7 Ways to Combat Burnout (and Improve Your Pain and Mental Health)
Burnout is more than just ‘a lot of stress.’ Here’s how it affects your pain and physical and mental health, and what you can do to recover.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Casey Marie Burns
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Burnout. In today's fast-paced world, this is something most people have experienced or are concerned about experiencing. Burnout can impact a lot of different areas of your health, including your joints and pain. Whether stress and burnout have caused an uptick in your joint pain, or your pain is contributing to burnout (and both can happen at the same time), it can be frustrating to feel stuck.
You may be familiar with some of the common remedies to burnout: exercise, stress management, and sleep. But when you’re burned out, doing these things can feel impossible. We get it.
While burnout can feel overwhelming and maybe even inevitable, there are several strategies and techniques that can help prevent and treat it. Here, learn how you can manage burnout and its pain-related side effects.
What Is Burnout, Exactly?
Renowned psychologist and psychotherapist Herbert Freudenberger originally described burnout almost 50 years ago as “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources” in the workplace. But if you’ve experienced burnout, you likely know that it’s an all-too-common part of everyday life, both in and out of the workplace.
Now, we use the term burnout to refer to a state of exhaustion due to high levels of prolonged stress. This can include mental, physical, or emotional exhaustion. It often saps energy, productivity, and positivity, and can affect all aspects of your health.
How Does Burnout Affect My Health?
The most immediate signs of burnout include anxiety, depression, irritability, mood swings, and poor concentration. Physical symptoms may be more subtle, but equally problematic. Ongoing stress can increase inflammation in the body and contribute to long-term health issues such as heart disease and diabetes.
What About My Joints and Pain?
Burnout can play a major role in joint pain. It increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your body, which hinders growth hormones (important for tissue repair and joint recovery). Essentially, when your body is in this state of chronic stress, it cannot heal as well. This makes it more challenging to recover from pain, and also leaves you more susceptible to pain flares.
It can also be a major factor in your pain backpack. The pain backpack is an analogy Hinge Health physical therapists and coaches use a lot. Imagine that every factor that contributes to your pain (e.g., a previous injury, poor sleep, stress) goes in a backpack. Everyone carries unique factors in their backpacks, some of which may contribute to your pain more so than others. When your backpack becomes so full that you can’t zip it shut, your body sends a warning in the form of pain. Your pain backpack is a way of recognizing that many factors contribute to your pain levels. If you’re experiencing burnout, chances are that stress, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and related issues may be playing a bigger role in your pain right now.
Fortunately, there’s always something you can do about this. You can address the pain contributors that are within your control with approaches that include movement, education, social support, and other lifestyle modifications.
Warning Signs of Burnout
Burnout can hit you like a ton of bricks or creep up on you so slowly that you don’t even realize it’s happening. Signs that indicate you may be experiencing burnout include:
Feeling out of control
Exhaustion and/or depletion of energy
Reduced interest or productivity at work or in personal life
Physical disturbances similar to those experienced with stress, but more pronounced
Feelings of helplessness or being trapped, numb, detached, unmotivated, cynical, or defeated
Behavioral changes such as disregarding responsibilities, becoming isolated, procrastinating, taking frustrations out on others, and substance abuse
How Do I Prevent Burnout?
Although burnout has become increasingly common, it’s not something you have to accept as normal or inevitable. Here are important ways to combat burnout, which may also help lighten your pain backpack to help you treat and prevent joint and back pain.
1. Adjust your work-life ‘balance’
There’s no such thing as a perfect work-life balance, of course. No matter how well you may think you juggle all of your responsibilities if you have a job outside the home, it’s always worthwhile to occasionally take stock of how you’re managing. Are you working long hours? Does your workload feel overwhelming? Is your devotion to your work responsibilities pulling you away from other meaningful parts of your life? Could you use more help or support around the house — with caregiving for family, chores and projects, kids’ activities, etc.?
You might need to establish boundaries between your work and personal life, which can be hard to do, especially if you work from home part-time or full-time. You also might need to talk to your manager or partner and deprioritize tasks that can be done tomorrow or next week.
Here are some tips to get you started:
Schedule a firm “end time” on your calendar, such as 5 or 6 p.m., and stick to it.
Turn off notifications on your phone in the evening.
Deprioritize tasks that are not essential or impactful to your organization. (You can work with your boss or supervisor on this.)
Plan a vacation to completely unplug and rejuvenate. Seriously, leave your work computer at home.
Schedule time for a walk, exercise, yoga, or anything else that gets you moving after work. This establishes the time for you to de-stress and creates a transitional boundary between work and your personal life.
Ask for help with at-home chores and responsibilities. Consider making a “chore wheel” that establishes who is responsible for which tasks each week.
2. Fuel up with good food
A nutritious diet may contribute to better energy, focus, emotional stability, and a stronger immune system — all important antidotes to burnout. Copious amounts of sugar, for instance, can cause blood sugar swings throughout the day that can affect your concentration as well as inflammation, which may lead to increased joint pain. Instead of processed foods that can be high in sneaky levels of sugar and salt:
Add more whole foods to your diet. If you’re not sure what constitutes a whole food, look for options that are a single ingredient — that’s things like fruits, vegetables, animal proteins, nuts, and legumes. Instead of soda or juice, make a smoothie with frozen fruit, a handful of greens, and a cup of milk or water. Want a crunchy snack? Instead of chips, try baby carrots or cucumber slices. Next time you reach for a cookie, try an apple instead to take the edge off a sugar craving.
