Welcome back to the EXCEL Log! I hope your semester is going well. I know mine is crazy right now, with rehearsals, performing at concert after concert, working for EXCEL and the DEI office, and applying for grants for future projects. This means that I’m TIRED, so, it’s the perfect time to talk about burnout. Read on to learn more about burnout, potentially relate to my story, and consider ways to overcome it.
I initially wrote this article over the summer (in July 2022) when I was recovering from an intense wave of burnout from November 2021-June 2022. I then put it away for a while and came back to it in November 2022. I then put it away again, and after having some conversations with Paola Savvidou, program manager for the SMTD Wellness Initiative, decided to finish this piece. I write things to process. Most of the time I don’t write about topics I know everything about or problems I solved. I typically end up writing about something I’m still trying to figure out, and I try to find solutions in the process of creating. That is exactly what this article does, and the topic of burnout fits into the processing category perfectly. When I was fresh from burnout myself, I didn’t think there was any clear way to overcome or prevent it from happening. After having the opportunity to talk to Paola and read more about it my thoughts on burnout started to change.
My therapist asked me once, “When did I start feeling (what I called) ‘The Big Sad’ or ‘Burnout’?” I had a hard time pinpointing the exact moment I felt this way because there were happy moments mixed in. But somewhere in between the COVID-19 pandemic, working 40+ hours a week, and the nagging of the future calling, I started to feel it – burnout.
Burnout is defined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger as “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources” Freudenberger says burnout has 3 components:
- Emotional exhaustion- the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long.
- Depersonalization- the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion.
- Decreased sense of accomplishment- the unconquerable sense of futility, feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.
If you’re not sure if you’re burnt out, you can pay for the Maslach Burnout Inventory which is “recognized as the leading measure of Burnout” or you can take this free Burnout self-test. The Maslach Burnout inventory has tests for a variety of career disciplines including educators and students. It measures levels of cynicism, exhaustion, professional efficacy, and depersonalization to identify burnout. The burnout self-test offers questions for people to assess how they feel about their profession to assess their risk of burnout.
Whether you take a test or define it for yourself, burnout can be debilitating, especially for performing artists. You may sit there practicing your instrument agonizing over each minute. Maybe, the thought of singing a song, or reading a monologue, brings immediate fatigue. It’s possible you’d rather sit in your apartment and watch tv than go to the studio to dance.
I wasn’t sure where my burnout came from. Maybe I was burnt out because I also had (and still have) other non-creative jobs on top of my creative work, which pays my rent. Being lower or middle class, as I am, can mean that pursuing a career in the arts is especially difficult. You often must keep working at a job that pays while also working at a job that is not (not yet hopefully) paying you at all. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. Are there people out there who enjoy this? Working tirelessly so you can have a roof over your head and then only coming home to do more work that isn’t currently providing for you?
Maybe the burnout I felt came from my creative profession itself and not just the hours of working. According to “An Investigation of Burnout Assessment and Potential Job-Related Variables Among Public School Music Educators,” burnout is often associated with people in “helping professions” such as teaching, consulting, or nursing. I would argue that the performing arts can also be considered a “helping profession” given that in most cases we are expected to put on a performance that elicits some kind of emotion from others. I feel that as artists we perform for ourselves as well, we have a passion for performance that fulfills us. However, I think performing for others and the expectation to please them is a big part of it. Perhaps it’s the emotional toll of people’s expectations and opinions that can cause burnout. Maybe, the pressure to perform – and perform well – is why we get exhausted to the point where we don’t want to perform at all. After all, a study by Benjamin Hyun Stocking from the University of Kentucky found that “performance anxiety was a strong predictor of burnout” (nice to know that something as hard to control as that can cause burnout too!)
Regardless of where the burnout came from, I deeply felt the different components of it. From November 2021- June 2022, I experienced extreme emotional exhaustion from caring so much about music and performing well for over 12 years. I felt a decreased sense of accomplishment because I could not be financially stable with music alone, and I then felt a deep sense of depersonalization due to the frustration caused by pouring so much energy into my artistic craft, only to yield what felt like little rewards.
I didn’t feel ok in this state. It’s not that I wanted to quit playing my instrument or composing, I just wished it came easier. I saw others joyfully documenting their progress on social media and wondered why I didn’t feel the same. I decided to start looking for solutions.
After Google searching for answers on how to cure burnout among artists, I found some suggestions. For actors, blogger “upward failing actor” says to try theatre if you’re more of a film actor or join an acting class that is more interesting to you, make your own stuff, and most importantly rest. For musicians, Kate Glassman’s fiddle school suggests being gentle with yourself, playing things you enjoy, listening to music you love, and remembering that you won’t always want to practice, and guess what? Rest! Dancers: focus on the quality of training and not quantity, try other methods of movement like yoga, and most importantly Rest! All of this seemed like a good idea, but at the time it felt like no matter what I tried, the burnout wouldn’t go away. I played the music I loved but then didn’t want to go back to practicing orchestral excerpts. I tried to compose music but wanted to just sit and watch tv instead. I rested, but then didn’t want to get out of bed. I kept judging the little work I did, despite trying to remind myself to be kind.
