Reflecting on Burnout:

Considering the Physical, Mental, Emotional and Spiritual.

On a recent break, I took time out from my usual schedule to recharge my batteries.  During this time, I came across a book which caught my interest: Burnout: a spiritual crisis by Stephen G. Wright.   Published in 2021, the book pays particular attention to how people in the Health Care sector can be at risk of Burnout, and factors in the impact the Covid-19 has had on people in caring and Health Care professionals as they tried to keep services in the face of the Pandemic. These themes of mental, physical exhaustion are not limited to those who work in the Health Care Sector: burnout can impact any of us: office workers, retail employees, third sector staff, self-employed people and parents. I’ve previously reflected on some of the causes, symptoms and ways of managing and preventing burnout in my previous blogs.  Here, I want to consider some of the additional insights I’ve taken from Wright’s book.

Photo of Preston based offices
Burnout can affect employees, self-employed and those whose energies are spent caring for others.

 

Burnout – A Crisis of Meaning and Purpose.

Wright speaks about the Essence that makes us who we are.  For Wright, rediscovering our true Essence in the face of Burnout is a Spiritual Quest. Yes, we can – and indeed will need to – attend to physical, mental and emotional needs if we are to recover from Burnout – but, for Wright, to neglect attending to those questions about our purpose or Essence is to miss the mark.  Wright makes the point that for holistic healing from burnout, we must also come face-to-face with questions of ultimate meaning:  what is the purpose of my life?  Who am I, at my core, without reference to my work, or my career or my doing? 

Women questioning the purpose and meaning of her life
Photo by Jonathan Andrew on Pexels.com

These questions are of real interest to me.  So often, as I meet with clients, we come to rest upon questions of meaning and purpose.  Finding the meaning and purpose in life can help provide some sense of certainty and solidity in the face of difficulty.  In fact, I often think of these questions as a type of Quest – a chance to go in search of something that has the potential to be transformative.   As I chat with friends about the frustrations in life, meaning and purpose seems to be the thing that we can “hold firm” onto as we navigate the complexity that is modern life.  I also know from my own experience – it is when I am straying too far away from my own values and my own sense of purpose and meaning in life that I most feel at risk of overwhelm. 

So, as I read through Wright’s book, I returned to questions that I have asked myself before – and often support clients to address for themselves:  what is it that matters to me?  What do I value in life?  Where do I find meaning?  Which environments, tasks and people, support me in feeling like I am living a life with purpose?   What are my next steps as a result?  

Pain and Potential.

Wright makes the point that whilst burnout is painful, it can be a turning point and a chance for growth:

“Although burnout is a terribly painful experience, it is also full of potential for living a happier, truthful and more fulfilling life”.  

Of course, when someone in is the midst of burnout, it can seem trite to adopt a pollyannaish approach that says “don’t worry!” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.  In fact, that’s an example of toxic positivity.  But it’s also possible, with empathic and compassionate support, to integrate that sense of painful brokenness.  Along with the breaking down, there can be a rebuilding and a reshaping – a breaking through.  Counselling and psychotherapy can be a chance to explore what, or rather who, remains when the external identity forged and shaped through work, activity and business is removed.  Burnout offers chance to reconnect with the essence of who we are and how we want to live our life.  Burnout is chance to expand our awareness of self and to consider how to embrace transformation in the face of that pain. 

Perhaps you are familiar with the Japanese art form of Kintsugi?  This art form developed as way of mending damaged ceramics by putting shattered pottery pieces back together with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold.  Instead of hiding evidence of the cracks, they are highlighted and honored.  This art form is a creative and visual insight to both the pain and potential of burnout and seems to me to be a visual example of what Wright speaks about.  With gentle, careful and compassionate responses to burnout, both the pain and potential of this life experience can be integrated – becoming far more than the sum of its parts in the process. 

Japanese bowl decorated with two fish.  A crack in the bowl has been repaired with golden laquer.
The Japanese art form of Kintsugi: previsiously exhibited at Preston’s Harris Art Gallery

There is hope in this message.  Burnout need not be a permanent or fixed state of being, and can, in fact, point us towards change and adaptation towards a healthier and more balanced existence.  A thriving, rather than surviving mindset. 

Rest, Re-energize, Recuperate

Wright’s focus on the Spiritual aspect from burnout does not negate a care for the physical body.  Healthy eating, gentle exercise and sleeping better are all ways that Wright encourages when recovering from burnout.  Indeed, when we consider human experience of burnout, it makes sense to think of our physical and spiritual wellbeing, as well as our mental and emotional wellbeing as all contributing to the whole.   It doesn’t have to be an either-or thing!  Finding ways to integrate these different aspects of self-care are essential when looking to address burnout from a holistic perspective.   

To take the example of gentle exercise.  Movement and gentle stretches can help us to physically feel healthier.  It also allows us an experience of taking ownership of our own recovery and a sense of agency.  That can help us mentally, and emotionally – after all, one of the known factors that can increase risk of burnout is a feeling of having little control or autonomy in the workplace.  Physical movement can also remind us that one of the constants of life is change – we are always in a state of flux and movement whilst we are alive – our heart beats, out blood flows through the network of veins, the weather and seasons change, and we move through time each day.  In this way, movement can become a Spiritual teacher – supporting us to reflect on the constancy of change in life and our own relationship to that change.    In this way, signing up to that Tai-Chi class, taking a gentle stroll each day or even trying a Yoga video on YouTube can be a way that we rest, re-energize and recuperate physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

So, as I reflect upon Wright’s focus on rest, re-energizing and recuperation, I’ve been considering how simple acts of self-care in my daily life might support me physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  For me, I’ve been cycling that bit more, and enjoying nature as I do so.   Which is always easier in the sunshine!  Surprisingly (for Preston) I’ve even had the delight, as I idly cycled by, of spotting Parakeets nesting in a tree along the Lancaster Canal!   This for me is a way to safeguard against burnout.  Of course, if I was in the grips of overwhelm and burnout, a cycle ride might feel too much.  Wright addresses that pervasive sense that physical care for the body equates to movement by recognizing that rest, re-energizing and recuperation for the physical can also include not “doing”.  It’s okay to allow ourselves to be passive participants as part of that re-energizing, and we can do that physically through a massage, some gentle breathing and mindfulness practice or attending to noticing in our body where we feel ease and relaxation.

A bike propper against a tree
Cycle-based self-care

So, resting, re-energizing and recuperating in ways that seem a good fit for us and our own needs in the here-and-now – and, with big doses of self-compassion, are part of Wright’s advice for managing and also guarding against Burnout.   That will look different for different people, which is why there can never be any one single “remedy” for Burnout.  Knowing yourself and your own needs, and –importantly – trusting yourself, and tuning into your own sense of self and Essence in the process is more of an attitude and approach than a specific “treatment” for Burnout.  

And, if you feel that you’d find it helpful to explore your own experiences of burnout, and resting, re-energizing and recuperating, consider whether counselling might also be part of your support plan to moving forwards. 

Published by Claire Law

Qualified Preston-based Counsellor and Psychotherapist offering space for you to find freedom from what holds you back.

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