I was irritated. More than irritated, I was ready to pounce at the next person who asked me a question, about anything. I was mentally and physically exhausted from putting in hour after hour at work, only to turn around and put in hour after hour at home, and I was over it. I was over my boss, over my hard work going unrecognized, over bearing the weight of the invisible mental load of motherhood and oh-so-over being told I was being too emotional about it all. In other words, I was suffering from BURNOUT.
ICYMI, “Burnout” is now an official medical diagnosis, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). No, we’re not talking about just being stressed out. WHO classifies burnout as a condition caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
Yup, I had it all. Check, check aaaaand check.
Thankfully I stumbled upon Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. and Amelia Nagoski, DMA. It opened my eyes to the science and reality of burnout and how to take care of myself by managing stress.
According to the Nagoski sisters, burnout is caused by chronic stress, not stressors. But what’s the difference? Stressors are external: to-do lists, bosses, all the challenges life throws our way. Stress is the neurological and physiological response your body has when you feel like you’re in danger (from a stressor).
For instance: Your boss called you out on missing a deadline at work. The stressor is your boss calling you out. The stress is the guilt, shame or embarrassment you felt from being called out.
The stress cycle begins when a stressor triggers our “flight or fight” response. It is literally our SURVIVAL mode. Think about it:
FLIGHT: If you were being chased by a lion, you would run to a safe place. Once you are safe, your body would relax.
FIGHT: If you were being attacked by a bear, but you were pretty sure you could fight it off and win, your body would gear up to attack. Once you had won and the danger was gone, your body would relax.
When you’ve finally reached safety and your body relaxes, the stress cycle is complete.
But what happens when the perceived threat is insurmountable? You’ll never outrun it and you’re not strong enough to fight it… so, you FREEZE.
And this, my friends, is where burnout happens. When we are stuck in a constant, never-ending state of stress, our bodies literally shut down and play dead in order to survive.
So is it possible to prevent burnout?
In order to fix or prevent burnout, we have to complete the stress cycle. That means, dealing with not only the stressor but the actual stress itself. If we hold our feelings in, power through the hard days, but never deal with the stress of the situation, then we keep the stress cycle open and ongoing, instead of closing it and allowing our bodies to relax.
Here are 7 ways to complete the stress cycle and prevent burnout:
- Physical Activity – In any and every form, physical activity is your BEST strategy to complete the stress cycle. You know the drill, 30 minutes a day. It can be anything that gets your body moving: running, swimming, dancing, kickboxing, etc.
- Controlled Breathing – Deep, slow breaths help regulate your body’s stress response. Try slowly breathing in for a count of 5, holding that breath for 5, then exhaling for a count of 10.
- Socialize – Casual, friendly interactions help signal to your body that you’re safe and that not everyone is crazy and that everything will be okay. Sigh.
- Laugh – Laughter is quite literally the best medicine! When’s the last time you laughed so hard your abs and cheeks hurt? Laughter like that can help shift your mood and increase relationship satisfaction.
- Affection – Finding a deeper connection with someone you love and trust is paramount. A hug or kiss is known to release a mix of the “feel good” chemicals: serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Yes, please!
- Cry – Have you noticed how you seem to feel better after a good cry, even if nothing about the situation has changed? That’s because crying is actually dealing with the stress you are feeling.
- Be Creative – Allowing yourself to channel stress into art is a great way to complete the cycle. Any kind of creative activity will encourage you to freely express yourself and work through some of those big emotions.
You’ll be surprised at how implementing just one of these methods every day will change the way you manage your daily stress and prevent burnout from happening!
It didn’t happen overnight, but over time I was able to deal with the overwhelming amount of stress I was under. After a lot of introspection (coupled with a cry-sesh here and there), I realized that I had stopped taking care of my well being under the weight of the responsibility of taking care of all the other people in my life. So not only did I start making time for yoga, an exercise that I truly enjoyed, I also started a book club with my close friends to give me an excuse and motivation to read more and get together with good company on a monthly basis. Honestly, it took a lot of effort to change how I managed my stress, but changing my stress changed my entire life.
For more resources, see our Self-Care page here.
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