Burnout Recovery: Simple, Not Always Easy

Reflecting on a conversation with a friend and fellow psychotherapist, I’m realizing that the ways to recover from burnout are in some ways simple.  For example, one piece of burnout recovery is releasing stress from the body by completing the stress response (check out my free e-book for more on that).  The most effective way to do this is exercise (or movement for those who have aversions to the “E” word). 

Exercise seems like a simple answer to the awful way burnout has left us feeling.  It’s not profound or mind-blowing.  And sure, it’s not the only thing we need to do to recover from burnout, but it is a solid first step.

The thing about burnout recovery that is hard is getting our burned out selves to do the stuff that we know will help.

In my nursing burnout recovery program, the first thing we do is go over how exercise and other tools help us complete the stress response and why this is an essential first step.  When we understand the why and how, it can help motivate us to follow through - but alone, that’s not enough.

Another essential piece is getting ourselves to shift our behavior, that is, how we get ourselves to do the things we know will help.  I love the work of thought leaders and behavior change experts James Clear, Charles Duhig, Simon Sinek, and Laura Vanderkam and enjoy bringing their work together so we can make real change.  As a psychotherapist, I spend much of my time working with people on making real change so I’ve got some ideas on what’s important.

What resonates deeply with me about the intersection of these thought leaders and my work with clients is that there are two big reasons we fail at behavior change:

  1.  We aren’t clear on why we are really doing what we set out to do (e.g., if we want to exercise regularly, the goal of our butt looking cute in our jeans is rarely enough - we need to dig deeper to uncover something more meaningful to really get us motivated, like who we want to be in the world).  For more on this piece, see my last blog post here. 
  2.  We start too big.  It doesn’t take a behavior change expert to know this.  As a former gym rat, my fellow fitness enthusiasts and I saw it every year.  The gyms were packed all of January and sometimes into February.  Slowly, the new people started to trickle out and by the end of March it was mostly just us regulars again.  Why? It’s not because we were better exercisers, enjoy exercise more, or are better people.

It’s because we were in the habit and exercise had become part of our lives, part of who we are (and wanted to be).  Few of us started off big - the way most of the January crowd does at the gym.

For me, I was active as a kid.  In high school, I started running one time around the local lake (~ 1.5 miles) a few days a week.  It only took about 20 minutes including the short walk there and back.  In college, I shifted to running for 30 minutes and eventually started taking 60 minute aerobics classes (what we called them back then) and running six miles when I ran.  Over time, because I have become consistent, exercise has become as much a part of my life as eating or brushing my teeth.


Okay, so that was a lot on the exercise piece - back to you.

The key take away is this:  If you want to start a habit you need to be clear on why you're doing it, you need to do it regularly, and you need to start small - so small that you can do it no matter what.  So small that it seems ridiculous.  Think one push-up, one yoga pose, a walk to the end of your block and back, one thing you’re grateful for, etc.

 This may seem silly, like “How am I going to exercise 30 minutes daily by doing just one minute?”.  The key is, in the early stages it’s not about the outcome.  It’s about building and establishing the new habit in your life so you can live in alignment with who and how you want to be (you're big "why" for doing this new behavior).  At first, the only outcome you need to focus on is consistency, inspired by becoming the person you want to be.

As these small steps become a habit, you can modify the habit by increasing the length of time, number of poses, number of things you’re grateful for, etc.  Focus on making it  manageable.  And for those days you aren’t feeling well, are “too busy”, are out of town, or just not feeling it?  Still do the habit, just do it small again so you stick with it.

As you continue this process, you will not only incorporate this new habit into your life, you will be living in greater alignment with who and how you want to be.  And that's the whole point - right?


Jen Barnes is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Minneapolis, MN.  She specializes in complex trauma, PTSD, stress, and grief.  The daughter and sister of nurses she has a passion for empowering nurses recover from burnout.  Her program Resilient Nurses, Satisfied Patients helps hospitals and clinics support their nurses to increase nurse retention, improve patient outcomes, and increase patient satisfaction.

To schedule a strategy call for your hospital or clinic, click here:  https://www.pathwaysuniversitymn.com/nurse-resilience.



For more on how stress gets stuck in the body and how to release it, check out my free e-book Beyond Nursing Burnout at: https://www.pathwaysuniversitymn.com/nursing_ebook




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