Chronic illness often includes chronic exhaustion – and it’s more than just fatigue. Here are 10 practical tips for banishing the physical and emotional burnout from chronic illness.
Nearly everyone experiences burnout at some point. Marked by physical and/or emotional stress, it can affect our health, our sense of wellbeing, and our ability to function in productive way.
In some cases, we know the burnout is temporary. Maybe we’ve been working far more than usual trying to finish a project. In these cases, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
We’ll enjoy some well-deserved time off, and we’ll be ready to resume business as usual with a renewed sense of energy.
But what if you’re living with a chronic illness? The burnout can become as chronic as the condition you’re living with.
I used to have the more “temporary” version burnout. My girls were little, I worked full-time, and often felt as though I was running on a grande dark roast from Stabucks and a tank that was half-empty.
Now my girls are young adults.
But there are many times when I still feel this way.
Because living with a chronic illness is a full-time job.
It’s also like having a house guest that won’t leave. Ever.
Our unwanted house guest has taken up permanent residence with us.
Every now and again they may hang out quietly in their own space and leave us alone. But we never know when they’re going to show up, front and center, demanding our undivided attention.
How Chronic Illness Burnout Affects Us
As with any form of burnout, we feel physically fatigued and mentally stressed. It’s like we’re treading water (barely) and swimming upstream.
The catch is that fatigue is often a hallmark for many chronic conditions. And living with a chronic disease stresses more than our bodies. It can put us at risk of depression and can cause anxiety.
We experience a range of emotions related to the loss of our health – and potentially, our ability to function independently. It’s not uncommon to mourn the loss of our life as it used to be, or to feel angry and resentful.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately one-third of people who are diagnosed with a chronic, serious or life-threatening illness will experience symptoms of depression.
Unfortunately, the mental stress can contribute to the physical symptoms we’re already experiencing. It’s not uncommon for this kind of stress to exacerbate pain and fatigue.
Addressing only the physical symptoms of burnout is nothing more than a partial solution.
Here are my tips for coping with the physical and emotional stress of living with a chronic illness.
Oh – and a reminder: I’m not a medical doctor or a therapist, and it’s always important to speak with your care team about the best strategies for you.
The tips below have helped me, and I hope you’ll find them helpful, too!
Tips for managing physical burnout from chronic illness
1. Ask your physician to assess your nutritional status
Deficiencies in vitamin D, vitamin B, iron, magnesium and potassium can all cause fatigue. If your levels are low, your doctor may advise adding foods to your diet to help raise your levels naturally; or may suggest supplements.
It may take several months for your blood levels to reach the normal range for these vitamins and minerals.
I’d advise against supplementing without your doctor’s approval, as some vitamins and minerals may interfere with your medications. Also, excess amounts of certain vitamins and minerals may have adverse effects.
A healthy diet is critical not only for your overall health and wellbeing, but for your energy level. Focus on unprocessed foods, water or green tea, lean proteins, whole grains, seeds and nuts, and energy-boosting fruits, like bananas.
If you have an inflammatory condition, focus on anti-inflammatory energy-boosting foods.
2. Find out the best time of day to take your medications or supplements
You’ll need to consult with your doctor, but don’t be afraid to ask if you can change the timing. Prednisone, for example, is notorious for causing insomnia.
My doctor instructed me to take it in the morning. Likewise, vitamins A, B5, B6, B12, C, D, and K have also been known to interfere with sleep.
3. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
It’s that important.
We’ve grown accustomed to hearing that 8 glasses of water day is a good goal. But be aware that you will also be taking in fluids from foods and other beverages. The amount of water you need may differ from the norm.
While water is far superior to caffeinated or sugary beverages, the amount of fluid you’ll need will be influenced by your overall health, how much you exercise, the climate or season, and your diet (if you’re consuming hydrating fruits and vegetables, like watermelon, cucumbers or spinach, you’ll be getting water from those).
Exercise (especially aerobic), increases oxygen levels in the blood and releases endorphins. Even low intensity exercise is helpful. I’ve also found that I sleep better when I exercise.