As I stated above, one of the things that helped me finish this article was a meeting with Paola Savvidou, where she shared information about a book on burnout that really changed my outlook on the topic.
Amelia and Emily Nagoski, authors of “Burnout: the secret to unlocking the stress cycle” offer tips that can be used to both overcome burnout and potentially prevent it from happening. In a podcast interview with Brené Brown, Anna, and Emily describe emotions as a tunnel. Burnout happens when we get stuck in that tunnel, instead of doing what we need to do to get to the light on the other side. One reason why we get stuck in this emotional tunnel is that we do not complete the stress cycle. The stress cycle includes all the emotions we are feeling in a stressful situation. Emotions have a beginning, middle, and end, and just because we remove stressors from our lives, that does not mean the stress cycle is complete. That does not mean we processed those emotions. When you remove stressors, you still must “deal with the stress itself separately,” stress that may still reside in your body even after the stressors are gone. For example, if you have a big project due, and this work has the potential to cause burnout, there are different methods you can use to complete the stress cycle to process the tension that remains once you finish that project, and you have to find the one that works for you.
Anna and Emily say that one of the most efficient ways to complete the stress cycle is physical activity, whether that be running, yoga, or just taking a walk. Another method is breathing. Anna Nagoski says:
“Breathing…regulates your nervous system, especially when you can take a slow breath in and a slow, long breath out, all the way to the ends of your abdominal muscles. That’s how you know you’re engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to regulate the central nervous system. It is the gentlest way to complete the stress cycle.”
She also points out that it’s ok if your thoughts are racing while you do this, saying the point of this is that you notice your mind racing, and you “return your attention to the breath coming into your body and the breath leaving your body. When you don’t have time to do anything else, it can also just siphon off the very worst of it, so that you’re well enough to continue through the situation.” Other methods to complete the stress cycle include positive social interaction, which could be as small as a quick compliment from someone, deep true laughter, a long hug with a loved one, or a good cry. All of these are ways to deal with stress so that it does not get stuck in your body, allowing you to overcome, or even prevent burnout. When I was dealing with burnout, I did a lot of deep breathing anytime I felt stressed. I also did a lot of yoga, it helped me relax and was a way to move my body without over-exerting myself.
I believe burnout is different for everyone. There is no “one size fits all” fix, and frankly, it’s probably not going to go away that easily. For me, burnout is like the pandemic at this moment, we must figure out how to cope, and how to live with it as it comes up. Living with COVID looks like getting vaccinated or wearing a mask and attending to your comfort levels. Hopefully, COVID will completely go away at some point, and I now know burnout eventually subsides. However, both situations require you to find what works for you. Living with burnout can look like figuring out what you want to accomplish and the deadlines you need, the rewards you need to provide yourself, and carving out the rest you specifically need to achieve your goals.
For me, to live with burnout, I just had to accept it was happening. I spent the summer sleeping a lot, I spent too much money on a trip to New York. I carved out 3 hours a day for work (for my part-time job that paid rent – Thank God for flexible hours), one hour for practicing the oboe, one hour a day to compose, 30 min a day for physical activity, and nothing more – because that was all I could manage. This forced some sense of progress, while also giving me space to stare blankly at a wall, sleep, and feel and process the burnout. When the semester started, I didn’t realize it, but I wasn’t burnt out anymore. I’m still not sure what exactly caused it to subside. Maybe it was the time I gave myself to rest or the fact that I stopped fighting it and just lived with it. It also could have subsided because I gave myself time to breathe, exercise a little, spend time with family, and address the stress I was feeling for so long. Perhaps through this, I was able to complete the stress cycle.
If you are dealing with burnout now, and you feel hopeless, hold on to any glimmer of hope you can find. Check out the Nagoski’s burnout book mentioned above, take advantage of some of the many resources offered by the Wellness Initiative, talk to friends and family, and rest. Don’t be afraid to take small steps and celebrate the small victories, and know that even though burnout sucks, you’re not alone and will eventually get through it.
Thanks for tuning into the EXCEL Log! I hope you find time to rest and check out the EXCEL Log for more resources and blog posts on navigating life in the performing arts!
Resources on Burnout from Wellness Initiative Program Manager Paola Savvidou:
Campus Mind Works “coping with stress and burnout” asynchronous presentation (you can also access it from this website if the link is not working: https://campusmindworks.org/support-resources-tools/wellness-groups/)
Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle (book by Emily & Amelia Nagoski)
Brené Brown podcast episode with Emily Nagoski & Amelia Nagoski
Burning Brightly Without Burning Out by Brenda Wristen
Additional resources on mental health and the Black Experience:
You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/193749286@N04/51418722147