Burnout: When you Have Nothing Else to Give

Lindsay Recknell Workplace Mental Health Leave a Comment

I realized I’d lost my hope the day I recognized I got it back.

Totally innocuous moment – driving along, thinking of nothing important – when I sat up a little taller…and immediately slouched back down. Waves of emotion were rolling over me, from pride and relief, to fear and disappointment. I mean, I’m a reasonably self-aware person…how did I not recognize I’d lost my hope for the future?

To this point, I’d been basically functioning. Going to work, cooking (most!) meals, putting on pants, but it was this moment that I’d recognized that I was just going through the motions – that I’d stopped reaching for my goals, that I’d stopped really caring about my career and went from thriving to merely surviving. I was burnt out and hitting the proverbial bottom was the moment I’d realized it.

Burnout is a hot topic right now with 77% of survey respondents in a recent Deloitte marketplace survey saying they’ve experienced burnout at their current job, with more than half citing more than one occurrence. More than prolonged stress, burnout is characterized by moving from feeling like it’s all too much – too much work to do, too many expectations, too many deadlines – through to feeling like you don’t have enough – time, energy, motivation – to get it all done and by now you don’t even care.

When you feel like you don’t have any more cares to give, that’s a good sign you’ve crossed from simply stressed out into burnout.

 The Stress Cycle

In a recent episode of her Unlocking Us podcast, Brene Brown interviews Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski, authors of a new book called Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. A truly informative, entertaining and fascinating episode, they introduced me to a concept I wasn’t aware of before – the Stress Cycle. You can think about it like this – stressors in life cause you stress and once you’re feeling stressed, you do something to feel less stressed which closes the Stress Cycle. Just removing the stressor isn’t enough – when you finish that big project or pay off that debt or even break out of your bad relationship – unless you complete the Stress Cycle by doing something to actually reduce the feelings of stress in your life, you won’t feel less stressed. Stress is a chemical reaction in your body and you need to actually take action to change the chemical reaction from negative to positive.

Five Most Effective Ways to Stop the Stress Cycle

A stressful part of feeling stressed is the time it takes to feel less stressed. How’s that for irony? But like the best things in life, when we prioritize completing the Stress Cycle, we can feel immediate positive impacts and the effects of prolonged stress can be reversed before we go into full blown burnout. In my personal experience, here are the five most effective ways to stop the Stress Cycle and come back from the edge of burnout.

1)      Move your body

Seems so cliched and overdone but like the best cliches, this one is also true. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, wash your dishes by hand instead of using the dishwasher, do a few stretches in your office. Honestly, any moment at all, no matter how quick or small, will have a positive impact by bumping up the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins.

2)      Set Boundaries

Boundaries are our limits of what we will and will not do. Identify what your personal boundaries are and then communicate them to others. This is probably the hardest part – the people most likely to be upset by any boundaries you communicate are those that are crossing your boundaries. Boundary crossing is a stressor in your life and you know now that stressors are what cause chemical stress so remove the stressor before burnout occurs.

3)      Get Creative

There’s a reason art therapy works. It’s a physical representation of your internal stressors and a really great way to purge negativity from your body and leave it all on the proverbial dance floor, paint canvas or concert hall. By communicating through creative expression, you foster self-awareness, boost self-esteem, and connect with others, all positive ways to close the Stress Cycle.

4)      Hug – for a long time

Physical touch has long been used as a method to reduce stress in premature babies so why wouldn’t it also work for us as adults? There is a lot of research out there to support the effectiveness of this kind of positive physical contact and as Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski explain on Brown’s podcast, “the research suggests that a 20 second hug can change your hormones, lower your blood pressure and heart rate and improve mood, all of which are reflected in the post hug increase in the social bonding hormone, oxytocin.”

5)      Laugh your butt off

Have you heard of Laughter Yoga? I thought it was fake until I learned of Dr. Madan Kataria, a family physician from India who modernized the teachings of earlier laughter pioneers from the 1960s. Dr. Kataria suggests that laughter promises to reduce feelings of stress, boost immunity, fight depression and leads to more positive thinking. In Laughter Yoga, you start with fake laughing until you feel so ridiculous that the laughter becomes real and the magic within your body starts to happen. It’s this kind of mouth-hanging-open, uncontrolled, belly-shaking laughter than can take you through the end of the Stress Cycle and change your stress chemicals from negative to positive.

Before my ah-ha moment when I realized I’d gotten my hope back, I didn’t realize how far into burnout I’d fallen due to the prolonged stress I’d been carrying around in my body. Even as the various stressors had been removed from my life, I realize now that I hadn’t really done anything to intentionally complete the Stress Cycle and reverse the negative chemical reaction in my body. Burnout is your body’s physical response to the impact of stressors in your life and it’s empowering to recognize that while the stressors themselves feel uncontrollable, I can take control over completing my Stress Cycle and take action to start to feel better. Takes work, and intention, and a change of priority but you too can implement any of these five ways to complete your own Stress Cycle and come back from the edge of burnout.

(Originally published in SIM Women Colorado’s monthly newsletter. Learn more about this incredible organization for women in technology here!)

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