Choose complex carbohydrates (e.g., beans, quinoa, sweet potatoes), lean proteins (e.g., chicken, fish, lentils), healthy fats (e.g., salmon, avocado, olive oil), and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Hydrate by drinking half your weight in ounces of water every day.
3. Get some R & R
Rest and relaxation: It’s good for both the body and the mind. It releases tension, improves mood and cognitive functioning, and makes it easier to cope with adversity. Try:
Unplugging from technology for a set period of time each day
Meditating, either on your own or with the assistance of a mindfulness app/program
4. Examine your relationships
Healthy relationships can enhance your life in numerous ways. Not only do healthy relationships make life richer and more rewarding, they help promote quicker healing and increased longevity, lower blood pressure, give you a greater sense of purpose, and decrease stress levels. Plus, having people to lean on can help you avoid burnout to begin with, or help you get through it if you do experience it. To get the most out of your relationships:
Create healthy boundaries.
Schedule regular time with family and friends, even if it’s virtual or over the phone.
Find and connect with like-minded people through meetup groups in your community.
Spend quality time with a pet if you have one or volunteer at an animal shelter.
Scheduling time with friends or committing to social events can feel exhausting or even downright impossible if you’re struggling with burnout. But research shows these relationships do help in the long run, so think about how you can dedicate some mental energy to social engagements in small doses. Ask a close friend to go on a neighborhood walk. Or sign up for a one-time volunteer activity at your religious center or your child’s school.
5. Don’t forget to have fun
Turns out, laughing doesn’t just feel good — it’s good for your health. Studies show that laughter improves immune function, lowers pain, decreases heart rate and blood pressure, and boosts mood. The evidence is so compelling, in fact, that there are now organizations that offer laughter therapy sessions, laughter circles, laughter classes, and laughter parties.
You don’t have to join a laughter club, but regular moments of fun and laughter are important for avoiding or recovering from burnout. Try:
Taking dance, music, or movement breaks while working.
Reading, watching, or listening to something enjoyable that isn’t work-related.
Scheduling time for fun at least once a week.
Playing with your kids, grandkids, or pets.
Spending time with people who make you laugh.
Engaging in hobbies or other activities that bring you joy.
Celebrating the little things in life. You can do this aloud, in your head, or keep a gratitude journal.
6. Cultivate a positive mindset
It’s said that the mind is our most powerful tool: what we think about is what we become. That’s why maintaining a positive mindset and being intentional about how you perceive potentially stressful situations can help combat burnout. In fact, research shows that a positive mindset leads to better heart health, increased immunity, a longer life span, and greater well-being overall. This can be challenging, but it may help to:
Pay attention to your thoughts.
Cultivate a daily gratitude practice.
Consume positive media.
Make use of positive affirmations and visualizations.
Do things that inspire you.
Reframe falling short of a goal as part of learning.
Spend time with people who bring you joy.
7. Get moving
You probably know this one is important, and we understand — getting exercise is easier said than done when you have to balance a million responsibilities. Still, the CDC recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity, 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity activity, or an equivalent combination. And for good reason. Regularly moving your body contributes to decreased levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and joint pain. Plus, it improves sleep and boosts self-confidence. When you’re able to get a better grasp on these areas of your life, you're more resilient to burnout and its symptoms.
If it’s hard to squeeze movement in, try these “movement snack” ideas:
Schedule it into your week on your calendar. Even a few minutes once per week is a great starting point.
Find an exercise buddy for additional accountability.
Use a program like Hinge Health with a playlist of exercises.
Break it up into smaller chunks throughout the day.
Get up and move for five to 10 minutes every hour or two.
Do strengthening and stretching exercises (like those below) between meetings, or while doing other other tasks during the day.
Above all else, when implementing self-care practices to avoid or recover from burnout, do so with intention, says coach Burns.
You may not be able to avoid all stressors in life, but being aware of them and taking steps to take care of your health helps keep burnout at bay.
Exercises to Combat Burnout
These gentle exercises from Hinge Health are great for releasing tension in your mind and body. You can do them throughout the day when you’re experiencing a pain flare or an uptick in stress.
The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.
Head Turns with Hands
Head Turns with Hands
Head Turns with Hands
Head Turns with Hands
How Hinge Health Can Help You
If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.
The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.
Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.
See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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Signs of burnout. (2022, June 2). ADA. https://ada.com/signs-of-burnout/
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5 Benefits of Healthy Relationships: Why Healthy Relationships Are So Important. (2021, September). Northwestern Medicine. https://www.nm.org/healthbeat/healthy-tips/5-benefits-of-healthy-relationships
The health benefits of strong relationships. (2010, December 1). Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-of-strong-relationships
Mora-Ripoll, R. (2011). Potential health benefits of simulated laughter: A narrative review of the literature and recommendations for future research. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 19(3), 170–177. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2011.05.003
Yim, J. (2016). Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health: A Theoretical Review. The Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine, 239(3), 243–249. doi:10.1620/tjem.239.243
The Power of Positive Thinking. (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-power-of-positive-thinking
Brody, J. E. (2017, March 17). A Positive Outlook May Be Good for Your Health. New York Times. https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/27/well/live/positive-thinking-may-improve-health-and-extend-life.html&sa=D&source=docs&ust=1675965828038730&usg=AOvVaw2oXJ_U2uRnEnGgLoO6Yf2M
How much physical activity do adults need? (2022, June 2). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm