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How to Recognize Burn Out Before It’s an Issue

Self-compassion is a mindset and a thought process. If practiced frequently, self-care can be learned over time and become second nature. Learning how to implement acts of self-kindness is equally important to understand how to recognize when we are moving in the direction of burnout. Recognizing the stages of burnout will assist with the timely implementation of proactive measures to reduce the likelihood of moving further down the rabbit hole. In 1974, Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” upon release of his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. Freudenberger defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentives, especially when one’s devotion to cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results” (Stillman, 2017).

Burnout is typically associated with and referenced in terms of work performance; however, burnout can be experienced across all roles self-defined by the individual. For example, you may define yourself as an ABA practitioner, but also as a mother, researcher, student, husband, hard worker, dedicated individual, or compassionate person. Burnout can be felt across any role with which a person identifies, personally or professionally. This is important to remember because a person does not require the most demanding, time-consuming profession to experience burnout. Burnout can be felt in all stages of life and does not discriminate by age, race, or gender (Scott & Gans, 2020). Additionally, appreciating self-care is not a luxury reserved only for ABA practitioners. Rather, it is a necessity for everyone to enhance and maintain health and well-being. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the twelve-stage model of burnout developed by psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North. Recognition of burnout symptoms is a vital step in your journey to self-recovery and prolongation of self-care (Stillman, 2017).

Symptoms and Behaviors Associated with Burnout

Autism Providers
  • Working Tirelessly: Individuals experience the inability to “switch off” with no clear lines between work hours and leisure or family time.


  • Obsessively Demonstrating Worth: Individuals begin to face the compulsion to prove themselves by readily volunteering for assignments that they do not have time to complete or complete well.


  • Neglecting Needs: Individuals encounter limited social interaction, irregular sleep patterns, and disrupted or unhealthy eating habits.


  • Displacement of Conflict: Individuals become dismissive of problems due to feelings of being defenseless, anxious, or panicked.


  • Revision of Values: Individuals’ values suddenly change direction and their hobbies become insignificant. They become dismissive of relationships with family and friends.


  • Denial of Emerging Problems: Individuals experience an intolerance for collaboration and hypersensitivity. They begin to have unwarranted thoughts that collaborators are lazy, demanding, or undisciplined. Social interactions become difficult and non-preferred. Cynicism and aggression are experienced. Problems are viewed as caused by time pressure and work, not because of life changes.


  • Withdrawal: Individuals endure a nonexistent social life, and crave the relief of stress.


  • Unusual Behavioral Changes: Family, coworkers, or friends begin to notice and mention stark changes in their moods and habits.


  • Inner Emptiness: Individuals begin feeling numb or dazed, which leads to destructive habits such as self-medication with alcohol, drugs, gambling, binge eating, excessive shopping sprees, and reckless driving.


  • Depression: Individuals encounter extreme exhaustion and feelings of loss and uncertainty. The future feels desolate and bare.


  • Depersonalization: Individuals experience an inability to discern their own needs, as well as a loss of their self-worth and that of others.


  • Burnout Syndrome: Individuals endure complete mental and physical collapse, with emotional exhaustion, failure, cynicism, helplessness, shame, and doubt.

Key Take Aways

The ABA field has a high level of burnout. It’s the nature of being in a profession devoted to treating the underserved. Therapists need tools to destress and tend to their own mental health. That’s where self-care comes in.

Want more information on self-care for ABA professionals? We updated our Self-Care Guide for 2022. It’s full of useful information, checklists, and more. Really, it’s almost 20 pages of stress-relieving material!

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