Running on empty? Experts explain the difference between mom stress and symptoms of burnout, and offer up the best ways to recharge your battery.

By Cassie Shortsleeve
November 22, 2019
Illustration by Parents Staff; Getty Images (2)

Every new mom has likely—at one point or another—felt as though she can't take on one.more.thing. Being stressed with a baby who requires every moment of your waking day (and night for that matter) is normal.

But feeling like you're on the edge of losing it or like the weight of everything (baby's schedule, dishes in the sink, work you have to do today, the list goes on) is on you could point to something called caregiver burnout—a state of mental, physical, and emotional depletion.

Some studies suggest it's something about 14 percent of parents feel (though figures could be higher) and research finds societal pressure to be a "perfect" mother can further the feelings. The pressure women are under can feel like an impossible standard to meet, says Katayune Kaeni, Psy.D., a psychologist in private practice specializing in perinatal mental health, and needing a break is okay.

Protecting mothers from burnout is, arguably, also a broader societal issue. "I believe that it shouldn't be entirely the mothers' job to figure out how to not be burnt out. We as a culture and society can and should make a shift to be supporting the mother, baby, and family in a more comprehensive way," Kaeni says.

But there are ways to help ease the burden of caregiver burnout, spot burnout's symptoms and signs, and recover from burnout if you're suffering. Here's what to do if you're feeling the pressure.

What Is Caregiver Burnout?

The medical definition of burnout, in general, is exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, explains Mary C Kimmel, M.D., co-director of the Perinatal Psychiatry Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It can have emotional, physical, and mental manifestations.

Caregiver burnout, in particular, happens when a caregiver (a.k.a you, mom and dad!) has maxed out on their capacity to provide physical, mental, and/or emotional support for someone in their care, explains Kaeni.

Mothers can be particularly affected by caregiver burnout as they put so many demands on themselves, in part because of those unrealistic images of what a mother "should" be, Dr. Kimmel explains.

Kaeni adds that those early days with a baby can also be super monotonous, which can feed into burnout. "Infants aren't really too interactive, so the crying, pooping, sleeping, feeding cycles feel, and are, very repetitive and sometimes boring," she says.

Of course, caregiver burnout doesn't just come about from a long list of tasks. "The emotional and mental load of life with a new baby and with kids is exhausting in very invisible ways," Kaeni explains (read: keeping track of baby's schedule in your head while doing everything else you need to do throughout the day).

The emotional transition for a mother (wondering, am I doing this right? What's the "right'"way? Who am I now? What will my partner think about me as a parent?) can take a toll, too, she says. Feeling disconnected, isolated, like all of the pressure is on you, like your partner doesn't help enough—it all feeds into caregiver burnout, Kaeni notes.

Common Burnout Symptoms to Know

Signs of burnout can start small and grow at varying paces depending on other life situations, opportunities for rest, and how much support you have, says Kaeni. Symptoms differ from mother to mother, but feeling stressed (physically and emotionally) is probably the biggest precursor to each of these most common signs of burnout:

  • Withdrawing from others
  • Losing interest in things you once loved
  • Sleep problems
  • Changes in appetite
  • Feeling exhausted or like you have low energy
  • Having trouble controlling your worries
  • Feeling less hope
  • Feeling emotional—sadness, irritability, or anxiety
  • Feeling like you need a break (more than just wanting a break)
  • Noticing you have a shorter temper
  • Feeling as though any new task puts you over the edge
  • Needing to not be touched or needing to be alone
  • Waking up not wanting to do the day
  • Feeling resentful (toward baby, your partner, or the world)
  • Feeling guilt. "People talk about how badly they feel about saying that they need a break and that they should want to be with their baby all of the time," says Kaeni.

Also important to note: Sometimes what feels or looks like caregiver burnout could be a more serious concern like depression or anxiety; other times, burnout that's not relieved can become clinical depression or an anxiety disorder. That's why it's important to pay attention to the symptoms and take action when you can.

How to Recover from Burnout

Recovering from burnout first requires noticing the symptoms of caregiver burnout to begin with. Once you do that, there are a slew of different solutions to help you heal, according to experts, including the below options.

Ask for help.

"When it's all on your shoulders all of the time, stress builds," says Kaeni. Some people don't have regular support or anyone close by who can come to relieve them. If you do—whether a paid support person, partner, family, or friends — negotiate with them for regular breaks. "It's important to help mothers ask for help and to help them to learn to feel okay with having others take some caregiving," says Dr. Kimmel. Having support can also help you change negative thinking that tells you that you are not important or everyone else's needs are more important, she notes.

Talk it out.

Telling someone you trust—a friend, a therapist, another mom in a mom's group—how you feel is crucial to feeling your best, says Kaeni. "Working with a therapist can help you to ensure you are taking time for yourself and to reflect once a week on your own health and needs," explains Dr. Kimmel. "Therapy techniques such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy allows you to reconnect with your values and what is important." Outside of therapy, meeting up with other people or moms or planning outings with friends when possible can also help, notes Kaeni.

Maybe it's a short cycling class on the Peloton, a meditation app, or using your favorite moisturizer for five minutes after the shower. "Ensure time for self-care is created on a regular basis," suggests Dr. Kimmel. "This should be both small amounts of time daily then larger amounts of time." This isn't selfish, she notes—in fact, it helps you be able to be present for your family. "Getting time to reset and recoup is a luxury for some, but a necessity for all," adds Kaeni.

Take a break.

It's true: As humans, we need breaks. "Our physical, mental, and emotional physiological systems actually need downtime to function properly," explains Kaeni. That means that when the baby is asleep you don't have to do all the things, says Kaeni. "Give yourself permission to rest, you deserve it."

Take action.

If your symptoms last more than two weeks, they're worsening, or rest and downtime aren't cutting it, it's time to reach out for support as you might be suffering from depression or anxiety and need additional help, notes Kaeni. She points to Postpartum Support International, which can help you find resources in your area. Your doctor or therapist are also good starting points to help you get the help you need.

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