The pressures and expectations placed upon us as individuals are at an all time high, living amidst a global pandemic that has increased economic, social and health instabilities in the population is demanding and stress inducing. Collectively we have faced many of the same stressors; financial insecurity, health anxiety, job instability, increased demands from family and children, homeschooling, furloughs etc. Yet, the protective measures in place for covid-19 are also making it more difficult to engage in the activities that would normally help to manage our stress. As we become increasingly socially distant and isolated we are replacing real connections with internet networks, leading to a drastic rise in emotional symptoms such as depression and anxiety. The dissonance between increased pressure and feeling exhausted at the constant uphill struggle is taking its toll and is leading to burnout at a societal level.
A UK study conducted in April 2020 found that the overall mental health of the population had deteriorated significantly compared to pre Covid-19, just one month in to the first lockdown. For some groups such as women with small children, young people and those with pre-existing mental health concerns the spike was even more alarming. That one year later we are under many of the same conditions that lead to this increase is cause for serious concern.
Christine Maslach is a predominant researcher on the phenomenon of burnout and one of the lead psychologists behind the Burnout Inventory, an assessment tool that helps identify those at risk. She defines burnout as “a natural reaction to a situation that has become intolerable to the person experiencing it”, it is not a mental disorder but may be a contributing factor for serious emotional upset if the signs are not recognised and left unmanaged. The Burnout Inventory identifies three major contributing factors to the experience of burnout; overwhelming feelings of emotional exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment and a feeling of lack of accomplishment. Emily Nagoski, co-author of Burnout: The Secret to unlocking the Stress Cycle adds that poor sleep is a good indicator of being burned out, she recommends that anyone who is either having trouble getting 7-9 hours sleep or is sleeping 7-9 hours yet still feels tired during the day should check themselves out. Other signs include over-thinking, irritability, numbing with distraction (think scrolling through social media) and general discomfort in your body.
Is it stress or burnout?
When we feel stressed we are more likely to be over-reactive, have feelings of anxiety and have ruminating thoughts about the stressors.
In burnout however, the prolonged experience of stress leads to feeling hopeless and lacking motivation, possible disengagement from activities and blunted emotions.
The Stress Cycle
To understand burnout better, we must first talk about stress. The experience of stress is entirely necessary and essential to our survival, it takes place not only in the brain and the mind but also in the body. Stress is our survival response, it engages to protect us from perceived threats and dangers. The stress cycle begins with the brains response to a perceived threat, this could be anything from facing a wild animal to a stack of unpaid bills. The threat may be an immediate danger to our survival (like being chased by a wild animal) or may trigger the need to protect our emotional well-being. For example we might feel stress at the thought of taking an exam or attending a job interview, this type of threat is not an immediate danger to our life but we may still experience stress from fear of failure, being rejected or embarrassed, experiences we also wish to protect ourselves from.
When the brain perceives a threat, it triggers a response in the nervous system, preparing the body to either fight (as in face the threat head on) or flight (as in run away as fast you can!). A number of neurotransmitters are then released, muscles engage, heart pumps faster, breath quickens and we feel the physical experience of stress. This can be useful, we definitely need the extra adrenaline if we are to out run the lion! Where it stops being useful and moves in to harmful however is when the stress gets stuck.
The activation of the nervous system in response to threat helps us to survive and manage the stressors that we need to overcome in everyday life, yet we are not meant to withstand extended periods of stress. The body needs time to rest and recover. For many of us however, we have seen an increase in daily stressors combined with a reduction in opportunities for recovery and this is proving detrimental to both our physical and emotional health. The physical complications of prolonged stress are well documented and increasingly accepted - we know that heart disease for example is strongly connected to stress. The emotional complications however are perhaps less reported, but are equally detrimental to health. Burnout and depression are the emotional symptoms of prolonged stress with insufficient rest and recovery time.
We know that avoidance of stress is not only near impossible, but also counter productive. Unfortunately avoidance of our stressors does not make them go away, and some stressors are exceedingly difficult to distract from. Moving in to action however, can help to keep stress at a manageable level. Dealing with our stressors is one significant way to reduce the possibility of burnout, but perhaps more important is to complete the cycle. In times where stressors seem to be continuous, it is imperative that we not only face the stress but also recognise and recover from the experience of stress. When stress gets stuck, that can lead to burnout.
How to complete the cycle
1. Physical Exercise/Activity - exercise is a natural mood enhancer and helps to release the stress held in the body. The type of activity you choose must be one that you enjoy. Don’t force yourself to start running if its not for you, a gentle stroll around the block can be just as beneficial to your well-being. Singing, painting, dancing and jumping also work!
2. Mindful Breathing - a few moments of focused breathing sends a clear message to the nervous system of safety and triggers the relaxation response.
3. Social Connection - humans thrive better together, meaningful connections with others improves emotional and physical health. This is more important than ever, if you are spending more time alone, or are distanced from the people you live with - try and find ways to connect for at least a few minutes each day.
4. Affection - physical touch, hugs and kissing are a great way to reassure the body in to a feeling of safety. This can come from your partner, your children, a friend or a pet.
5. Manage your frustrations - try planning and problem solving for the stressors you can manage, and reappraisal for those you can’t. A problem can seems less daunting when its broken down in to manageable tasks and tackled methodically. Some things are beyond our control however, for those, we can try to practice acceptance and positive reappraisal. This does not mean we gloss over the stressor and ignore how it makes us feel, but taking the information and making it meaningful.
6. Self-Care - active rest is probably the best defence against burnout, it is important to give time for yourself to rest and recover. This may mean putting up boundaries and saying no sometimes, it’s not selfish - it’s necessary.
7. Add Meaning - feeling as though you are working towards something of value, and a sense of accomplishment will help counter balance exhaustion and frustration. This may be working towards career goals, supporting the community, learning a new skill or helping a friend for example.
8. Talk to Someone - if you’re struggling with any of the issues raised in the article and completing the cycle seems difficult to achieve, then it can really help to talk to a trained professional.