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Burnout Prevention and Recovery

Signs, Symptoms, and Coping Strategies for Mental Exhaustion

Burned out doctorH

If constant stress has you feeling disillusioned, helpless, and completely exhausted, you may be suffering from burnout. When you’re burned out from stress, problems seem insurmountable, everything looks bleak, and it’s difficult to muster up the energy to care—let alone do something about your situation.

The unhappiness and detachment that burnout causes can threaten your job, your relationships, and your health. But burnout can be overcome. There are plenty of things you can do to regain your balance and start to feel hopeful and positive again.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.

  • Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.
  • Most of us have days when we feel bored, overloaded, or unappreciated, when dragging ourselves out of bed requires the determination of Hercules. If you feel like this most of the time, however, you may have burnout.

You may be on the road to burnout if:

  • Every day is a bad day.
  • Caring about your work or home life seems like a total waste of energy.
  • You’re exhausted all the time.
  • The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming.
  • You feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.

The effects of burnout

The negative effects of burnout spill over into every area of life—including your home, work, and social life. Burnout can also cause long-term changes to your body that make you vulnerable to illnesses like colds and flu. Because of its many consequences, it’s important to deal with burnout right away.

The difference between stress and burnout

Burnout may be the result of unrelenting stress, but it isn’t the same as too much stress. Stress, by and large, involves too much: too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and psychologically. Stressed people can still imagine, though, that if they can just get everything under control, they’ll feel better.

Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough. 

  • Being burned out means feeling empty, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring.
  • People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations.
  • While you’re usually aware of being under a lot of stress, you don’t always notice burnout when it happens.
Stress vs. Burnout

Characterized by overengagement

Characterized by disengagement

Emotions are overreactive

Emotions are blunted

Produces urgency and hyperactivity

Produces helplessness and hopelessness

Loss of energy

Loss of motivation, ideals, and hope

Leads to anxiety disorders

Leads to detachment and depression

Primary damage is physical

Primary damage is emotional

May kill you prematurely

May make life seem not worth living

Source: Stress and Burnout in Ministry

Burnout causes

Burnout often stems from your job. Anyone who feels overworked and undervalued is at risk for burnout—from the hardworking office worker who hasn’t had a vacation in years, to the frazzled stay-at-home mom struggling to care for kids, housework, and an aging parent.

Your lifestyle and personality traits can also contribute to burnout. What you do in your downtime and how you look at the world can play just as big of a role in causing burnout as work or home demands.

Work-related causes of burnout

  • Feeling like you have little or no control over your work
  • Lack of recognition or reward for good work
  • Unclear or overly demanding job expectations
  • Doing work that’s monotonous or unchallenging
  • Working in a chaotic or high-pressure environment

Lifestyle causes of burnout

  • Working too much, without enough time for socializing or relaxing
  • Lack of close, supportive relationships
  • Taking on too many responsibilities, without enough help from others
  • Not getting enough sleep

Personality traits can contribute to burnout

  • Perfectionistic tendencies; nothing is ever good enough
  • Pessimistic view of yourself and the world
  • The need to be in control; reluctance to delegate to others
  • High-achieving, Type A personality

Burnout signs and symptoms

Burnout is a gradual process that occurs over an extended period of time. The signs and symptoms of burnout are subtle at first, but they get worse and worse as time goes on.

  • Think of the early symptoms of burnout as warning signs or red flags that something is wrong that needs to be addressed.
  • If you pay attention to these early warning signs, you can prevent a major breakdown. If you ignore them, you’ll eventually burn out.

Physical signs and symptoms of burnout

  • Feeling tired and drained most of the time
  • Lowered immunity, feeling sick a lot
  • Frequent headaches, back pain, muscle aches
  • Change in appetite or sleep habits

Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout

  • Sense of failure and self-doubt
  • Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
  • Detachment, feeling alone in the world
  • Loss of motivation
  • Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment

Behavioral signs and symptoms of burnout

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
  • Taking out your frustrations on others
  • Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early

Dealing with burnout

Whether you recognize the warning signs of impending burnout or you’re already past the breaking point, trying to push through the exhaustion and continuing as you have been will only cause further emotional and physical damage. There are positive steps you can take to get your life back into balance and overcome burnout.

