The Unexpected Costs of Prolonged Stress During Gender Transition: Introducing Burnout and Its Impact

a queer person sitting on a couch in deep thought and feeling emotion

There is no denying that life is sometimes overwhelming to the point of exhaustion, especially over the last few years of surviving a pandemic, facing global crisis after crisis, and leaning into your gender transition as a small but vocal opposition takes up arms against our queer existence. Juggling life on fire, work on stilts, and school on Zoom alongside gender transition can leave you feeling sick, tired, and stuck. This cycle of life stressors and strained living—paired with unrelenting pressures to blend in—eventually leads to burnout.

Burnout is a new term for a common stressed-to-the-max experience. Coined in 1974 by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger when he studied healthcare workers who were out of energy, strength, and resources, burnout is more than feeling stressed. It’s a condition that includes a mix of compounding factors.

According to the Canadian Association of Mental Health, “Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” Burnout in the course of gender transition can make you feel emotionally drained and unable to function in the context of change, and that may leave you feeling helpless, hopeless, and too tired to lean into daily life.

How do you spot it? It isn’t always easy. Here are six common signs of burnout:

  • Increase in negative self-talk
  • Decreased ability to remember
  • Low or depressed mood
  • Struggle to focus on tasks
  • Diminished problem-solving skills
  • Distanced from your supports

Burnout can leave you feeling out-of-steam, out-of-sorts, and out-of-spoons. The WHO (2019) labelled three critical indicators of burnout as follows:

1. Fatigue

2. Cynicism

3. Feelings of inefficacy

Of the three areas of burnout, the most important is fatigue. Without fatigue, one might assume it’s something else, such as irritability or low self worth.

Burnout and nervous system collapse during transition can be unsettling.

As you’ve taken steps towards coming out and navigating through social, legal, physical, and, perhaps, medical transition, you know how much there is to consider, plan, and do. Sometimes it’s manageable. Other times it’s impossible.

What turns stress into burnout? It can happen when your job becomes more demanding or ceases to exist and leaves you struggling to meet demands or make ends meet. It can happen when your social support system hasn’t been what you needed it to be for a long time. An accumulation of stress can turn into burnout when your coping style is consistently rooted in hyperarousal, which includes prolonged anxious thinking or strident fight-or-flight responses.

Throughout gender transition, there is often a lack of understanding from others about what gender transition entails and how it may complicate daily life.

Feeling misunderstood by people close to you who don’t understand your experience takes its toll, leaving you feeling isolated and alone during stress.

What exacerbates gender transition burnout? Ableism, racism, queerphobia, and transphobia are a few reasons why it can be harder for some of us with intersecting marginalized identities. When you’re ignored or left out by multiple systems of oppression, gender transition burnout is more likely and more severe because the systems we rely on for support are ableist, racist, and often ill-prepared for centring the basic human rights of marginalized groups.

Simply put, gender transition burnout is a period of time during which you feel bone-weary and beyond repair. Burnout is when you feel out-of-steam (fatigue), out-of-sorts (cynicism), and out-of-spoons (feelings of inefficacy).

There’s a tendency to think that burnout comes out of nowhere, but it worsens over time. With practice you can learn to spot the warning signs and then slow your pace just enough to rest, recuperate, and return to your coping skills.

If you’re feeling like you’re in the throes of gender transition burnout, know that you’re not alone and most of us have gone through unsettling times. Seeking support through friends, partnerships, or chosen family who get what you’re going through can be what you need to help reconnect with what’s important.

Toot toot! Not to toot my own horn too much here, but experiential therapy may help. Working together with you, your supports and you may find help through experiential therapy, meaningful conversations, and community care.

Burnout is hard and can leave you feeling unlike yourself. With the right tools and support, you can prevent yourself from falling into one hell of a deep well.

If this sounds like something you’ve experienced, I want you to know that there is help. Consider my resources to help you connect with trans* and queer peer supports. In my next blog, Next week, I’ll write about how gender transition burnout may temporarily change key areas of the brain.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre runs a group practice of three queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.

Related Posts