Burnout is like being in a state of chronic stress — your body is constantly acting as if you’re running for your life.
One day in late August 2020, I was sitting in my office at my government job looking at the clock, counting down the minutes until I could go home — my heart raced, my vision became blurry, and I felt like I was about to burst into tears. I was having a panic attack. I felt overwhelmed, extremely tired, and was unable to focus on my tasks, all of which made me even more stressed.
I called my boyfriend for some mental support. He had been telling me for weeks that I needed some time off. He had noticed the emotional signs: my mood swings, my constant crying, and the negative way I talked about my job. On top of that, he also saw the toll my mental state was having on my body. I was tired all the time and had been experiencing headaches and stomach pain almost daily. He knew something had to change.
When I called him, I told him I was planning on calling in sick the next day, and maybe I’d take a few mental health days off to recharge. Little did I know that those few days would turn into more than six months.
What Is Burnout?
According to Psychology Today, burnout occurs when your body experiences too much stress over a long period of time without being able to recover from it. This is also called chronic stress. Our bodies are made to deal with small spikes of stress — that’s what keeps us alive when we’re running away from saber-toothed tigers and other hungry predators. Being in a state of chronic stress, however, means your body is constantly acting as if you’re running for your life. Needless to say, there comes a point when your body can’t take it anymore and starts to shut down.
Although there are some indicators that suggest introverts may be more prone to burnout, it can happen to anyone. The most common symptoms associated with burnout are extreme tiredness, flattened emotions, struggling to concentrate on (or to complete) daily tasks, and feeling overly sad or emotional. It can also result in physical symptoms, like headaches, heart palpitations, and trouble sleeping.
Burnouts are mostly associated with work, but that’s not the only cause. A stressful home situation can lead to them, too, or a combination of work and home stress. Recovering from burnout can take time, sometimes even years. But the sooner you realize it’s happening, the better, so you can take steps to recover from it.
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The Moment I Realized I Was Experiencing Burnout
Looking back, I think my burning out had been developing in the background for years. I’d had times when I was feeling numb, easily irritated, and tired — but I always brushed it off, thinking it was an “introvert hangover” or “that time of the month.” Meanwhile, I just kept working, saying “yes” to everything and everybody (it’s hard for many of us introverts to say “no”), and ignoring all the signs my body was giving me: being completely exhausted all the time, not being able to sleep, and having constant headaches.
At one point, I started to notice that I was unable to relax and recharge on weekends. Friday night felt too close to Sunday, and Sunday was practically already Monday, which meant I had to go to work again. Knowing what I know now, this should have been a giant red flag, but I decided to ignore it and just keep going.
Over the past few months, I’ve been recovering from a pretty massive period of burnout. During this process, I sought professional help: I talked to my doctor, a few therapists, and even tried some alternative ways to deal with it, like acupuncture. I’ve certainly had my fair share of hard times, but in the end, I’m grateful that they happened. As a result, I learned valuable lessons about myself that I wish I’d known sooner.
Experiencing burnout has been a life-changing experience, and now that I’m slowly starting to feel better, I think it has turned me into a better version of myself. Although everybody’s journey is personal and different, I would like to share five things I learned while recovering from burnout as an introvert.
How to Recover From Burnout as an Introvert
1. Detach and rest.
When I think back on those first weeks after I called in sick, I can barely remember what I did, how I felt, and what was happening. It is a scary thought, but I guess my body was so exhausted that my brain shut down and everything just happened on autopilot.
After about two or three weeks of sleeping and walking around like a zombie, I was finally in the right headspace to make an appointment with my doctor. She later told me that in the first stage of recovering from burnout, it is important that you allow your body to rest and take a step back from work — both physically and mentally. Your recovery can’t start when your body is still in survival mode and you’re still thinking about work every two seconds.
Just lie in bed, watch your favorite movie on repeat, and wait until you’re starting to feel like an actual human again, she said. Only then can you start making small steps toward your recovery, like seeing a doctor or talking to a therapist. Reluctantly, I took her advice: doing “nothing” is hard for me, being a perfectionist and a workaholic. She was right, though; every day, I felt a little bit better than the day before. Slowly but surely, the headaches went away, my mood got better, and I finally got some much-needed sleep.
