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Running on empty? Can CBT help you with burnout?

If you’ve ever felt completely drained by your job or life, like you’re running on empty with no end in sight, you’re not alone. Burnout is becoming increasingly common in our fast-paced, high-pressure world.

Recognising the signs of burnout and addressing them proactively is crucial to maintaining our mental and physical health. This blog will explore what burnout looks like, who is most likely to be impacted by it, why it’s on the rise, and how Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help manage these difficult times.

Understanding Burnout

Research into burnout was originally led in the 1970’s by psychologist Christina Maslach. She primarily focused on workplace burnout, but her discoveries can be applied to many situations in which we might experience burnout.

Burnout describes the human response to overwhelming stress. It is experienced as emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion, feelings of detachment and negativity, and feeling a lack of accomplishment. It reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly hopeless, helpless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel that you have nothing more to give.

How common is burnout? Who is most at risk?

According to research conducted by Mental Health UK, 9 in 10 adults in the UK experienced high or extreme stress in the past year. Their study showed almost a quarter of UK adults felt unable manage the stress and pressure in their lives.

The same research stated revealed that women are 5% more likely to be impacted by extreme stress than men and that adults between 35-44 years old felt high levels of pressure more than any other age group. In fact, 1 in 5 workers in the UK needed to take time off work last year due to poor mental health caused by overwhelming stress or pressure.

Why is burnout on the rise?

Recent years have seen dramatic transformations across the globe due to social and technological shifts, as well significant world events such as COVID-19, the cost of living crisis, wars in Europe and elsewhere, the climate crisis  (there’s a lot!). These modern changes have profoundly impacted our work-life balance and increased life’s stressors, leading many to experience burnout.

Other factors include longer work hours, increased job demands, and the emotional toll of employment. Economic uncertainty and rapid changes to the way we work and live further add to stress. Since the pandemic, the shift to remote or hybrid working has blurred the lines between work and home life, often extending working hours and adding to feelings of isolation among employees.

What are the warning signs?

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and feeling drained
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Headaches or stomach problems
  • Increased irritability, feeling cynical, or negative
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Problems with sleep
  • Procrastination

What can you do to help?

Maintaining basic physical and mental health hygiene is essential for everyone, and especially for those who are feeling the pressure. Having a routine of eating healthily, getting sufficient exercise and rest, as well as staying socially connected, can go a long way in providing the necessary balance in emotionally coping with stress and pressure. 

When to seek help

While burnout is not in itself a mental disorder, if left unresolved it is a major risk factor for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Recognising when to seek help for burnout is crucial for your mental and physical wellbeing. If you find yourself feeling consistently overwhelmed, exhausted, and disinterested in work and these feelings start to spill over into your personal life, causing disruption to your relationships and day-to-day functioning, it might be time to seek support.

If you are experiencing some of the above symptoms and self-help measures or changes to your work environment have not led to improvement, consulting an experienced mental health professional can help you access strategies for support. One such strategy is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

How CBT can help

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an established treatment for burnout.

CBT helps patients develop the essential long-term, problem-solving skills to manage stress and recover from burnout. Managing better sleep, pacing for fatigue, and strategies for worry and other anxiety presentations are all part of the CBT toolkit – the aim being to shape up coping resources so that instead of feeling exhausted and desperate, a sense of control and accomplishment is regained.

A randomised controlled trial by Fredrik Santoft of the Karolinska Institute, in Sweden, found that using CBT to treat burnout led to a significant reduction in symptoms, especially sleep difficulties and feelings of incompetence (Santoft, et al. 2019).

CBT tools for managing burnout

CBT involves several strategies that can be particularly helpful for managing burnout:

  • Cognitive restructuring: This involves learning to recognise and dispute irrational or unhelpful thoughts, which can contribute to feelings of burnout.
  • Problem solving: CBT enhances your problem-solving skills, helping you to deal more effectively with stressors that might contribute to burnout.
  • Stress management: Techniques such as mindfulness, relaxation training, and assertiveness training can reduce the physical and emotional impacts of stress.

Getting help with burnout

Recognising the signs of burnout and taking action is essential for your wellbeing. CBT offers effective tools for combatting burnout, helping you to change unhealthy thinking and behaviours that may be contributing to overwhelm and stress.

Finding a therapist who has had specific training on using CBT for burnout is extremely important. At CBT Networks, our therapists have both the training and clinical experience in doing just that. Reaching out for support is a sign of strength and together with your therapist, you can build a personalised strategy to help you feel more in control and less burnt out.

Would you like to know more about how CBT can help with burnout? Our consultant psychologist, Dr Sian Thrasher, offers a free 15-minute telephone consultation specifically for you to discuss CBT and treatment options.

References

Santoft F, Salomonsson S, Hesser H, Lindsäter E, Ljótsson B, Lekander M, Kecklund G, Öst LG, Hedman-Lagerlöf E. Mediators of Change in Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Clinical Burnout. Behav Ther. 2019 May;50(3):475-488. doi: 10.1016/j.beth.2018.08.005. Epub 2018 Aug 20. PMID: 31030867. Mediators of Change in Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Clinical Burnout – PubMed (nih.gov)

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