How Do I Know if I’m Experiencing Burnout?

I’m burned out. Between the constant grind of school and work, moving, and the current state of my country, I am completely drained.

I am not alone. In 2021, 79% of U.S. employees reported experiencing work-related stress. Nearly 3 in 5 reported being negatively affected by work, including lack of energy, motivation, and cognitive fatigue.

There are many reasons for stress to pile up in modern life. Having constant access to the news 24/7, being isolated in individualistic cultures, collective traumas like the pandemic, a culture of productivity, and our personal history all contribute to this mass feeling of exhaustion.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a syndrome, not a disorder. This means that any person can experience it at some point in life and generally can process it without intervention from a professional.

To count as burnout, it needs to have three dimensions A person needs to be exhausted, experience cynicism or depersonalization, and have a negative self-view of performance.

Burnout is talked about in the literature solely as related to work. It was first coined to explain the collection of symptoms common among therapists and other service workers that experience chronic stress. Presumably, stressors outside of work can also cause burnout.

Burnout vs. trauma vs. depression

Burnout has a lot of shared symptoms with trauma and depression. It can make it difficult to pinpoint what the cause of the problem is and get proper treatment. Many people use the term burnout when they’re actually experiencing other issues.

The chart above is not exhaustive, and specific symptoms are subjective in where they fall.

Shared characteristics are exhaustion, depersonalization, cynicism, irritability, anxiety, helplessness, headaches, withdrawal from social, and numbness or emotional outbursts.

Some key differences about burnout are that it is usually short-term, that you can pinpoint the source of the stress, and that self-care can prevent it. You can also start with burnout, which leads to depression if prolonged enough.

If your symptoms last a while, you’re experiencing suicidality, you’re getting intrusive thoughts and flashbacks from the source of stress, you have physiological changes, or you’re feeling down most of the time, you should seek professional help. This would indicate you are not experiencing burnout but are experiencing something else.

Common causes of burnout

Something that is not often discussed in the context of burnout is that it is mainly organizational. We typically put it on people as their responsibility to fix their burnout when the organization has a climate that leads people to burnout.

Sweden provides employees paid time off for burnout and other stress-related illnesses. Burnout researchers found that although they got this time off to rest, many employees still didn’t want to return to the workplace. You cannot fix a poor organizational structure or fit by taking time off.

In one study, employees rated their bosses and found that for every point increase in leadership score, there was a 7% decrease in burnout and an 11% increase in job satisfaction.

The most common work structure factors that lead to job satisfaction or burnout are:

  • Workload – how much you’re doing
  • Reward – work incentives/meaning
  • Control – how much autonomy you have
  • Community – the work culture and relationships
  • Fairness – if employees are treated equally
  • Values – your personal values vs. the company’s

If any of the above areas is poor in a given work environment, you will experience stress and less job satisfaction.

Autistic burnout vs. occupational burnout

While autistic and occupational burnout shares a name, the two are distinct. Autistic burnout is a relatively recent term, so the clinical literature is sparse, but the available research points to autistic burnout being longer lasting (up to years), decreased tolerance to sensory stimuli, barriers to treatment preventing relief, and issues with living independently.

Autistic people can also experience occupational burnout, contributing to autistic burnout. The symptoms look similar, but autistic burnout is more severe and enduring.

Like other forms of minority stress, contributions to autistic burnout are the cumulative load of expectations combined with systemic barriers to treatment Things like masking, transitions, dealing with the debilitating parts of autism, and social expectations fray the rope of stress management. Being dismissed by others, poverty, poor boundaries and self-advocacy, and not taking a break causes no relief from the stressors.

More research needs to be done on the condition and the best recovery methods. The early research on autistic people’s perspectives indicates that setting boundaries, asking for help, doing wellness activities, and recognizing autistic traits/diagnosis all alleviate autistic burnout.