2. It’s your journey, but you can’t do it alone.
Being burned out isn’t something that goes away by itself. You need to get some professional help, whether it’s a life coach, therapist, doctor, or all of the aforementioned. Before experiencing burnout, I had never talked to a therapist — and to be honest, I was a bit scared and apprehensive. As an introvert, I usually don’t like to talk to people anyway, let alone talk about myself and my feelings for hours! The first few times, I was nervous, but the sessions taught me so much about myself. They also gave me different mental health tools to prevent another episode of burnout from happening. For instance, did you know it is okay to say “no” sometimes?! This was complete news to me!
Another thing I learned is that, even though you need to put yourself first in your recovery, you can’t forget the people around you. Burnout doesn’t only affect you; it also affects your family, friends, and roommates. My boyfriend has been very supportive during this difficult time, but it has been hard on him, too. It took a while before he admitted that my being burned out was also taking its toll on him. After he revealed this, we started communicating better. We’re able to talk about our feelings more and it has helped us grow even closer. I know my fellow introverts won’t be thrilled with this advice, but talking really is key in this instance.
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3. Recovery isn’t linear — you’ll have ups and downs.
Unfortunately, recovery doesn’t follow a straight line. You don’t feel a small amount “better” every day until you are “cured.” Instead, you feel pretty bad for a period of time, and then you start to feel a little bit better… and after that, you feel worse than you did before. You will have relapses. You will feel on top of the world one day and feel like you’re starting from zero again the next.
This is hard and frustrating, but it’s all part of the process. One thing that really helped me cope with this roller coaster of emotions was keeping a journal. Every day, I write a few short sentences about how I feel. When I’m having a bad day, I look back on some other bad days that led to good days and see for myself that even the bad times didn’t last forever.
4. Recovery is not just about going back to work.
Being an introvert, social obligations are hard for me on even my best days. During a period of burnout, they became a million times worse. During my recovery, I had to learn (the hard way) that even having coffee with friends was just too much for me. I would feel so tired and drained afterward, it almost made me physically ill. I had to cancel any and all plans, parties, dates, and meetings with friends to focus on getting better.
Now that I’m slowly feeling good again, I can start seeing people — but only in small doses. Just like my work hours, I have to build up my “social hours” in small steps. For an extrovert experiencing burnout, social encounters might provide them with energy. But for an introvert like me, they are even more tiring than usual.
5. Listen to your body — it’ll give you warning signs of burnout.
In the months leading up to my getting burned out, my body was giving me all the signs that something wasn’t right: I experienced different aches and pains, I had many sleepless nights, and I (weirdly) had a lot of fluid retention (I later learned this is a sign of high levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone). Unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention, so my body had to give me the ultimate signal: a complete shutdown.
My body was in survival mode and completely preoccupied with dealing with all the stress I was experiencing. I had no energy to focus and concentrate on work, and even having a casual conversation with an acquaintance turned into a difficult task. It also had a negative effect on my immune system, which made me susceptible for things like the flu and other ailments.
The past few months, I’ve been slowly learning to listen more closely to my body and to better understand what she’s telling me. Sometimes I get asked to do something I don’t really want to do, like getting invited to an event with a lot of people, and I can feel my body tighten ever so slightly. That’s a sign that I don’t want to do said thing and that I should say “no.” It might sound crazy, but for someone who had been ignoring those signs for more than three decades, it was like learning a new language.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Right now, I’m still very much in recovery. I still have my ups and downs, but when I look back, I can see that I’ve come a long way and I have learned the importance of self-care, too. For example, every day I make sure I take some time to do things that make me happy and give me positive energy. One of the things I like to do is to go for a walk in nature by myself, and I also like cooking and baking. I make sure I get plenty of rest, and the best way for me to do that is to be alone — something most introverts will resonate with. When I feel tired or drained, now I know it’s time to take a moment to recharge, so I’ll put my phone on Airplane mode and grab a book or watch an episode of some reality show.
I started going back to work for a few hours every week and I’m feeling more calm and optimistic. I know I will have bad days, relapses, and difficult moments in the future, but I also know that I will cope with those as best I can — and that those moments will pass. If you or anyone you know is struggling with burnout — or on the fringe of it — I highly suggest seeking professional help. And don’t forget: You will get better. I’m proof.