Updated: Jun 3, 2022
Have you ever had one of those seasons where you felt like you just hit a brick wall?
Some time ago, I got on a call with one of my clients and noticed an immediate difference in her demeanor. She had always come to calls with a smile on her face and very positive and eager to get to work. But on this particular day there was no smile, and even her posture told me there was something weighing heavily on her. Her speech was slow and flat, like the energy had been sucked out of her.
When I checked in with her, she stated that she’d had a number of rough days and that she felt like she had hit a brick wall. She felt physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. Her question to me was, ‘I think I am burnt out. How do I know and how can I get ahead of it?’
Fast forward a number of months and I am happy to report that this client DID bounce back and is practicing a few key habits to get ahead of it and stay out of it.
In this week’s blog:
What are the signs of burnout
Why we need to complete the stress cycle
Evidence based strategies to complete the stress cycle and prevent burnout
So what are the signs of burnout and how do you get ahead of it?
Emily and Amelia Nagoski in their book, Burnout, write that emotional exhaustion happens after you’ve spent too much time caring too much.
You know that feeling when you’re completely exhausted yet there’s that voice in the back of your mind saying you haven’t done enough?
I hear this all too often from women, especially those in the helping professions and who parent.
When it feels like you’re constantly trying to meet your own demands and expectations and those of your job, your family and your friends, it’s often a slippery slope that takes you from tired to stressed and anxious to emotional exhaustion.
Herbert Freudenberger’s 1975 clinical definition of burnout includes three components:
Decreased sense of accomplishment
Emotional exhaustion goes beyond tiredness and fatigue. You may feel drained, unable to cope and lack energy. Depersonalization means your capacity for compassion and empathy dwindle, it’s as if your well of caring has dried up. Add in a feeling of ‘nothing I do matters’ and you have a decreased sense of accomplishment.
How does one exhaust emotions, you ask? Well, it happens when we get emotionally stuck.
The Nagoski sisters explain the emotional experience to be like a tunnel. When you experience the same emotions day in and day out, day after day, there is no satisfactory ending to that feeling and it is like being stuck in an emotional tunnel with no relief.
It’s no wonder that people in jobs or roles that require helping and caring report high levels of burnout (52% of the medical profession). And it may come as no surprise that parental burnout is a fast growing phenomenon. Add in being part of a sandwich generation of caring for aging parents while parenting and grandparenting - that’s a recipe for burnout if you aren’t intentional about preventing it.
Why We Need to Complete the Stress Cycle
There is a very scientific reason why stress tends to get stuck in our bodies and why, if left unchecked, it can be dangerous to our health.
Stress is a neurological and physiological response triggered by a real or perceived threat (our bodies react the same whether the trigger is real or imagined!). The neurological and hormonal responses to this threat are designed to help us do one thing: run for safety!
When our stress-response system evolved, we needed to run for our lives to actually protect ourselves from being killed by real threats like wild animals. The stress response cycle starts by releasing a hormone called epinephrine which causes your blood pressure and heart rate to go up, and your breathing to quicken, all to pump blood into your muscles to allow you to run. And to make sure you can run as fast as you can to save your life, other body functions like digestion, reproduction, immunity and growth are all slowed.
So, as you can imagine, if the stress and threat of danger never end, your body will end up with chronic high blood pressure and a corresponding higher risk of heart disease. And due to compromised immune and digestive systems, your body won’t heal as quickly and you could be at a higher risk of a number of chronic diseases.
You’ve likely heard of fight, flight or freeze. These are the actual physical responses that we have in response to stressors and threats. When we fight or flight (run), it allows our body to naturally close the stress cycle as it burns up the epinephrine and allows the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in when we safely and breathlessly get back to safety and celebrate another day of survival. But when we freeze, your body can get stuck in the stress cycle.
The take-away? You need to close the stress cycle as often as possible.
As you can see, completing the stress cycle helps prevent physical, mental and emotional dysfunction.
Completing the stress cycle also promotes vitality. (For more on vitality boosters and vampires, read here.)