Solving Burnout

You’ve tried all the self-care under the sun, and you’re still burned out. You’ve been told repeatedly that you need to take time off to solve your problems when that would only lead to more problems. You’re stuck in a cycle of waking up, dreading work, going home, dreading work, and going to bed.

I get it. Burnout is really hard. And unfortunately, there isn’t a magical solution.

You cannot self-care your way out of burnout. Self-care is meant to be preventative, not an intervention.

The first question you have to answer is: is it me or my job? If you look at the lists above and see that your company is missing several crucial dimensions, it may be time to start job hunting. Trying to solve burnout when the organizational problem is like that art installation where the robot is trying to clean up a constant pool of blood.

If it’s not an organizational problem, here are some tips that can help.

  • Disconnect from your phone. Set digital wellness timers, limit the content you’re seeing, and take a break from the news.
  • Prioritize responsibilities. Think of your responsibilities as juggling balls. Some are made of glass, and others are made of plastic. Figure out which ones are glass and focus on making sure those don’t drop. You’ll be fine if you drop the plastic responsibilities for a bit.
  • Take your breaks at work. Use PTO. Think of it as investing in your productivity.
  • Talk to someone, preferably a therapist. Verbally processing your situation can help you realize what will work.
  • Have a physical outlet. Our bodies naturally try to physically shake off stress, but we often inhibit it. Animals shake in the wild to relieve acute stress.
  • Do the wellness activities you can. You can’t do everything, but choose what’s most important.
  • Set time between responses. Most communication doesn’t require an immediate response.
  • Engage the parasympathetic nervous system. “Tricking” your body into calming down will boost your energy and mood.
  • Do nothing. Boredom can be beneficial in sparking creativity and letting your mind rest.

Remember, you are worth more than your job. Your inherent value is not tied to your productivity. You are worth just as much when you’re burnout as when you’re at your peak productivity.

Masking 101: What I Wish My Parents Knew Pt. 2

Here is Pt. 1.

When I was young, I was labeled “gifted.” The Gifted Kid ideology promotes the idea of these young prodigies – talented in academics, social issues, leadership, technology, art, physical skills, or proficient in any other area. There’s supposedly a symptom list associated with gifted children; having a hard time connecting with peers, boredom at school, hyperlexia, having strong feelings compared to other children, and hiding their “giftedness” to fit in.

Sound familiar?

I wasn’t gifted, I was an autistic girl (read AFAB) with ADHD.

The gifted movement has been critiqued for lumping in neurodivergent traits as “symptoms of giftedness” and leading to “gifted kid burnout.” In recent years, the gifted kid movement has tried to pass itself off as a form of neurodivergence in itself, without any professional classification of this so-called “giftedness.”

As is typical of gifted children, I worked hard to hide my “giftedness.” I suppressed my extreme emotions, didn’t discuss my special interests, dumbed down my vocabulary, and tried to remove every autistic trait I could in an attempt to make friends and not be bullied.

I learned masking.

Cutting Away the Parts of Myself That Weren’t Normal

I experience emotions intensely, to the point the smallest injustices feel like a personal calling. Some professionals would likely pathologize it as “moral black and white thinking.” I just call it empathy.

When I was 10, I had a pet ladybug I found outside that I would gaze at for hours. I asked my mom to Google what ladybugs ate and tried to find small bugs in the garden to feed it. I took it out of the little plastic enclosure and let it climb across my arm, engrossed with the little creature.

Unsurprisingly, I lost it somewhere in the kitchen and never found the ladybug again. I cried and cried for days about it. I searched frantically for it. Eventually, I moved on after mourning the loss of my new friend.

When I heard good news, I would jump up and down and flap my hands. I would scream and run around the house and be elated for days.

My emotions were too much for most people in my life to handle. I would get scolded by my parents, teachers, and other adults. I would be ridiculed for crying in school or expressing strong emotions.

I stopped bouncing and flapping my hands when I was happy. I stopped repeatedly asking questions when excited. I didn’t express what I wanted and learned to take whatever was given to me.