If you have a condition that limits your ability to exercise, remember than some movement is better than none. Deep breathing exercises can also help you combat fatigue.
5. Get enough sleep… but not too much
Sleep is crucial for more than rest. When we sleep, we repair and restore our body. The right amount of sleep may vary from person to person, but a deep, quality sleep is key.
While an occasional short nap can be helpful, too much sleep can cause some of the effects we’re trying to solve for. It can cause increased pain, inflammation and that “foggy” feeling that so many of us who are chronically ill may already suffer from.
If you’re sleeping enough but not feeling rested, talk with your doctor, since you may need to be evaluated for a sleep disorder.
Practical ways to fight emotional burnout
Coping with the emotional burnout of living with a chronic illness is just as difficult as dealing with the physical burnout.
It requires us to be willing to adapt. And to adapt we need to reach some level of acceptance and recognition that it’s in our own best interest to modify our lifestyle.
1. Establish a routine that works for you
Chances are, your new routine may need to look different from the routine you kept before you were chronically ill. And that’s a good thing, because your health and wellbeing are your priority.
A daily routine provides structure and predictability. Establishing one that recognizes and accommodates your priorities and goals – in consideration of your health – will reduce your stress.
When we’re living with a chronic illness, we struggle with the best way to adapt our lifestyle. But there are strategies you can use to define your “new normal” so that you can craft a lifestyle that works for you.
It needs to be a proactive process. If it’s not, you’ll find yourself falling into daily pattern that may not serve you well.
Take the time to redefine what you want from your life, to prioritize what’s important and how you can create a life that honors it.
Understand that it won’t be perfect from the outset, because it will take time and attention to find what works for you.
2. Create something to look forward to
Have you ever been so exhausted – both physically and emotionally – that you’ve felt as though you’re just going through the motions of living? It’s an easy trap to fall into.
I’ve found that planning something to look forward to ensures that I’ll practice some much-needed self-care. What you plan is much less important than the fact that you planned it, and stayed with your plan.
It can be as low key as carving out some time to start reading a book you’ve been interested in or reserving some time and energy to meet a friend for coffee.
3. Decide where to focus your energy
Have you noticed any patterns in how you feel throughout the day?
Being aware of how our bodies feel, as well as how we feel mentally can help us identify the times of day when we tend to have more capacity for activities that are important to us.
We can also pay attention to specific activities that help us feel better. Sometimes a short walk can energize our bodies and our minds.
Other times, taking a break to sit quietly and meditate, read or listen to music can help restore our energy and renew our perspective.
5. Get support
You don’t have to battle the burnout alone! Talking to others who understand how you feel can be immensely helpful.
Consider joining an online support group, getting counseling, or talking with a friend or family member, knowing that all you may need at the moment is someone who is willing to simply listen.
6. Fill the well
Did you know that expressing your creativity is good for your health? It improves brain function, physical health and mental health.
Think back to a time where you were so completely absorbed in doing something enjoyable and fulfilling that you lost all sense of time.
You were in a “flow” state, or “the zone”.
When we’re in this zone, all of our attention is immersed in the present moment. We’re extremely focused and find that we feel both challenged and fulfilled by whatever it is that we’re doing.
Our bodies and minds become one entity, focused on the activity at hand.
Enjoy the process of creativity – don’t judge yourself on the result.
When I was undergoing chemotherapy, I took up knitting. It didn’t require a lot of physical energy, and when you’re learning how to knit, you have to be focused on each stitch.
My sister was expecting, so I decided to knit a baby blanket. I lost count of how many hours I spent completing the blanket. I was a newbie knitter, made a ton of mistakes, and ripped out row after row of stitches in order to fix the problem.
The blanket, as I recall, was not perfect.
But the ability to become so fully absorbed in something enjoyable – with an outcome I could influence – was worth every hour it took.
Don’t underestimate how important it is to nurture your emotional health.
Exercising your creativity in whatever way you find most enjoyable has real benefits that will help to reduce the burnout from chronic illness.
I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way), that trying to address the physical manifestations of burnout isn’t enough.
We need to honor ourselves, and that requires a holistic approach: mind, body and spirit.