Burnout Awareness and Prevention


‘Burn-out’ can be caused by..

● Taking on a lot of projects at one time,
● Being in a constant state of high-anxiety/stress,
● Loss of external control and experiencing/witnessing traumatic events.

After a prolonged period of a heightened state of stress, the body literally starts to work differently, changing your body’s hormone systems. Burn-out is a natural response to all of the above. It can result in a range of symptoms such as exhaustion/fatigue, depression, insomnia, headaches, gastrointestinal problems (especially ulcers), frequent colds/flu, weight loss or gain, shortness of breath, hypertension, high cholesterol, coronary disease, impaired speech.

More info at: https://solidarityapothecary.org/overcoming-burnout-part-5-the-biology-of-burnout/

Burn-out is your body telling you that you need to support yourself, get help where needed or take a break.

Burn-out doesn’t always occur straight after an incident or period of high-stress, sometimes it is a delayed response and will only be felt months later. This is why it is so important to have a sustainable, reliable, supportive culture in place.

Burn-out can occur for people who take on or support direct action, including both organising and engaging directly, because we often take on a lot or find ourselves in high energy or anxiety situations, and of course we take this stuff on because we really care.

Anyone who engages in Non-Violent-Direct-Action with Extinction Rebellion or independently, needs to think about the following elements.

Self-care How we take care of our own needs and personal recovery from this toxic system.

Also known as: What we sometimes call the inner work
It’s important because: We are not machines. We need to look after ourselves in order to better look after each other and achieve what we want to achieve. Also, keeping the population subdued through stress, loneliness, sickness and anxiety is a feature of late-stage capitalism
Resources might include: knowing our own limits/capacity, nature connection/being outdoors, hobbies/creativity/passions etc., in a stressful moment: practicing breath awareness/control, taking your attention out- what can you see/hear/smell/touch, replacing bad/scary stories/narratives with positive affirmations.
Regenerative Resources Guide: First created in response to the Coronavirus crisis, Regenerative Cultures UK have designed a wellbeing guide full of top tips for staying healthy, both physically and mentally. See the guide here.
Dedicated Mental Health Support: Should you require further support, XR offers free, one-to-one phone sessions with trained emotional therapists and active listeners, through the Trained Emotional Support Network (TESN). Please email the Rebel2Rebel phone service at Rebel2Rebel@tesn.uk to arrange a session.

External to XR, should you require further support, please consider calling one of these mental health helplines, or contact the Climate Psychology Alliance, individual therapeutic support service here. And if PTSD, mental health issues, or addiction have been part of your journey, please see this link for additional resources of emotional and mental health support.

Action care

How we take care of each other whilst we undertake direct actions and civil disobedience together.

Also known as: That which we do to prepare for, train for and recover from direct action, including trauma and resilience work.
It’s important because: Our bodies, minds and hearts are in a hostile situation, with institutions that want to target, manipulate and control us. Being able to care for our own needs helps us take care of each other and be more resilient.
Resources might include: Snacks, rain gear and warm clothing, physical first aid, somatic first aid, welfare teams and HUGS!

Interpersonal care

How we take care of the relationships we have, being mindful of how we affect each other, taking charge of our side of relationships.

Also known as: This is the “intersectional work”, the decolonisation of the self, how we communicate, etc.
● It’s important because: We are all the product of our environment. We all internalise the violence inherent in our cultures. We have a duty to do the work that can undo those internalised prejudices and behaviours, so we can learn to interact in a healthier way.
Resources might include: Non-violent communication, compassion, decolonisation (thinking about race dynamics in groups) training, resources for dealing with grief….

Community care

How we take care of our development as a network and community, strengthening our connections and adherence to these principles and values.

● Extinction Rebellion’s Online Program: Born out of the Coronavirus crisis, Extinction Rebellion and Regenerative Cultures UK have put together an online program of sharing and listening circles, workshops, webinars and trainings to grow our connections and shared knowledge. See the program here

People and Planet care

How we look after our wider communities and the earth that sustains us.