Coping strategy tip 1: Seek social support to manage stress

When you’re on the road to burnout, you can feel helpless. But you have a lot more control over stress than you may think. The most effective way to relieve stress is to reach out to others.

  • Social contact is nature’s antidote to stress. Since the face and heart are wired together in the brain, talking face to face with a good listener can help to quickly calm your nervous system and relieve stress.
  • The person you talk to doesn’t have to be able to “fix” your stressors; they just have to be a good listener, someone who’ll listen attentively without being distracted or judging you.
  • Opening up won’t make you a burden to others. In fact, most friends and loved ones will be flattered that you trust them enough to confide in them, and it will only strengthen your friendship.
  • Try to be more sociable with your coworkers. Developing friendships with people you work with can help buffer you from job burnout. When you take a break, for example, instead of directing your attention to your smart phone, try engaging your colleagues. Or schedule social events together after work.
  • If you don’t feel that you have anyone to turn to, it’s never too late to build new friendships and expand your social network.

The power of giving

Being helpful to others delivers immense pleasure and can help to significantly reduce stress as well as broaden your social circle.

While it’s important not to take on too much when you’re facing burnout, helping others doesn’t have to involve a lot of time or effort. Even small things like a kind word or friendly smile can help lower stress—for you and the other person.

Tip 2: Get moving

Even though it may be the last thing you feel like doing when you’re burned out, exercise is a powerful antidote to stress and burnout. It’s also something you can do right now to boost your mood.

  • Aim to exercise for 30 minutes or more per day—or break that up into short, 10-minute bursts of activity. A 10-minute walk can improve your mood for two hours.
  • Rhythmic exercise—where you move both your arms and legs—is a hugely effective way to lift your mood, increase energy, sharpen focus, and relax both the mind and body. Try walking, running, weight training, swimming, martial arts, or even dancing.
  • To maximize stress relief, instead of continuing to focus on your thoughts, focus on your body and how it feels as you move—the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the wind on your skin.

Tip 3: Reframe the way you look at work

Whether you have a job that leaves you rushed off your feet or one that is monotonous and unfulfilling, the most effective way to combat job burnout is to quit and find a job you love instead. Of course, for many of us changing jobs or careers is far from being a practical solution—we’re grateful just to have work to pay the bills. Whatever your situation, though, there are still things you can do to improve your state of mind.

Try to find some value in what you do. Even in some mundane jobs, you can often focus on how what you do helps others, for example, or provides a much needed product or service. Focus on aspects of the job that you do enjoy—even if it’s just chatting with your coworkers at lunch. Changing your attitude towards your job can help you regain a sense of purpose and control.

Find balance in your life. If you hate your job, look for meaning and satisfaction elsewhere in your life: in your family, friends, or hobbies. Focus on the parts of your life that bring you joy.

Make friends at work. Having strong ties in the workplace can help reduce monotony and counter the effects of burnout. Having friends to chat and joke with during the day can help relieve stress from an unfulfilling or demanding job, improve your job performance, or simply get you through a rough day.

Take time off. If burnout seems inevitable, try to take a complete break from work. Go on vacation, use up your sick days, ask for a temporary leave-of-absence—anything to remove yourself from the situation. Use the time away to recharge your batteries and pursue other burnout recovery steps.

tip 4: Eat a healthy diet

What you put in your body can have a huge impact on your mood and energy levels throughout the day.

Minimize sugar and refined carbs. You may crave sugary snacks or comfort foods such as pasta or French fries, but these high-carbohydrate foods quickly lead to a crash in mood and energy.

Reduce yoth high lur intake of foods that can adversely affect your mood, such as caffeine, trans fats, and foods wievels of chemical preservatives or hormones.

