back into work?
Once you recover, consider what you can do moving forward to avoid this from happening again. Take note of what you’ve learned about yourself from this situation and what will you do differently the next time around. Reflecting on these ideas can help you keep up with the demands, create more realistic circumstances that prevent cognitive overload, and ensure that you are working in a more optimal and sustainable way.
When we tune in too much to environmental demands and too little to our internal state or, in the case of HSPs, are exposed to too much sensory input, we can become overloaded. It’s important to know your limits and what triggers you so you can find sustainable solutions to working without the overwhelm in order to prevent burnout.
If you’re not sure whether you’re a highly sensitive person, here’s a quiz you can take to find out. And, if you score 14 or above on the quiz and want to learn more about what can help you manage your stress, grab a copy of this book by Elaine Aron. It’s what I share with my HSP clients and for them it’s been highly enlightening.
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I’ve created a checklist to help you identify signs of burnout and steps to take to get immediate results. Curious?