Somewhere between March and Day 10,000 of quarantine, I became the type of person who can barely stay up past 9 p.m. I go from bed to desk to couch, from screen to screen to screen, and then drift off into oblivion mid-doomscroll. The lack of busyness has become even more stressful—instead of running myself ragged commuting and packing my calendar with things to do, I’ve become a Zoom zombie, exhausted by the simple act of living this year. My 2020 burnout is surprising and entirely real.
Yours probably is too. In 2019 the World Health Organization included workplace burnout in its International Classification of Diseases, identifying it as an “occupational phenomenon” that leaves us feeling depleted, exhausted, unable to focus, and feeling cynical or detached from our jobs. And that was before the pandemic hit, triggering mass job insecurity, an unrelenting stream of stressful headlines, millions of parents who became full-time teachers overnight, and reason to add Zoom fatigue to our vernacular.
It is entirely unsurprising that our stress levels have reached historic highs, according to the American Psychological Association. But experts are also warning of an unprecedented mental health epidemic—a new study published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry found that one in five COVID-19 patients develop a mental illness within 90 days of recovery. “We’re seeing this whole new category of burnout in people who’ve generally considered themselves pretty healthy and able to cope with what comes their way developing a sense of exhaustion in their core outlook. That is really hard to cope with,” says Robin Berzin, M.D., founder of Parsley Health, a holistic medical practice with telehealth programs in 48 states that specializes in treating chronic conditions.
Burnout feels, admittedly, more like a made-up millennial buzzword than an actual medical condition. It’s a hard thing to say—to yourself and especially to a doctor—that you’re so stressed you can’t function. But it is very real: “This inability to turn off, to go from 10 hours of Zooms and meetings to looking at your phone, the sheer number of hours absorbing media in front of a screen, is toxic to your brain. It’s toxic to your neurons. It’s toxic to your emotional and mental health,” says Berzin. “And if we don’t acknowledge that as real, we can’t get anywhere.”
We are utterly, irrefutably, burnt out. It’s okay—you can say it.
Burnout has real consequences for your health. “We’re seeing people whose underlying chronic conditions—an autoimmune condition, high blood sugar, heart disease, migraine headaches, eczema, fertility issues, hormone imbalances, digestive issues, the things that 60% of Americans are living with everyday—are worse,” says Berzin.
How to Cope With Burnout
This is not the year to dismiss your stress or force yourself to power through it. Here’s how to address and treat your burnout.
Do a self-assessment.
The first step in treating burnout is recognizing it. “Do a mini assessment of yourself. Sit down in a quiet moment and ask—actually ask yourself—Why am I feeling so burnt out and is this in my control?” says Berzin. “A lot of times people have the answer.”
Are you constantly getting work notifications even when you’re doing a workout, or making dinner, or trying to have some me time? Are you reflexively drinking half a bottle of wine every night? “Try to identify your top habit that isn’t serving you, and make that your focus area. Because if you can focus on that one thing and shifting it a little bit, you can feel incrementally better,” says Berzin. Something as simple as silencing notifications after a certain hour or committing to saving the wine for weekends only can have a huge impact on that constant sense of feeling frazzled.
Prescribe yourself self-care.
Self-care has never been more vital. “I think we’ve treated self-care historically as optional or like it’s some floofy thing that prissy ladies do in their spare time. But I’m like, No, you’re going into battle—self-care is not optional,” Berzin says.