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Burnout: Why It’s Okay and How to Cope

I’m five years sober and regularly experience burnout. I feel shameful about that.

Recovery is all about striving for balance isn’t it? Is it balanced to experience burnout? It recently occurred to me this isn’t something we talk about enough. We do talk about avoiding extreme states in recovery – hungry, angry, lonely, tired, etc. But I feel like it’s unrealistic to avoid these states – they’re a reality of everyday life and rarely experienced in isolation.

Most of us frequently experience a number of stressful states at once, which can ultimately lead to burnout. While not ideal, it’s a reality of life. So are we doing something wrong, or is it okay to experience burnout? And can we do anything about it?

Dealing with Life’s Challenges

Let’s face it, when we were actively using, we only functioned to serve our addiction.

We weren’t focused on living a productive, fulfilling life as a responsible human. We had no interest in being a daughter or son, wife/girlfriend or husband/boyfriend, mother or father, or sister or brother. Work only served as a means to acquire more drugs. Until we were finally left with a life of nothingness. A bare existence.

Then we get sober and life happens. We have to: find a job, earn a stable home, repair damaged relationships, have intimate relationships, and discover who we are without our substance of choice. There’s no denying life is demanding, stressful, overwhelming, and throws curveballs at us all the time.

Recovery is less about not using drugs and more about how to cope with life without the use of drugs. The trouble is – we don’t have the experience of dealing with life sober and all it throws at us.

Even though life’s tough sometimes, we generally cope. If we can get sober, recovering from a crippling disease, then we can deal with anything, right?

While it certainly doesn’t feel like it at times, I think extreme states – even burnout – are actually opportunities for character-building; these events strengthen our resolve and remind us that we can handle anything. Everyone’s journey in recovery is unique with individualized challenges and setbacks, but we have to keep going.

Coming to Grips

Burnout occurs when extreme states of chronic stress lead to physical and emotional exhaustion, detachment, and feeling ineffective or like a failure. High achievers or people in recovery who have a lot on their plate can frequently experience burnout.

At five years sober, I consider myself to be fairly new at juggling the demands of life, and that makes me more susceptible to burnout. Over the course of my recovery, I’ve encountered: failed relationships, being betrayed by trusted friends, my brother’s suicide, being bullied at work, discovering my partner’s drug use, losing a $10,000 contract, managing two jobs, moving to a new continent without a home or job, building my own business upon my arrival to a new country, and breaking my arm a month after moving here with no idea how to cope with acute pain or any knowledge on how the healthcare system.

All these events were stressful enough on their own, but when combined, they led me to burn out – several times.

I now know when I’m burned out, my body tells me so; I spend many days crippled with depression, lethargy, exhaustion, and a desperate desire to escape. Sometimes I try to fight it, but I know I should listen to my body telling me to stop.

Learning New Coping Strategies

The takeaway message is this: extreme states – whether it’s stress or burnout – are normal. It’s okay to feel it. You haven’t failed at recovery. You don’t need to relapse either. You can cope.

How will you ever know your limits if you’re constantly afraid to push yourself or try new things? Recovery for me isn’t about living a life of safety and avoiding uncomfortable feelings. It’s about rising to life’s challenges, experiencing freedom, breaking out of preconceived limits, and making a difference in this world.

If you feel on the verge of burnout, try some of these coping strategies:

  • #1 – Acknowledge how you feel and tell yourself it’s okay to feel that way.
  • #2 – Create space to rest: limit responsibilities, push back deadlines, say no to requests for time.
  • #3 – Ask for help: check in with your doctor, see a therapist, talk to a friend, ask your partner to share some of the demands, ask colleagues to share your workload.
  • #4 – Practice restorative yoga.
  • #5 – Look at ways to decrease stress in your life and reconsider your commitments.
  • #6 – Find a stress outlet: exercise, fresh air, journaling/writing.

Ultimately, know it’s absolutely okay to ask for help. You don’t have to suffer. You aren’t a failure if you need to take a step back and share your responsibilities – you’re human.

The balance I strive for in recovery is trying to limit the episodes of burnout. I do this by being mindful of the stressors in my life. I also create an environment where I try and manage my stress levels by making restorative activities and stress outlets part of my everyday life.

How do you cope with episodes of burnout? Share your experiences – and especially your coping tips – in the comments section below.

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