One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced since being diagnosed with celiac disease last year is the medical burnout that’s come with managing my chronic condition.
On the one hand, I’m grateful to finally know the culprit behind my stomach issues and to have a clear-cut treatment plan—adhering to a gluten-free diet for life.
But my new daily reality—which involves cooking the majority of my meals at home (on top of working a full-time job!), thoroughly researching restaurants before dining out anywhere, grilling waiters about food prep, and educating everyone in my life about my condition—is exhausting and has definitely taken a toll on my mental health.
I’m not alone: A study published in Health Psychology notes that full-time workers who have a chronic medical illness experience increased depressive symptoms. And as a study published in the Western Journal of Medicine notes, psychological distress can lead to a worsening of physical symptoms in people with chronic conditions.
So what can you—and I—do to manage medical burnout and ease the burden of living with a chronic illness? I spoke with mental health experts for their best advice.
What causes medical burnout?
“Burnout happens when you repeatedly expend more energy than what you have,” explains Carissa Hodgson, licensed clinical social worker and certified oncology social worker in Madison, Wisconsin. “‘Running on empty’ and ‘nothing left in me’ are phrases people often use when they are experiencing burnout.”
When we talk about burnout, we’re usually referring to job-related burnout caused by intense work demands. Medical burnout, however, is different.
“When you live with a chronic condition, your health dictates what you’re doing and not doing,” says Jodi Taub, New York City licensed clinical social worker who specializes in treating patients with chronic conditions and lives with a variety of chronic illnesses herself.
You may have to make modifications to your life (in my case, it’s all the meal prepping I have to do), take medications, regularly visit the doctor, and have medical procedures.
“There’s a time commitment in terms of adjusting your life to how much time is spent managing your chronic illness,” says Taub. You may even have added stress caused by the increased costs associated with managing your condition.
This is all on top of having to manage the rest of your life, including work and family. “You’re adding this extra layer that is time-consuming,” says Taub. Most of these activities don’t bring joy the way other aspects of your life do, and that’s why people with chronic illness get burnt out.
How do you know if you have chronic illness burnout?
So how can you tell if you actually have chronic illness burnout? One of the primary symptoms is fatigue, says Hodgson. “This fatigue is more than feeling tired,” she explains. “It is a pervasive sensation that leaves one feeling incapable of doing anything except sitting, lying, or sleeping.”
I know I’m approaching burnout when I start turning down social invitations because I just don’t want to deal with my dietary restrictions.
If you have medical burnout, you may also find it difficult to stay focused, read, have a conversation, or make decisions, says Hodgson.
“You may feel weighed down by heavy emotion or just the opposite—completely empty with no feelings at all,” she adds. “On a spiritual level you may feel hopeless, directionless, or abandoned by your Higher Power.”
Overall, medical burnout can make you feel like you’re being held captive by your inability to act, think, and feel, says Hodgson.
4 ways to deal with medical burnout
There are a few things you can do to help ease the burnout associated with managing a chronic condition. Start with the following:
Create space for recovery. “While you can’t take a break from the condition itself, you can make time to practice mindfulness, spend time with close friends or family, engage in creative expression, or find time doing activities that bring you joy,” says Hodgson.
Practice self-care. Any type of self-care activity, no matter how small, can help restore energy lost to burnout. You may feel limited due to fatigue, life circumstances, or your chronic condition itself, so start simple and set realistic goals, suggests Hodgson.
“You can start with a walk around your kitchen, five minutes of deep breathing, a short phone call to your best friend, gentle stretching, listening to a comedy podcast, or finding a coloring page,” she says. “There is no right way to engage in self-care—as long as it brings you joy, you are doing it right.”
Set boundaries. “Beyond self-care, it is important to take inventory of what is draining your energy,” says Hodgson. “There may be toxic relationships, obligations, or added stress in your life that is drawing on your energy reserves.” That’s why you shouldn’t be afraid to set boundaries. “It’s OK to say no or to say, ‘I would like to do this particular activity, but I need some modifications,’” says Taub.
Seek professional help. If you have a chronic condition, there’s never a bad time to reach out to a trained mental health professional. “When you live with a health care condition, it’s life-changing,” says Taub. “There are a lot of different emotional components that come with that because it colors each layer of your life.”
If you’re having a hard time coping, noticing feelings of burnout or stress, feeling a shift in relationships with others, or you’re no longer participating in life events that you used to, then therapy can be a particularly helpful tool to process these feelings and figure out better ways to cope with your current normal, says Taub.
Hodgson notes that some people can recover from burnout on their own by talking with supportive people or engaging in restorative practices. But “whether or not you have tried these activities, if you continue to feel anxious or depressed for more than two weeks—or if your level of distress significantly impairs your ability to engage in life, reach out to a mental health professional,” she says.