It’s important to address burnout as soon as possible to keep yourself healthy and happy.
I trudged up the stairs to my apartment from my third medical appointment that week, feeling physically and emotionally exhausted.
An injection and my afternoon handful of pills waited for me in my kitchen. Before I could even prep the syringe, my phone was ringing with a call from the local pharmacy. An hour later, it rang again with a call from a doctor’s office.
By the time 6 p.m. rolled around, I was far too tired to prepare the easily digestible food my stomach needed for dinner. I just wanted to crawl into bed and not think about the procedure on the calendar for tomorrow.
Medical burnout is often discussed only in the context of medical professionals. However, as a “full-time” chronic condition patient, I know firsthand how patients can experience medical burnout, too.
Wondering if you’re experiencing medical burnout?
Here’s what medical burnout looks like for people living with chronic conditions, plus some steps you can take if you’re feeling burned out.
If you’re living with a chronic condition, you put in a lot of hard work on a daily basis to keep your body functioning. Some people joke that they see their doctors more than their friends, but for many of us, that’s the reality.
Medical burnout has a few common signs.
For me, lack of motivation is a major one. When I notice that I don’t feel motivated to do my physical therapy, go to my infusions, or do whatever else is on the calendar for that day, that’s a huge sign to me that I’m starting to get burned out medically.
Emotional exhaustion and cynicism (feeling negative about whether your condition will ever improve) also come into play.
It’s no surprise that burnout is common among patients and not just physicians. Herbert Freudenberger, author of the book “Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement,” defined burnout like this: “The extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”
Those of us living with chronic conditions are devoted to the cause of bettering our health. Often, no matter how hard we try, our bodies continue to fail us.
When our efforts don’t produce the desired results (improved health and a better ability to function), it’s all too easy to lose our motivation and succumb to feeling worn down.
Often, the symptoms of medical burnout are the same symptoms you’d experience with any type of burnout. In this case, they just have a medical focus.
For example, three of the biggest components of burnout are:
- emotional exhaustion
- diminished professional efficacy
You might notice emotional exhaustion coming into play in your medical life if you break down over seemingly small things or feel like you want to give up pursuing treatment.
You may experience feelings of cynicism and detachment by not caring whether your condition improves.
You might also notice yourself being less productive and efficient in your “job” of scheduling appointments, staying on top of medical bills, logging symptoms, and refilling prescriptions.
This goes hand-in-hand with another major symptom of medical burnout: apathy. Defined as a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern, apathy plays a big role in medical burnout. You might feel apathetic about going to physical therapy, taking your meds, or doing whatever you need to do to take care of your body.
Exhaustion — both physical and emotional — is another common hallmark of burnout. For those of us with chronic conditions, physical exhaustion is most likely our norm, which can make it difficult to distinguish different types of exhaustion.
But you know your body best. Like me, you can probably tell your different types of “tired” apart. If you feel emotionally worn out and drained, you’re very likely to be experiencing medical burnout.
Medical burnout is more common than you might think in the chronic condition community. It’s important to address burnout as soon as possible to keep yourself healthy and happy. Otherwise, your condition may worsen as a result.
Take steps to combat medical burnout as soon as you notice the signs
If you’re able to, take a step back from medical appointments. Working out my schedule where I have an entire week with no medical appointments (in seasons where I can safely do so) is huge for my mental and emotional health.
Taking as much of a break as you can helps you feel refreshed and ready to tackle symptom management again. Plus, making time and space to do non-medical things, as I’m able, helps me feel like myself.
Make sure you’re incorporating both physical and emotional rest
I build in time to relax after medical appointments and procedures, whether I think I’ll need it or not. It’s always helpful to come home and decompress after a doctor’s appointment instead of jumping straight back into work.
After a procedure, I incorporate some self-care as something to look forward to — like coming home to curl up with “Gilmore Girls” in the middle of the day, which offers me physical and mental rest at the same time.
Take steps to prevent medical burnout
If possible, take steps to avoid medical burnout from happening in the first place.
Be gentle with yourself and move slowly. Sometimes you might need to take things 1 day or even 1 hour at a time, and that’s OK. Don’t push yourself too hard, or you’re more likely to get burned out.
Find a community
Surrounding yourself with a community of people who understand what you’re going through is another great way to prevent future medical burnout.
Join an online community to connect with other people living with your chronic condition.
If you can, bring an advocate with you to appointments — someone who can share the load, helping fight for you when you’re starting to feel drained.
Recognizing, combating, and preventing medical burnout should be an important facet of your strategy to live well with a chronic condition.
It’s completely possible to sustain a medical-heavy life and avoid burnout. Focus on incorporating regular self-care, whatever that looks like for you, and building yourself a community of people who get it.
If you do get burned out, that’s OK. Take as much of a break as you can and draw on your self-care skills to get back in the game. This will help you feel prepared to give your body the long-term care it needs.
Hailey Hudson is a freelance writer and content marketer based out of Atlanta, Georgia, who writes primarily in the medical/healthcare, marketing, education, and pet industries. She lives with multiple chronic illnesses that significantly affect her life on a daily basis. As her health allows, Hailey enjoys reading, tap dancing, and writing letters to pen pals.