Burnout continues to be on the rise in 2021. As a sociologist, I’ve heard from people in all industries, and it’s rare I don’t hear about a person fighting malaise. In fact, it’s natural to feel exhausted or dragged out since our work and our personal lives have been so disrupted for such an extended length of time. In addition, it’s hard to keep track of whether things are getting better or worse and this emotional whipsaw can create everything from fatigue to depression or anxiety.
But when you’re feeling like you’re hanging on by a thread, there are ways you can boost your energy and see yourself through tough times.
Effects of feeling down
One of the challenges of feeling down is that we can judge ourselves harshly for being less than our best. But it’s healthy to know your starting point and understand your issues so you can renew, rejuvenate, and recover. When we feel exhausted, we tend to feel less drive to complete tasks or achieve goals. When our energy is down we may not want to rise to the difficulties in our path. Exhaustion is also linked with depression and reduced performance. Of course, our brains play a role in our emotions and according to studies by Umeå University, when we’re exhausted, we regulate our cortisol levels less effectively, causing increased stress. We also experience less activity in our frontal lobes—the part of our brains responsible for idea generation, decision making, and informed action.
But you can find your way through your feelings of weakness and exhaustion with a few key strategies, informed by science.
Working on your health
When you’re feeling burned out, exhausted, or generally down, one of the first strategies is to pay attention to your physical health. Breathe deeply in order to oxygenate your blood and energize. Stay hydrated with water. Exercise, especially outside since nature has compelling positive effects on mood. Get adequate rest. Further you can consider meditation or mindfulness exercises. In a study by Oregon State University, mindfulness activities were found to energize participants by reducing stress and restoring mental balance. Interestingly, they were also found to compensate for a lack of quality nighttime sleep.
Refreshing by getting away
Another key way to refresh is to change environments. Meditation can be a solution for too-little sleep at a physical level, but it can also provide a gateway to renew and recenter yourself. Many workplaces are also offering napping pods in case you’re the kind of person who can refresh with a mid-day power nap. Also consider distracting your mind from work. Read or take a walk while you ruminate on a topic that is non-work related.
Getting away is also characterized by setting healthy boundaries. While we tend to glamorize hustle culture, in reality it contributes to our ineffectiveness and emotional strife. Better, is a strategy where you remind yourself you can’t do it all and congratulate yourself for the ways you contribute your talent in ordinary ways every day—and to give yourself permission to take time away and turn off. When you’re truly able to take time away and turn off, you can be more effective when you’re on.
Another way to replenish is to spend time with a pet—your own, a friend’s or by volunteering at a shelter. A study at the University of York found pets are especially effective in providing companionship and distraction. In addition, they require activity and attention—and these contribute to our overall well-being.
Reaching out to your community
It is a misnomer that when we’re tired or down we should simply rest or get away. While these can be brilliant solutions, also consider your own sources of energy. You need time away, but for many of us, getting active and getting involved can also be restorative. Jump into a new project at work or start a book group with colleagues who also love to read. The bandwagon effect is a sociological concept which describes how we tend to catch energy from others. When we’re involved in a mutual pursuit or a shared goal, we tend to have an experience of emotional contagion—we get energized through connections. This operates for both introverts and extroverts—just in different matters of degree.
You can also energize by finding something that matters to you and engaging with passion. Sitting home is great now and then, but we all have an instinct to matter so find work where you get to express your talents or volunteer with an organization that serves a need that you care about in your community. Doing these things will energize you because you’ll be taking positive action, but also because you’ll be with others who share your concerns. A study at the University of Queensland found when you’re a member of multiple groups, you tend to have greater endurance and resilience.
Moving on to better things
Validating your own experience and giving yourself permission to spend just a bit of time in the blues is okay, but then you’ll want to get on with things. Sometimes motivation isn’t forthcoming, and you need to take action even if you’re not feeling it. Positive effort—even starting steps—can produce motivation rather than the other way around. A study at the University of East Anglia found when people faced barriers and hardship at work, they were rejuvenated and their mental health was enhanced when they made a plan and took action.
The way you make sense of challenges also matters a great deal. Your judgements affect your emotions significantly and by shifting your thought patterns, you can also adjust your coping skills. Perhaps a coworker has attacked your idea in a meeting. Remind yourself about your own confidence and articulate the rationale for your position. If you’ve been passed over for a promotion, realize there may have been circumstances beyond your control and be persistent in performing well and building your network so you’re well positioned for the next opportunity. If you’ve been offended by someone, expand your thinking by imagining others’ points of view and asking questions to understand their perspectives—thus extending your own. Push yourself to positive thinking so you can in turn motivate positive action.
Studies at Aalto University describe a deeply-held Finnish cultural construct called sisu through which we can surpass our perceived limitations. It suggests we can all access storehouses of inner strength which can get us started on a long journey or keep us going as we demonstrate determination. It is the idea of “embodied fortitude”—the demonstration of grit.
Being down doesn’t mean being out, and you can find your strength even if you’re feeling weak or exhausted. Be optimistic, find your inner strength and shore up your supports to continue the journey ahead. The future is bright, it just requires continued effort to get there.
Tracy Brower, PhD, is a sociologist focused on work-life, happiness, and fulfillment. She works for Steelcase, and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.