Registrations for road races have declined since the pandemic. The number of people describing themselves as “burned out” has increased. Is there a connection? Why are so many of us experiencing burnout, and what can we do about it? Rachel Gersten, co-founder of Viva Mental Health and Wellness, shares her thoughts and advice.

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As Rachel points out, everyone has their own reasons for feeling burned out, but, she says, “I think there’s probably a few things going on. We’ve all been through a lot in the last, depending on when you start counting, anywhere from 3 to 6, almost 10 years. The world has been a lot. And so I think just individually, it’s pretty hard for people to want to take on more effort when they’re already kind of feeling a big weight just from the general state of the world. We watch the news and sometimes it feels very much like it’s happening outside of us or our immediate world, which is still pretty heavy to carry that knowledge around of what’s going on around us. But also all those news stories impact people individually. So you could give a whole list of examples, from people who live in places where their reproductive rights are being taken away and they have to consider that in their daily lives, to the impact of Covid, to financial ramifications.”

Qualifying for a race like the Boston Marathon, where registrations are reportedly down over 14% this year, often means a runner racing their fastest marathon time ever. “That can just feel like a lot,” Rachel observes. “Their bodies just might not be able to give that much effort and push that hard, given everything else that’s going on that maybe wasn’t true four years ago.” Or, she says,”maybe their life circumstances have changed to the point that they don’t have the financial resources or the free time to dedicate to such a big, lofty goal.”

Another factor may be that priorities have changed over the past few years. “The pandemic really shifted how people view what’s important to them,” she says. “A lot of people slowed down because they were forced to, at least initially. A lot of people didn’t race for a year plus because they couldn’t, and then they’re like, ‘Wow, I don’t need to spend all this money’ or ‘I just like running for fun. I don’t need to chase personal records all the time. That’s not fulfilling to me anymore.’” The world has changed in general, she continues, “and so as a result, I think you would expect to see people’s perspective on things like races or other things they used to do in their day-to-day life shift, as well.” 

Then there’s the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Rachel explains, “We always kind of knew that you hear stories of people who have horrible things happen to them or life just completely throws a curveball at you. But for the most part, most of us on a day-to-day basis could plan on, if we said we wanted to do something three months from the time we said it, we could do it. We could plan a vacation, we could book concert tickets, we could make a dinner reservation. And then all of a sudden we lived in this reality where that’s not true anymore. Your plans don’t matter at all.  Anything can happen and that’s it. There’s nothing you can do. That was, and still is for some people, this very jarring reality. 

And so yeah, I think that does create a level of discomfort or uneasiness that maybe people didn’t feel before March of 2020. And so you apply that to the Boston Marathon example again, where that’s a huge undertaking of time, both to qualify and then to eventually race, and maybe it’s a little harder for people to wrap their head around, ‘Hey, this thing I plan to do in a year to two years is actually gonna happen and all of my effort won’t be for naught.’’

Still, a lot of people feel as though they should be able to motivate themselves, and when they can’t, they feel as if they’re lazy or lack discipline. For the most part, Rachel disagrees. If someone has always loved running and training hard and suddenly they don’t want to, “I don’t know that that person just suddenly became lazy. I feel like there’s probably something else happening. And it could be personal events, that could be world events, it could be a combination of both. But I think we very quickly jump to, ‘Oh, I just don’t have any discipline’ or ‘I’m just lazy,’ when in reality, we’re human and we don’t operate in a bubble. And so it’s probably something going on, if all of a sudden you don’t want to or find it harder to do this thing you previously loved and really wanted to do.”

Rachel recommends finding your “why.” Is breaking a certain time important to you, or do you really just enjoy going out for a run when the weather is nice? Check in with yourself to ask why you want to do this, and what you need. As Rachel points out, “Your running only actually matters to you. It’s supposed to be fun, right? If it’s not fun, you need to either make it fun or take a break because it doesn’t matter. Like it matters and it doesn’t matter, because it’s important to you and so it matters, but in the general scheme of life, it actually makes no difference. So, if you’re not enjoying it and it’s not what you need, why do it?” 

Another “why” to consider is why you’re feeling burned out. Rachel has found over the past few years that “part of the burnout comes from not experiencing joy, that you’re kind of going through your day to day. You work, you take care of your responsibilities, and I think that’s happened a lot during Covid, when a lot of things were canceled or closed. There wasn’t a lot of joy.” Or maybe it’s a response to the world situation. Understanding why you feel the way you do can help you figure out a response, whether that’s doing something you really enjoy or becoming civically involved.

It also helps to acknowledge the way you feel. “When you’re feeling sad, anxious, whatever, instead of trying to make that go away, maybe just recognize that you’re supposed to feel that way, based on what’s going on,” she says. We need to let ourselves “feel what we feel in response to what’s going on around us, rather than trying to pretend like we should be immune to everything that’s in our environment.” 

Rachel and her friend and business partner, Jor-El, help people address all of these issues through Viva Mental Health and Wellness, their “holistic, inclusive, accessible and culturally competent therapy practice.” In addition to offices in New York City, Philadelphia, and San Diego, they have a podcast and free resources on their website.  “It’s really just about humanizing the healthcare and mental healthcare experience because that’s something that doesn’t happen a lot, especially in the U. S. healthcare system,” Rachel explains. “ And so kind of all of this idea of just making mental health more accessible and more humanized.”

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“Thank you” to Rachel.  We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.

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