5 Signs You’re on the Way to Burnout City (and How to Escape If You’re Already There)

Midway from ennui to nervous breakdown, at the junction of “I Can Do This” road and “Are You Sure About That?” highway, lives a crappy little town I’ve spent way too much of my life in. (And you may have, too.)

It’s overpopulated, but no one really wants to be there.

Its souvenirs friggin’ suck. (You know those “all I got was this crappy shirt” shirts? Yeah, not even those.)

It’s been the ruin of many a poor hustler. And its name?

Is Burnout City.

Fortunately for all of us, there are plenty of telltale signs that let you know when you’re headed for it and give you the opportunity to turn tail. If you notice any of them creeping into your periphery, or several of them have accumulated already, take heed:


1. Everything Annoys the Crap Out of You

Hell hath no fury like me when I’m hangry. I carry a decorative tin of almonds in my purse at all times to escape the low blood sugar crazies, which usually tend to hit smack dab in the middle of a crowded Target shopping trip.

But when I’m burnt out? Hoo boy. It’s downright ugly.

I snap at my husband for the dumbest little things.

Everyone else on the road is a bleeping idiot.

Sidewalks rise up to trip me, toilet paper rolls run out precisely when I’m in the bathroom, and it feels like the entirely universe is conspiring to piss me off as much as possible.

When you’re totally and utterly burnt to a crisp, you have no buffer left to soften all the little annoyances and inconveniences you’d normally be able to shake off. You’re one big raw nerve, and everything grates on you. If you find yourself getting disproportionately annoyed at the stupidest little things, it could be a sign you’re heading to Burnout City.


2. The Things You Used to Love Now Seem Stupid

Your boyfriend. Your face. Your boyfriend’s face. That book you picked up droolingly from the bookstore three months ago but haven’t been able to turn a page of since.

You normally love going out with friends to grab a drink and unwind, but the idea of dressing up and being social for several hours seems so exhausting to you that just thinking about it makes you want to hide under the bed.

Your hobbies have all slid, you haven’t really felt excited about anything since you can’t remember when, and you’re having trouble mustering up effort for anything but the most essential daily activities.

Nothing is calling to you (except perhaps your bed, which you’d prefer to stay in for the rest of the foreseeable future). Eventually, you even stop caring about how little you care. You just can’t summon up the energy.


3. Your Standards Have Seriously Slipped

Once you lose the drive to pursue your passions and interests, the next thing you lose is your drive to maintain a basic standard of living as a civilized human being.

Takeout becomes your go-to because the thought of actually shopping for and then preparing a decent meal feels so overwhelming it’s just not worth it. Eventually, the thought of ordering, paying for and picking up takeout also seems like way too much effort. Meals become whatever you can cobble together from your quickly dwindling pantry. A handful of stale Cheerios and a slice of American cheese? Whatever. It’s food, kind of.

Things like making the bed and actually washing the dishes (rather than rinsing out that coffee mug you’ve used three times and calling it good enough) go out the window. You find yourself consuming a dinner of two stale bread-ends (from mismatched loaves) haphazardly smeared with crunchy peanut butter (which you spread with the back of a travel-sized spork, because it is literally the only utensil in your whole kitchen not waiting to be washed.)* *This has actually happened to me.

And don’t even get me started on showers. You’re just gonna get dirty again tomorrow, so what’s the point?


4. Your Demons and Gremlins Come Back to Haunt You

Your bad habits and old crutches start to revisit you. Caffeine? Alcohol? Nail-biting? All-weekend-Netflix binges in your increasingly grungy PJs?

Check, check and mate. You devolve into a previous version of yourself, before upgrades like “exercising more” and “going out in public once a day” ever took hold.

In a similar vein, your personal gremlins also stop by to say hey. If you tend to struggle with self-doubt, social anxiety, body issues, you name it, now’s the time they will show up unexpectedly on your doorstep with presumptuous plans of staying for a while. And, because you’re in a weakened state, you won’t have your usual ability to slam the door in their face. Instead, you’ll slump down in defeat as they saunter in and start unpacking in their old room.


5. Your Body Is Revolting

(As in, revolting against you, although I suppose your body being just plain revolting could also be a consequence.)

