This article is written by Martine Ehrenclou, M.A.. Martine is a patient advocate and award-winning author of The Take-Charge Patient. Learn more about Martine and her work at thetakechargepatient.com.
There’s a lot of media attention on doctor or nurse burnout, a condition where medical providers experience emotional and physical exhaustion from the ongoing stress of their jobs.
But if you’re a patient with a chronic medical condition or illness, management of your symptoms might feel like a stressful job too — one that you didn’t sign up for. You might be experiencing patient burnout.
Strategies to combat patient burnout:
- Continue being as active as you can in your personal life. It is important to maintain your identity separate from your illness/condition.
- Build support systems such as in-person or online support groups where you can discuss your problems and connect with people who truly understand. Look for groups that are solution seeking rather than groups that just air grievances. The latter is important but can also bring you down and increase a sense of helplessness.
- Prioritize tasks and delegate to others. If you are experiencing burnout, consider asking a loved one to drive you to a doctor’s appointment or help you organize your medications, or assist with food preparation and planning.
- Enlist an advocate if you aren’t feeling well. Ask a loved one to go with you to medical appointments and take notes, help you prepare a list of questions, write down the answers, and serve as a second set of eyes and ears.
- Find things that nurture you such as massage, writing in a journal, exercise you enjoy, listening to music, activities with family and friends, reading, meditation, yoga, and more. Consider, for example, joining a book group—not for patients with your diagnosis but for people who just like to read. Engaging in a new activity that doesn’t focus on your condition will help expand your world beyond your diagnosis.
- Set up a reward system for yourself such as planning a fun activity as a reward for reaching each new goal.
- Set limits on how much you do for others.
- Seek support from a health psychologist or educator/therapist for your condition. For example, your health plan might have a list of diabetes educators or health psychologists. Find someone who understands your illness/condition, not someone you have to educate.
- Remember that you don’t have to be perfect. If you have diabetes, keep in mind that you don’t have to do everything perfectly all the time with diet or an exercise regime. Try being in the moment and do your best just for today. Perfection is not realistic for anyone and it can interfere with self-confidence and hope.
- Take back some control. Try creating something new that relates to your disease which allows you to give to others. Whether that’s volunteering or taking what you’ve learned about your illness/condition and teaching it to someone else, do whatever you can to transform some aspect of your disease/condition into a positive contribution.
When you're struggling with patient burnout, it can also be helpful to hear from other people in the same situation, like these people who have dealt first-hand with burnout — and beat it.
Sometimes patient burnout can lead to depression. If you feel consistent sadness, hopelessness, irritability or frustration, loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities, dramatic changes in sleep or weight, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, talk to your doctor. For more information on depression, see the Mayo Clinic or Depression Connect.