And you’ve likely guessed already, physical activity, especially the kind that gets your heart rate up and your limbs moving, will help to complete the stress cycle. In fact, it’s the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle.
What happens when you can’t exercise?
Don’t fret, there are a number of other ways to complete the cycle.
7 Evidence-Based Strategies to Complete the Stress Cycle:
1. Physical Exercise - This includes the kind that gets your heart pumping and your limbs flapping such as brisk walking, running, swimming or dancing - anything that gets you breathing deeply. How long is long enough? Between 20-60 minutes a day on most days of the week is effective for most folks. New to this kind of exercise? Start with one minute and build your way up. It doesn’t have to all be done in one block - chunk it throughout your day. After all, you likely experience some sort of stress at different times of the day.
2. Deep Breathing - Deep, slow breathing helps down-regulate the nervous system and the stress response. This strategy is most effective when your stress isn’t that high, or when you need to just ‘take the edge off’ until you can do something more effective. You can try the Breath of Joy (check out the video and blog here) or try box breathing. For box breathing, inhale for a count of four, hold that breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of four and hold for a count of four. Repeat 4 times. Try it and notice how you feel.
3. Positive Social Interaction - When we can engage in casual, friendly social interaction, it is a sign that the world is a safe place. It doesn’t have to be complicated, simply smiling and saying thank-you to the barista reassures your brain that the world is safe.
4. Laughter - Laughing together, not just polite laughter, but the big, deep, belly laughing kind of laughter helps maintain social bonds and regulate emotions. So go ahead and cue up the funny Tiktok videos to complete the stress response.
5. Physical Affection - When you’re too stressed out for laughter, deeper connection with a trusted loved one is indicated. John and Julie Gottman advise couples to hug for 20 seconds or kiss for 6 seconds. When you hug or kiss for this length of time, it teaches your body that you are safe and with the people you love. An added bonus of the 20 second hug is that it helps to decrease blood pressure and heart rate and improve mood.
And better yet, the benefits of physical affection don’t stop with other humans. Petting your cat, dog or other furry friend is just as beneficial. No wonder that people that walk their dogs get more exercise and feel better than people who don’t!
6. Crying - There is a difference between dealing with stress and dealing with the situation that causes stress. If you’ve ever experienced making it to a safe place to let it all out with a big cry, you’ve likely also experienced a huge relief and letting go. Although it doesn’t change the situation, it does help release the stress. Anything from a big ol’ cry to watching an episode of This is Us helps to complete the stress cycle. Yes, tear jerker shows count!
7. Creative Expression - Art and creative forms of expression such as painting, singing, storytelling and writing are safe forms of processing difficult situations and creating meaning. Carrie Fisher’s quote, ‘Take your broken heart and turn it into art’ sums it up beautifully.
All of these strategies, while different, have one thing in common: they require doing something. Completing the stress cycle isn’t an intellectual decision, it is a physiological shift. Simply telling yourself you are okay is not enough.
How do you know you’ve completed the cycle?
Your body tells you.
You notice a shift. Your breathing may be more deep, your thoughts quiet, and your body lets go of tension.
Putting It Into Practice
Now, here’s the thing. If you’ve been accumulating stress for months, years, decades, doing one of these practices once, isn’t going to go the distance. It’s going to take practice, experimentation and consistency.
Try them on. See how they feel. What works, what doesn’t? Be patient and gentle with yourself while you find what works best for you in various situations.
And when you do find some success, come back and share it with us.
Have you experienced burnout? What signs did you experience? How does your body tell you when you are approaching burnout? How does your body tell you when you are cultivating vitality?
Curious how personal coaching can help you create space for vitality and prevent burnout? Book a free call to find out?
Nagoski, Amelia, Nagoski, Emily, 2019, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Ballantine Books, New York.
Disclaimer: All content and advice on this website/blog is for informational and educational purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. Although I strive to provide accurate general information, the information provided here is not a substitute for any kind of professional advice and you should not rely solely on this information. Always consult a medical professional or healthcare provider in the area of your particular needs and circumstances prior to making any medical or healthcare decisions.