Eat more Omega-3 fatty acids to give your mood a boost. The best sources are fatty fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines), seaweed, flaxseed, and walnuts.

Avoid nicotine. Smoking when you're feeling stressed may seem calming, but nicotine is a powerful stimulant, leading to higher, not lower, levels of anxiety.

Drink alcohol in moderation. Alcohol temporarily reduces worry, but too much can cause anxiety as it wears off.

Tip 5: Reevaluate priorities

Burnout is an undeniable sign that something important in your life is not working. Take time to think about your hopes, goals, and dreams. Are you neglecting something that is truly important to you? Burnout can be an opportunity to rediscover what really makes you happy and to slow down and give yourself time to rest, reflect, and heal.

Set boundaries. Don’t overextend yourself. Learn how to say “no” to requests on your time. If you find this difficult, remind yourself that saying “no” allows you to say “yes” to the things that you truly want to do.

Take a daily break from technology. Set a time each day when you completely disconnect. Put away your laptop, turn off your phone, and stop checking email.

Nourish your creative side. Creativity is a powerful antidote to burnout. Try something new, start a fun project, or resume a favorite hobby. Choose activities that have nothing to do with work.

Set aside relaxation time. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the stress response.

Get plenty of sleep. Feeling tired can exacerbate burnout by causing you to think irrationally. Keep your cool in stressful situations by getting a good night’s sleep.

Boost your ability to stay on task

If you’re having trouble following through with these self-help tips to prevent or overcome burnout, HelpGuide’s free emotional intelligence toolkit can help.

  • Learn how to reduce stress in the moment.
  • Manage troublesome thoughts and feelings.
  • Motivate yourself to take the steps that can relieve stress and burnout.
  • Improve your relationships at work and home.
  • Rediscover joy and meaning that make work—and life—worthwhile.
  • Increase your overall health and happiness. 

If you need powerful social and emotional skills that effectively reduce stress, read FEELING LOVED.

Learn more »

More help for preventing burnout

Resources and references

Burnout signs, symptoms, and causes

The Four Stages of Burnout – Description of the four stages of burnout, including telltale signs and symptoms. (The Stress Doc)

Preventing and recovering from burnout

Self-Help Burn-Out – Helpful coping tips for preventing and recovering from burnout. (Texas A&M University Student Counseling Service)

Recovering From Burnout – Advice on how to learn from your mistakes and recover from burnout by finding a new direction. (Mind Tools) 

How to Prevent Burnout From Stress – Advice on preventing burnout by living like a sprinter, not a long-distance runner. Includes coping strategies and tips. (Life Evolver)

The Road to Resilience – Prevent burnout by building your resilience to stress and adversity. This article offers a wealth of helpful tips and strategies. (American Psychological Association)

Job and workplace burnout

Job Burnout: How to Spot it and Take Action – Find out if you’re at risk of job or workplace burnout and what to do if you are. (Mayo Clinic)

Having a Bad Job is Worse for Mental Health Than No Job at All– Research shows bad jobs create a worse mental state than unemployment. (Psychology Today)

Burnout: Is it a Burning Issue in Your Company? – Helps managers identify, prevent, and alleviate burnout among their employees and for themselves. (

References for burnout

Stress and Burnout in Ministry – Learn how the demands of congregational life lead to stress and burnout and how members of the clergy can help themselves. (

What other readers are saying

“I got into a position where my energy and enthusiasm were declining at a puzzling and alarming rate. The article profiled the problem perfectly and was very helpful in starting me down the path to getting this fixed.” ~ Ohio

“Recently I left my job because a burnout situation, was really hard to quit. When I found your page, it was a relief. It was clear and I love your suggestions and easy tips. Your article and all your related information gave me a new hope. I'm still a job seeker but I'm healing from the burnout.” ~ Mexico

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Lawrence Robinson, and Robert Segal, M.A. Last updated: October 2016.