I think many adults that punished my emotions wanted me to “be prepared for the real world.” Instead, they left me vulnerable as an adult, struggling to hold boundaries, regulate emotions, and voice what I want.

Like a sculptor, I carefully carved away at my core, creating a socially acceptable version of myself. I chopped off my sensory needs in exchange for dissociation, pushed myself to interact despite my anxiety, forced myself to subdue emotions to meltdown later, and pretended like I had it all together instead of asking for accommodation.

The fear of being mistreated for expressing myself is ingrained so deep, it’s hard to distinguish myself from this mask.

What are the effects of masking?

Research has demonstrated that everyone, regardless of neurotype, engages in some form of masking, like changing your appearance, voice, and mannerisms to fit in. Something unique to autistic individuals though, is that they mask so significantly that it has a severe impact on their sense of self and is detrimental to autistic wellbeing. Masking for autistic people is directly related to suicidality, which is not the same for non-autistic individuals.

Not all autistic individuals mask, but it is often necessary in our present society to succeed. This is especially true for intersectional autistic people that may face discrimination, maltreatment, withheld support, and systemic abuse if they don’t mask. A black autistic person, when confronted by police, is literally faced with life or death depending on their ability to mask.

It’s easy to sit back and say, “well, then stop masking!” when considering the fix to preventing long-term health problems. To be able to unmask is an incredible privilege. On the other hand, the ability to mask can in itself be a privilege because it provides the safety that many autistic people aren’t afforded.

There is no correct answer for what to do about masking, but we know there are adverse long-term effects. Ideally, societal change would be so fundamental that no one would need to mask regardless of identity. But, that’s not currently realistic.

As a late-diagnosed, white, hyperlexic autistic person, I can only provide a privileged experience. For me, I am incredibly grateful I learned how to mask, but I also can unmask now that I’m in a safe place. That’s not going to be true for everyone. It would be inappropriate for me to give a blanket suggestion of what should be done about masking.

The one thing I do wish my parents had known though, is what masking was and passing that knowledge on to me. At the very least, knowing that this “mask” was a separate part of myself would have helped my feelings of inadequacy about my authentic self. It may have aided my ability to cope appropriately because I’d be able to recognize that I don’t have to mask when I’m alone.

Knowing what masking was would have likely helped me avoid mental health crisis because I’d have developed healthier coping mechanisms like I’m doing now as an adult.

And if my parents had known, maybe they’d have understood a little better why I’d lie about how I was feeling and smile when things were terrible. Perhaps they would have tried harder to encourage autistic expression.

I’m not lazy, I’m burned out

Masking is exhausting. If you wear a false version of yourself all of the time, you don’t have the energy to do necessary things. Different autistic people are hit with burnout at different times with different severities, but autistic burnout in children can look a lot like laziness to parents.

Why does my kid want to watch TV and do nothing else when they get home? Why aren’t they doing their homework? Why do they never take any initiative around the house?

The unseen portion of these types of questions are, what emotional and cognitive labor have they been doing all day that you can’t see?

Couple this with ADHD executive dysfunction, depression, or any other comorbidity, and you have a recipe for contention. Nothing is more overstimulating than having someone pester you to do something repeatedly when you’re tired from the day. It explains why meltdowns are so common after kids get home from school.

If I had a time machine, I would have wished my parents had known what masking was so they could have avoided some of the power struggles we had. I couldn’t explain to them that I didn’t have the cognitive/emotional resources to fulfill demands.

This is why environmental support is essential. Having environments to escape through the day can make a big difference for sensory overload. Not being pressured to “act allistic” is incredibly relieving. And being given a clear schedule that can be flexible to my needs can make the difference in whether I hit burnout.

Masking may be unavoidable and necessary for many people, but there are ways we can support autistic individuals in their lives to minimize the damage of long-term masking. Through education, support, and compassion, we can help prevent autistic burnout in ourselves and the people we care for.

For more information on specific sensory supports that can be used to prevent burnout check out Pt. 1.

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