When I’m rounding the bend to Burnout City, my body lets me know in no uncertain terms that it does not approve.

Headaches. Stomach aches. Jaw pains from too much clenching. Shoulder and neck pains from too much hunching. Anxiety attacks. Often all within the same 24-hour cycle, for many days in a row.

Our body is pretty wise to what’s going on in our life. While we can trick and justify our mind around all sorts of unhealthy situations, it’s not so easy to fool our body. Physical ailments are its ways of letting us know we’re not taking care of ourselves properly. Listen to it. It’s trying to tell you something’s wrong.


6. You’re Always in Fight-or-Flight

You can try to check out of Burnout City, but as long as you stay within its radius, you can never truly leave. Everything feels like an emergency, and your mind and body are poised to react accordingly.

You may try to sit down with that book you’ve been meaning to read, but you won’t be able to focus.

You may be eating a lovely lunch outside at your favorite café, but your jaw is still clenched and your shoulders are still tight.

You feel fires around every corner and burn up all sorts of energy imagining the ways you’ll have to put them out, whether or not they ever actually materialize. It’s freakin’ exhausting. You’re simultaneously totally tapped out and so revved up you’re past the point of knowing how to turn it off.


How to Escape From Burnout City

So. You think you’re on the way to Burnout City—or you know for a fact you’ve been there for a while now. How do you get out?

The first step is to be extremely gentle with yourself. You’re in a breakable state right now, and you need to handle your mind, body and spirit the way you handle any fragile thing—with lots of love, care and patience.

Next, adhere to this escape plan:


1. Don’t Make Any Major Decisions

Life decisions, career decisions, relationship decisions… When you’re fried, it’s next to impossible to view sensitive topics objectively. And because you’re seeing things with a skewed perspective, now is not the time to take action on anything major.

As David Cain says in an awesome post on surviving bad moods, “Similar to ‘Don’t drink and drive’ is ‘Don’t fret and decide.’ Wait until you sober up. Sleep it off.”


2. Go Into Energy Saver Mode

When your computer’s overheating, you don’t try installing new programs and multitasking several windows. You step away, let it cool off, and come back when it can handle all that extra work.

Similarly, you need to give yourself a break and go into energy saver mode, performing only system-critical tasks and letting everything else slide. For more on how to do this, click here.


3. Give Yourself Time to Heal

Recently, I set aside the months of June – August to deal with my own burnout. And, sure as pumpkin spice lattes in September, when the beginning of August rolled around, I found myself itching to jump back in the game. I felt somewhat “better,” and that was enough for me to be raring to go.

But burnout needs time to heal, and if you push yourself back into action too soon, you could have a swift relapse. When you’re healing a broken ankle, you don’t start running marathons again the instant it no longer hurts to put weight on it. You ease yourself back in, making sure that ankle is strong and whole before you try exerting any real pressure on it. Your psyche operates the same way. You need to give it time to mend and re-gel before you try testing it again.

Once you hit that point where you begin to feel normalish again, when you can taste food and see colors and the thought of doing stuff no longer makes you want to curl up into the fetal position, that doesn’t mean you’re 100% recovered. It just means you’re recovering. Give yourself plenty of time to linger in that feeling of being o.k. again and assimilate it into your very core before you try pushing yourself again.


4. Learn From Your Stay

The best way to make sure you don’t find yourself in Burnout City again is to figure out what led you there to begin with. What were you taking on that you shouldn’t have been? What attitudes need adjusting? What people, places and things are hurting you more than they’re helping you?

Study the points that pushed you to the edge, and you’ll know how to adjust your roadmap for the future. Burnout is the result of something (or several somethings) being askew in your life, whether it’s taking on too many projects or not taking care of your health or trying to live up to unreal expectations. Don’t make your stay in Burnout City pointless. Learn from it so you can live better in the future. (Tweet, tweet!)

Fellow Burnout City citizens: Are you currently in Burnout City? Have you recently escaped? Share your stories—and your tips—in the comments!

Image: Flickr

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  • Cordelia’s Mom

    I think this is one of the best posts you’ve ever written. Sorry you had to go through all that, but obviously you’ve learned from it. It took me years longer than it took you to figure out even half of dealing with burnout issues. (Kids didn’t help, of course.) Bottom line? You have to be kind to yourself before you can take on the rest of the world. Sometimes that means taking a break to regenerate yourself, like you did this summer.

