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  • Writer's pictureKelly Adams

What Physical Therapy Can Teach You About Treating Burnout


Stressed man in front of a laptop

Back in September I noticed pain in my forearms. Especially when typing. Like sharp and stabbing. I was worried it was something serious. But after seeing the doctor he diagnosed me with tennis elbow. Which is an overuse injury that happens when the tendons in the elbows are overloaded (repetitive motions) of the wrist and arm. The pain is primarily on the outside of the elbow.

Disclaimer: Please note I am not a doctor nor a medical professional. This is all information I learned from my physical therapist and doctor. If you have any type of injury please talk to your doctor about it. I am not providing medical advice or a diagnosis. I am using this information as a way to explain a different topic.


What's next?

Once I was diagnosed I went to physical therapy for my injury. For these types of overuse injuries these are main steps to treat it (non-surgically):

  1. Rest

  2. Ice & pain killers

  3. Build strength

  4. Re-adapt


After working with my physical therapist for a few months the pain started to go away. Now I'm back to throwing the ball for my dog and typing away at work. I realized something while going through physical therapy.


This method, doesn't have to be only used for physical injuries. I can apply what I learned in physical therapy to more than just physical stress (injuries). This four step process I described above can be used to help burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.

Below I'll be describing the steps I went through in physical therapy, and how to apply it to burnout.

The Steps

Rest (Stop)

Description:

The first step is to rest completely. Try not to aggravate the injury anymore than you already have. Give the injury time to begin the healing process. My tennis elbow was aggravated by any sort of typing, along with throwing the ball for my dog. Because of my job I wasn't able to completely stop typing but I was able to cut down my typing responsibilities (after talking with my employer).

Application:

The first step is to take a break (if possible). It can be anything, whatever you deem as a break. It needs to be a clean break. If it's not possible to take a complete break then you take a step back. Maybe that means taking PTO from work, or shutting off your phone completely on the weekends. Think of ways you can rest to prevent the burnout becoming worse.

Ice & Pain Killers (Minimize the Pain)

Description:

Next is to try to mitigate the pain by using ice (to reduce inflammation) and over the counter pain killers (like ibuprofen). The focus is to lessen the pain as much as possible. I also used a brace like this one until my injury got better.


Application:

Since burnout is about exhaustion, and other negative emotions one way to alleviate these feelings is to get more positive emotions in your life. Focus on activities that bring you joy. The easiest way is to create a list of activities that make you happy or more relaxed. It doesn't have to be a big thing. It can be simple enough as a long bath with candles, or spending an hour in the evening reading. Then try to complete as many things off the list as possible while resting.

Strengthen (Improvement)

Description:

Most people treat an overuse injury with the first two steps. They rest their injury, apply ice and take painkillers. But even after rest when they try to get back into it the problem still persists. For this case (and a lot of overuse injuries) building strength in the surrounding muscles (e.g. forearm, shoulder) helps put less stress the injured part (e.g. tendon of the elbow).


Strengthening the muscles helps prevent recurrence of the injury. After resting and icing my injury for about 2 weeks, I began exercising to strengthen and stretch the muscles and joints. I did exercises like wrist radial deviation, and wrist extension.


Application:

After you've rested and accumulated positive emotions the next step is to try to reduce the triggers causing stress. For work think of small but immediate ways to minimize these triggers. Maybe turning off notifications on emails. Only checking your emails only twice a day, or time blocking (to be more productive). It's not enough to do this once, continually look for ways to reduce your triggers. You want immediate actions that can improve your life.


Adaptation (Long-term)

But building strength isn't enough. You need to re-adapt the way you do things. This doesn't mean completely forgoing the activities you previously did. For me one of the activities that caused me to get injured was throwing the ball for my dog. But because I have a high energy border collie, not throwing the ball is not an adoption. Instead I needed to readjust how I lived my life. Below are the activities that caused my injury and what I changed:

  • Typing ➡ Changed my posture while at my desk

  • Throwing the ball for my dog ➡ Got a shorter chuck it that put less strain on my elbow

  • Exercising my dog ➡ instead of relying on only throwing the ball I have started dog agility with my dog, and going on longer walks

  • Working ➡ Take more breaks between typing

  • Exercising ➡ Used a neutral grip (palms facing each other) while exercising instead of a pronated (overhand) or supinated (underhand), to lessen the strain on my tendons

Since adapting my life and continuing with my exercises I've completely recovered from my tennis elbow. I'm focusing on what I can do in the long-term to prevent re-injury. I know if I went back to my old habits I would become injured again.


Application:

For burnout you need to think about your life in the long-term. Think about what you want and prioritize it (if possible). If work is your main source of burnout try talking to your boss/company/co-workers on ways to improve your relationship with work. Maybe working remotely or hybrid, change your schedule, get more PTO to name a few. Or even think about switching to a new job. This stage isn't about pausing the feelings of burnout, it's to try to eliminate it completely. Find the root of the problem and work on fixing it.


Conclusion

As most people say the best way to recover from an injury is to not get injured in the first place. The best way to prevent burnout is to not get burnt out. But that's not always possible, things happen. If you do get burnout, hopefully these steps will help you not only recover but thrive.

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