What to Know About AT Burnout

August 8, 2022 by Lydia Hicks
mental health, burn out, health care, ATs Care

By Kelsey Bains, MA, ATC, and Donita Valentine, DAT, LAT, SFMA, ATs Care Commission

Burnout is the result of physical and/or mental breakdown due to being overworked or stressed from one’s duties. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several, if not all, ATs have seen and felt an influx of workload and work-related stress, resulting in burnout at some level. This has been felt for a variety of reasons.

The pandemic itself has created an underlying degree of fear and anxiety – fear being our tendency to bring our past experiences and evidence of those past experiences to the present and the anxiety that comes with the unknown. This has then allowed our window of tolerance to shift, as our nervous system is more consistently at a higher level of stimulus. Our ability to get into that rest and relax state, which the parasympathetic nervous system allows, feels more out of reach. This has created more tension with conversations, heightened emotions and, overall, exhaustion.

We are all going through this with little to no awareness, and then we add on the heightened irritation of others, such as coaches, administrators, co-workers and patients, and our already full plates become overwhelming. Athletic trainers naturally demonstrate the ability to endure, willing to do whatever it takes to aid in generating success. We often put ourselves on the back burner. This pattern, therefore, makes the impact of the pandemic not only prevalent, but also intense as we walk through life in a constant state of survival; surviving our days, surviving illness, surviving different personalities and surviving conflict.

So how do we move out of the survival brain into the learning brain? How do we address the burnout, while still garnering our passion?

The answer is simple, but difficult to execute. We set boundaries and make sure that our cup is full first. This can be hard to do at first, especially if those who surround you are used to a particular version of you. We’ve got to remember that we get to put our oxygen mask on before helping others. In other words, if I am not fully equipped by having my basic needs met, then I do not have the capacity to help others. I need to take care of me first!

A few things to remember when thinking about self-care:1

  1. Practice self-care and make yourself a priority by taking care of your body. Be sure to eat a healthy diet with room for things you enjoy – nutrition has been shown to affect the how we think and feel. Exercise, reading and sleep are also important factors and are known to decrease depression and provide improved feelings of well-being.
  2. Every once in a while, disconnect from social media. Adding a device-free period, day or weekend can help free some mental headspace and allow you to connect with yourself.
  3. Engage in activities that are meaningful to you by spending time with a pet or volunteering for a cause you are passionate about.
  4. Reach out to ATs Care if you find yourself struggling to cope.

While this is a simple answer, it can be difficult to execute. We must think “self before others,” we must think “our needs before others,” we must begin to lead with “no” instead of “yes.” Don’t forget the critical steps outlined above to execute your path to healthy self-care.

One, this ensures that your basic needs are met: Did you eat today? Have you had enough water? Did you get an opportunity to take a much needed 15-minute mental break between patients?

Two, this will ensure you don’t become overwhelmed: Are you taking a pause to really see if you have the capacity to help when asked something before you say “yes”?

Three, this will ensure you recognize and advocate for your needs: Are you speaking your needs?

Finally, how are you working to regulate your nervous system? A simple breathing exercise can go a long way!

Learn more about tackling mental health by reading the May Mental Health Month blog series:


Borenstein, J., 2022. Everyday Mental Health Tips. [online] Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. Available at: <https://www.bbrfoundation.org/blog/everyday-mental-health-tips> [Accessed 20 May 2022].