  • Athena

    I agree with your mom. This is a really good post and I’m sorry that this happened to you. I’ve burned out plenty of times and have physically suffered from exhaustion which caused me to miss work. No bueno. It’s so hard to balance everything because you know you want to, and sometimes need to, but can’t. I’ve recently made the effort to be nicer to myself, which has helped a lot. Now I need to learn how to be more comfortable when spending time alone.

    • Love the phrase “be nicer to yourself.” I think I need to make that a personal mantra. 🙂

  • Bob T. Panda

    Yep, your mom is right on all fronts. It is a great post and one I am taking to heart, as I am in the midst/ coming out the backside of burnout city.
    I think when times are hard, you keep thinking that if you do just a little more, say no to no bit of work that tries to land on your desk, that somehow you can work your way out of hard times.
    In honor of your post, I bought myself a nice piece of wild salmon, got some broccoli and made a healthy dinner for myself, instead of having a pity frozen pizza.
    Also trying to let myself work at a less obsessive pace than I did all spring and summer.
    Excellent post, which I will attempt to take to heart.
    You da bear.

    • Cordelia’s Mom

      You need a cuppycake.

      • Anne Belov

        I soooo need a cuppycake!

    • I’m digging the “make yourself a real, healthy dinner” action. I definitely need to take a page from that book. (And then reward myself for my healthiness with a cuppycake, of course.) 🙂

      • Anne Belov

        But you know I still want the pizza! Not to mention the cuppycakes.

  • Lauren R. Tharp

    This was wonderful, Kelly. Perhaps the BEST article on burnout I’ve ever read. Well done!

    • Aw, thanks, Lauren! That means a lot to me. 🙂

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  • Leksifer

    First time reader of your blog, and this post HIT HOME. I’m currently in Burnout City and I’m trying to get out. I’ve finally come to terms that I was actually there. It took MONTHS. I showed symptoms in April, but couldn’t pin point what it was. But I find pleasure IN NOTHING nowadays. And I basically have a stale peanut butter sandwich type dinner everyday. I only recently realized my state and have been actively working to slowly recover. First, by finding a new job because it was my job that sent me to Burnout City in the first place. Thanks again for this post.

    • So glad I could help. I’ve escaped the heart of Burnout City but still find myself approaching the boarders on a regular basis. It’s a pernicious place, but being aware of your proximity to it is half the battle.

      MAJOR kudos to you for taking the big, bold step of finding a new job. Rebuilding is a gradual process, but it is SO worth the investment.

      Here’s to neither of us revisiting BC again any time soon!

  • Kelly

    Love this post and your blog! I’m currently a resident of Burnout City. I’ve been living here for about a year (ridiculous I know), but I’m taking steps to move to Happy Town. The first of which is to notice when I compromise my own values to make someone else happy or to gain their acceptance. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to live for myself. Like one of the other commenters, it’s my job that finally pushed me here and I’ve got to change that first and I believe the rest will fall into place. You have to block out all the noise and find “you” again to move past it.

    • Amen. I can tell you as a Burnout City survivor (and one who keeps getting dragged back in for temporary visits, sadly) that Happy Town is well worth all the steps it takes to get there. You’re no good to anyone, yourself or others, until you can honor that “you” first.

  • lulubelle

    Damn that’s good. I began reading, thinking ‘wow, that was me the last few months’, and now thinking, ‘that IS me now’ – you make a very good point about recovery time!

    • I find that this is me on a regular basis. I keep slipping in and out depending on what’s going on around me. But the good news is, every time you escape Burnout City, you learn new skills and strategies that make it that much easier to escape the next time (or to catch yourself before you even arrive again).

  • Shelley

    Oh dear. I think I was born and raised in Burnout City! I have felt entirely like this for about 20 years (since primary school!) and have been really struggling with life being, well, generally crap. All the time. Having unsuccessfully tried many ways of dealing with it (Doctors/pills, eating well, getting enough sleep, meditation) and eventually giving up and wallowing in self-pity, feeling like there’s no way out, I’m so glad to have found this awesome post (and blog site, for that matter) that sums things up so well. Thank you 🙂