Chronic stress can quickly add up to burnout, and in recovery, this can be life-threatening. It happens when you are constantly feeling pressured to perform at a certain level, and especially in early recovery, the number of treatment services that you need to engage in to provide yourself with a sense of stability and safety in sobriety can quickly wear you out.
Many people find that their weekly schedule includes attending:
- Multiple 12-Step meetings
- Meetings with a sponsor
- Therapy sessions
- Support groups
- Appointments with a psychologist
- Medical appointments
- Alternative and holistic therapy sessions
- Family counseling sessions
- Alumni group meetings
- Volunteering commitments
The good news is that packing your schedule with lots of rich, interactive recovery experiences can help you to progress more rapidly in the process of growing and solidifying your new life in sobriety. The not-so-great news is that immersing yourself in recovery-related activities can cause burnout.
Here’s what you need to know to identify burnout in its early stages and address it proactively so you do not respond by walking away from the whole thing and relapsing.
- Stress can negatively impact how your brain and body function. Chronic stress can affect the function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the area of the brain that manages how we respond to stress stimuli. Too much stress or ongoing exposure to stress can trigger our fight-or-flight response, and in recovery, that can mean relapse.
- Burnout may signify the need for mental health treatment. Some experts believe that burnout can be a sign of underlying mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety. If you have struggled with these issues in the past, it is a good idea to speak to your treatment professional and incorporate goals into your treatment plan that address the issues related to burnout.
- Stress associated with burnout is not the same as healthy stress. When you go for a run or work out, you put positive stress on your body that serves to make you stronger and triggers the release of “feel good” chemicals in the brain. When you face stress in your personal relationships, at work, or at school, it creates negative stress that triggers the release of cortisol. If it happens too often, cortisol is depleted, and your response may be to just quit and walk away.
- Burnout and low cortisol are linked to chronic health problems. A chronically decreased level of cortisol can further cause problems by contributing to the increase in inflammation in the body. Inflammation can contribute to the development of a range of health problems, which in turn can cause more stress when these health issues inhibit one’s ability to stay actively engaged in treatment and therapy or stay sober.
- Burnout can negatively impact your ability to focus. Researchers have discovered that chronic stress and burnout can inhibit the ability to problem-solve, stay focused, and recall memories, according to a study published in the journal Work & Stress: An International Journal of Work, Health, & Organisation. A lack of focus, recall, and problem-solving ability can make it harder to get the most out of treatment, which can make it tougher to stay sober and contribute to burnout as well.
Are You Struggling with Burnout?
The signs of burnout in recovery can include:
- A feeling of lethargy when it comes to going to treatment or being proactive in treatment
- Cutting out treatments and therapies without replacing them with new options
- Spending less and less time with positive people in recovery due to feelings of isolation and/or detachment
- Feeling overwhelmed by the number of meetings or the content of therapy sessions and medical appointments
- Having a hard time staying organized regarding what you need to do for different therapies and treatments
Many signs of burnout are similar to signs of depression, so it is a good idea to take action and speak to a therapist about the problem if you begin to experience it. There are also a number of lifestyle changes you can make to help yourself decrease burnout and keep moving forward in recovery.
- Assure yourself that burnout is completely normal. If you are struggling with burnout, it is not a negative sign against the value of recovery in your life but a normal thing that happens from time to time. It does not have to be a big deal – or a deal-breaker – in recovery.
- Give yourself permission to begin building a life outside of specifically sober activities. This may mean going back to school, developing your hobbies, or focusing on something positive like working out or volunteering.
- Get some rest. If you are doing too much and not getting enough restorative sleep as a result, focus on getting a solid 7-9 hours of sleep each night in a quiet, comfortable place conducive to rest.
- Change up your recovery. Try some new 12-Step meetings, replace your acupuncture sessions with acupressure, get a massage, learn about aromatherapy and apply it at home, and create some new treatment goals in therapy that will keep you engaged and interested.
How do you avoid burnout in your recovery?