By Dr. Jonathan Mitchell
Consultant Clinical Psychologist
March 2020

Feeling like this?

You are not alone. Activism can be exhausting, mentally, physically and emotionally.

The term ‘burnout’ first came to prominence in a study by Herbert Freundenberger in 1974. He explored the impact on volunteers working in clinics in New York which offered free healthcare to those in need. The volunteers had little professional training and lacked a fixed work schedule, but had high levels of commitment and personal enthusiasm (sound familiar?). After 1 – 3 years, the volunteers tended to become considerably less motivated and less interested and involved in the work. In the years since, there has been a huge amount of research into burnout. Leading researcher Christina Maslach and her team have identified six key components that contribute to burnout:

  • Workload
  • Control
  • Reward
  • Community
  • Fairness
  • Values

Burnout is not just about stress, or having too much to do. Richard Gunderman, from Indiana University described the onset of burnout as “the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of tiny disappointments, each one hardly noticeable on its own”. It can creep up on you, but can have profound implications. Burnout actually changes the brain and how it deals with negative emotions. A 2016 summary by Alexandra Michel highlighted how burnout can manifest itself in multiple ways. She listed the following signs:

  • Fatigue, ranging from a lack of energy to feeling physically and emotionally exhausted
  • Problems sleeping
  • Problems with memory, concentration and attention
  • Physical symptoms, including pains, heart palpitations, headaches, tummy pains
  • Increased illness, linked to a weakened immune system
  • Loss of appetite (or wanting to comfort eat all the time)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger and irritability
  • Loss of enjoyment
  • Pessimism and cynicism
  • Isolation
  • Detachment
  • Apathy
  • Hopelessness – feeling “what’s the point?”
  • Reduced productivity

If any (or all) of these resonate with you or your fellow rebels, there are steps you can take.
The first step might be to check out the extent to which you are affected by burnout. There are several ways of doing this. The Maslach Burnout Inventory (first published in 1981) has been used in thousands of studies and organisations, various versions including one for volunteers.

If this is hard to get hold of, try taking an online burnout test such as the one at: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTCS_08.htm

So what can you do if you are experiencing burnout?

Mindfulness and meditation can help. Psychologist Elena Touroni suggests a three minute mindfulness exercise to start the day (there are plenty available for free online, and a selection is offered on the XR Regenerative Cultures UK YouTube channel). But don’t worry if you find this hard to do – being bad at mindfulness should not become just one more thing to beat yourself up about!

Siobhan Murray, a Dublin based psychotherapist and author of The Burnout Solution, has some top tips: be kind to yourself. Prioritise. Say No. step back. Stop doing the thing that is burning you out, at least temporarily (or permanently if it is not in line with your values).
Reconnect with your reasons for doing what you are doing. Think about what really matters to you, and check that what you are doing is working towards this.
Talk to other rebels honestly and openly: chances are, others feel the same.
Take time away from social media and your phone.
Turn the damn thing off for a few minutes every day.

If you are still struggling, consider talking to a therapist. XR can put you in touch with its network of Trained Emotional Support Professionals (TESN) who have volunteered to support burnt out rebels.

One way I personally find helpful to think about it is this. Imagine you have a loved one who is very sick and who is not getting the best care. Imagine you spend all your time fighting for the best possible care for them, demanding that the hospital managers do more, asking questions of the doctors and nurses. Just as important might be to spend some time quietly with your loved one, talking, listening to them, or just holding their hand.

We are fighting for the life of our planet. As well as activism, campaigning, meetings, actions, we should spend time in quiet and loving enjoyment of nature. Plant something. Go for a walk in a bluebell wood, run barefoot along the beach, or lie in the fields listening to the skylarks sing.

Revision #7
Created Thu, Aug 6, 2020 8:15 PM by Lou
Updated Thu, Nov 24, 2022 12:17 PM by Alison Miller