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Burn-on: a step-by-step guide out of chronic exhaustion

Life is put on hold until later – first it’s all about functioning. Burn-on sufferers don’t allow themselves to lose their easy-going nature despite such a high workload and constant stress; they’re masters at appearing perfectly cheerful to the outside world, which doesn’t at all reflect their inner world – outwardly powerful, but inwardly empty, joyless, and exhausted.

Over time, this state has serious consequences for the body and one’s health. Here's a possible way out of this seemingly hopeless situation. That said, anyone who has long since crossed the line into burn-on and is struggling with severely depressed moods should definitely consider therapy.

For signs of burn-on to look out for, see "Burn-on: 15 signs that indicate chronic fatigue" in the same blog series.

A woman walks bare foot in nature – the path is made of large, flat stones. The stones symbolise the step-by-step instructions burn-on sufferers can follow to get out of chronic exhaustion. The steps are: recognise the problem, break up the rhythm, build in regular breaks, and extend phases of recovery.
The way out of chronic exhaustion must be taken step by step.

Step 1: Recognise the problem

In order to be able to solve a problem or a situation, the very first thing we need to do is to identify – that is to recognise – the problem or situation in the first instance. This is also the case with burn-on. Above all, our first step out of chronic exhaustion – also called chronic exhaustive depression – has to do with mindfulness.

The term mindfulness is so popular these days that it almost sounds outdated. But mindfulness is not a fad. It is our natural human potential that, unfortunately, has been ever more suppressed in our Western society by the pressure to perform and a competitive mindset. Mindfulness is simply a state of conscious attention. When I am mindful, I perceive the present moment – the present situation – consciously and without judgment. Nothing more, nothing less.


Take a moment in a quiet space, making sure you aren’t going to be disturbed for a little while. Stop and reflect on what the following questions spark deep inside you:

  • Am I happy with the direction my life is going in?

  • Word-wise, has a state of emergency become the norm?

  • Am I willing to sacrifice my health, well-being and happiness for my duties, my work, and the expectations of those around me?

  • Does my work really serve my life’s purpose, or is it now the other way around?

  • Are my life and values still aligned?

Pay attention to how you feel when answering these questions. Feel free to take notes if you’d like. Be honest with yourself – you are doing the exercise for you, and you are not responsible to anyone. It is your life, your health, and you deserve to live rather than just function.

Step 2: Break up the rhythm

Sufferers of burn-on don’t go through the day mindfully. Like an operating system, they start up automatically in the morning, deliver their performance as if they’re controlled by someone else, and – totally exhausted – finally lie down in the evening. And it is precisely this external control that’s a large part of the problem because it is disempowering.

Paradoxically, by trying to control everything around them, they end up losing power over their own lives. What is really important to them – indeed, what is good for them – recedes into the background. To regain this power, it is absolutely essential to constantly interrupt the rhythm of everyday life. To do this, it is helpful to regularly question one's own actions.


Whenever you start a new task, take a minute, and answer these questions:

  • Do I enjoy doing this thing?

  • Is this task really necessary?

    • Or does it just help me to maintain my current role?

    • Or does it simply scratch my perfectionist itch?

  • Is it really my responsibility to do this task?

    • Or, once again, have I ventured into actionism?

Primarily, this isn’t about assessing the tasks themselves. It’s about just not rushing headfirst into the next activity. If you manage to consistently interrupt the rhythm, you will no longer be permanently swept away by the whirlpool of everyday life and will gradually begin to take the reins once again.

A young man leans against a standing desk with a laptop, smartphone, and notebook in front of him. His eyes gaze into the distance and his hand is on his chin – he has chosen to look away from his work and take time to question his life and his actions. Burn-on sufferers’ to-do lists get longer and longer, which is why they are always stressed and stuck in tunnel vision. Regular short breaks help to restore balance.
Those who regularly break the rhythm aren’t swept away by the whirlpool of everyday life so often.

Step 3: Build in regular breaks

For burn-on sufferers, taking a break is not an option. How can it be? Because no matter how much work you get done, the to-do list keeps getting longer and longer … And that goes right to the heart of the matter, because it’s the permanent state of stress – whether you are aware of it or not – that keeps you stuck with tunnel vision. Such a narrowed perception directs all attention to the things causing you stress, while everything else is blanked out.

Regular small breaks counteract this phenomenon and help to restore the balance between a state of panic and normality (for more on this, see “Burn-on: how does chronic exhaustion come about?"). If you do not manage to reduce your stress levels BEFORE exceeding your limit, there is a risk of serious consequences for your mind and body.


Force yourself to take a short break at regular intervals (at least 6 times a day).

To make sure you remember to do this, you need to decide in advance when you want to take breaks. This can be whenever you go to the toilet or get something to drink, or by using the reminder function on your mobile phone.

A few minutes is all it takes:

  • Get up

  • Move around a little

  • A few stretching exercises

  • Leave the room

  • Get some fresh air

  • Breathe deeply and consciously

  • Apply a HeartMath® technique

  • Listen to a cool song

  • Enjoy a healthy snack mindfully

  • Whatever does you good

Make sure you are never doing two things at once – constantly looking at your phone or reading emails does not count as a break! It is essential that you interrupt your brain activity for a moment.

Step 4: Extend phases of recovery

If you’re able to interrupt the rhythm and state of alert consciously and continually, nothing stands in the way of your next decisive step. To stay healthy – or to become healthy – people really need longer recovery phases. Because only the so-called ‘recovery mode’ creates the best conditions for a well-functioning body. This includes the healing process, cell regeneration, stimulating your metabolism and digestion, blood formation, emotional processing, healthy and restful sleep, and much more.


Search out one or more mindfulness techniques that get you into recovery mode, and then practice them regularly – ideally daily, or 3-5 times a week at least.

The following mindful exercises are particularly effective:

The HeartMath® Institute techniques mentioned above are particularly effective and time-saving, but also easy to learn. In addition, success can be measured by means of a biofeedback device and mapped in real time on any smartphone – this makes these methods unique and all the more useful.

An offer tailored to you

The HeartMath Institute has developed quick and easy techniques to help you better regulate your energy levels and increase your inner calmness. The scientifically tested HeartMath techniques help to harmonise your physical, mental and emotional levels. Progress can be tracked using the biofeedback device, "Inner Balance".

As a former burn-on sufferer and HeartMath® coach, I would love to accompany you on your way out of burn-on. I’ll show you how you can consciously interrupt stress reactions right when you need it most, and how you can sustainably ‘download’ a new ‘operating system’ full of composure and a zest for life. In just a few minutes a day, you will noticeably increase your inner calmness and have more energy to use on the beautiful things in life.

Life is too short to simply function. Finally get living again!


About the author

As a former burn-on sufferer, it is very important to me to contribute to raising awareness and educating people about burn-on syndrome - that's what this blog series is for. I hope to help as many people as possible to better understand their situation, feelings, or fears, so that they can help themselves or get help. As a certified HeartMath® coach, I also accompany my clients on their individual escape from burn-on.

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