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Coping with Burnout in a Burning World

It’s safe to say 2020 has been a lot. While the big issues on full display this year (for example, systemic racism and climate change) existed long before January, the more widespread attention and urgency they’ve been garnering, all on the backdrop of a global pandemic, has many people's nerves feeling frayed.

The term “burnout” was originally coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to describe feelings of exhaustion, detachment, helplessness, and overwhelm in the face of job stress but it can be applied more broadly. When the stresses and demands of the world outweigh our resources to cope with it all, we can become burnt out in a way that extends well beyond work. We can start to feel exhausted, detached, helpless, and overwhelmed in the face of a world that seems packed with problems too big to solve. Maybe you're feeling this type of burnout for the first time this year, or maybe you're feeling more of it than usual. Either way, it's important to learn to cope with these feelings — not only to take care of your own wellbeing, but also the wellbeing of other people and the planet. We can move toward a brighter world together but we need to feel up to the challenge.

Here are a few tips to cope with burnout in engaging with the big things:

Manage your media/social media consumption

Most of us spend a lot of time on our devices consuming information. Seeing headline after headline or post after post of bad news can be overwhelming, especially since information comes at us so quickly these days. I’m not suggesting avoiding or ignoring the news — it’s important to be informed and engaged — but setting limits can help prevent what you read, watch, or listen to from feeling daunting and unmanageable. Experiment with limits and strategies that feel right for you. You might choose an allotted amount of time for your daily media consumption, set a timer, and then log off when it ends. Or you might give yourself space to read a certain number of articles or posts per day.

Focus on what you can do

While there might be a lot that feels uncontrollable right now, shifting the focus to what you have the ability and resources to do or what you can control fosters a sense of empowerment and combats helplessness. You might need to get creative here, but there’s always something.

Trust that the small things add up

Trust that what you have the ability and resources to do is making an impact. The world’s problems aren’t yours to carry alone, and the actions of many really do add up to something bigger. Continue to show up and do your part; remind yourself that there are others doing theirs.


With so much going on, it can feel selfish or not okay to slow down and take some time for yourself. The thing is, slowing down actually gives you more energy and focus to meet the stresses and demands of the world. For rest that’s truly restorative, try to eat and sleep well, move your body, and incorporate time for doing things you enjoy, if possible. Joy can be a powerful form of active rest that nourishes and uplifts. It can remind us of the good in the world and give us the hope we need to keep going.

Reach out

An important distinction to highlight is that burnout doesn’t happen as a direct result of stress, it happens when stress outweighs resources and supports. And our relationships are such a key source of support. As social beings, we naturally rely on others but the pandemic has left many people feeling isolated. Try to make a point of reaching out regularly to those you love, whether virtually or in person. That connection can go a long way in providing the needed support to engage with stress and keep from burning out. It might be helpful to talk with your loved ones about the burnout you're feeling, or it might be helpful just to spend time together.

Ultimately, burnout in the face of the big issues in the world can be deeply existential. While the tips above can help you cope with burnout, talking to a mental health or religious/spiritual professional is always a wise choice if you feel stuck.

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