The story of my burnout + a guide to help you manage your biggest enemy in the 21st century — stress.
I lie in bed, half awake, shoulders and neck muscles already tense, my jaw clenched. I feel exhausted, and I haven’t even rolled out of bed yet. As I go through the motions of starting my day, the only thing I want to do is to curl up in fetal position, pull the covers over my head, and sleep the sleep of the dead. But my sleep has been restless and sporadic, besides which I still have a job to go to and bills to pay, so I put one foot dutifully in front of the other and soldier on, feeling like the walking dead.
Emotions numb. Checked out. Generally irritable and cranky, though I manage to push those emotions down and function for 8 hours, as I wait for the work day to end so I can come back home and crash on the couch, or pull my weary body into the studio and move some paint around. It’s the only thing that can still, for a brief period, pull me out of this deep funk I’ve fallen into. Painting. And the cats.
Signs of burnout
It took me a while to realize it, but I was experiencing the classic signs of burnout:
- Having trouble getting started at work or feeling like you have to drag yourself to the office – check
- Feeling impatient or irritable with coworkers – check
- Feeling tired – check
- Finding it hard to concentrate – check
- Not feeling satisfied by achievements – check
- Feeling disillusioned about your job – check
- Having trouble sleeping – check
- Lowered immunity and more frequent sick days – check
- Stiff neck and sore back – check
What causes burnout
What I didn’t quite understand is why I was experiencing a burnout. Sure, I have a fairly stressful job; weeks when I work pretty much non-stop from 9 to 5, barely even looking up from my computer screen; and don’t get me started on the stress of commuting to work in Delhi traffic. But I do have a few days most months when things on the work front are light. I have my art practice and my cats. My writing and a fairly peaceful home life. I thought I had a semblance of balance.
But, it turns out, I didn’t. Not really.
At work, I alternated between feeling overworked and overwhelmed and under worked and underchallenged. When I’m overworked, which is for most part of the month, I’m constantly racing against the clock to meet deadlines. When I’m under worked, the 8 hours trapped in an office cubicle feel like 8 years. And while my art practice does ground me, I had also spread myself pretty thin, what with my blogging related and other commitments.
As I felt increasingly physically and mentally unwell, and as coping with everyday life became more of a chore, I knew something had to change.
Coping with burnout
The question of what to change was answered for me when the pandemic hit and we went into lockdown. The shift to working from home took away some of my stressors — the horrendous Delhi traffic and not knowing how to pass the hours during the few days of downtime I had took care of themselves. I was still overworked and stressed for a better part of the month, but the relative lack of distractions at home helped me improve my efficiency, and taking breaks to play with the cats helped to calm my nerves.
It turns out that the lockdown and remote working helped me deal with my stress and with some of the things that caused my stress. As Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski write in Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle:
Stressors are what activate the stress response in your body. They can be anything you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or imagine could do you harm. There are external stressors: work, money, family, time, cultural norms and expectations, experiences of discrimination, and so on. And there are less tangible, internal stressors: self-criticism, body image, identity, memories, and The Future. Stress is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter one of these threats.
The key to dealing with burnout, according to the Nagoski sisters, is to complete the stress cycle. Regular breaks for cat cuddles, walks every morning and evening, and quality time with my husband were some of the things that helped me complete the stress cycle. Not being stuck in a cubicle for 8 hours on relatively easy days and not having to commute to work were some of the stressors that simply melted away.
These two things — seeing if you can alleviate some of your stressors and, more importantly, completing the stress cycle, are the key things that can help you cope with burnout.
What does it mean to complete the stress cycle: Understanding the body’s fight-or-flight response
Before we get into these strategies in more detail, a quick note on what it means to complete the stress cycle. When you’re stressed, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. It pumps out a cocktail of hormones, including adrenaline, essentially increasing your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. The fight-or-flight response is what gives you “superhuman strength” in the face of danger, or increased stamina when you need to run from a predator.
The fight-or-flight response is triggered when you face an imminent physical threat (coming face to face with an angry dog during your morning jog) or a psychological threat (which accounts for most of our modern day stressors — an angry boss, public speaking, irate clients, etc.)
When the threat has passed, it takes it takes between 20 and 60 minutes for your body to return to its pre-arousal levels. This generally happens automatically in the case of a physical threat, but is more tricky when you face a psychological threat.
“In evolution, the stress response was designed to help us survive, but that’s not always how it plays out in today’s world. Our fight or flight response can now be activated from psychological or mental stress. For example, some individuals can activate it just thinking about work tomorrow.”DR. CAROLYN FISHER, PSYCHOLOGIST
Added to that, your fight-or-flight response could be triggered multiple times a day due to the many stressors (traffic, work, a big presentation at work) that you face every day. As a result, your body could be in a prolonged state of fight-or-flight, which is what leads to things like burnout and adrenal fatigue.
The counterpart to the fight-or-flight response is the relaxation response, which is triggered when your body recognizes that it is out of danger. This is when your body can relax, bringing your blood pressure, heart rate, digestive functioning, and hormonal levels back to normal levels.
That’s where these strategies to complete the stress cycle come in. These strategies can be used to send a signal to your brain, letting it know that you are out of danger, so that it can trigger your body’s relaxation response.
Six strategies to complete the stress cycle
Here are six evidence-based strategies from Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle that can help you complete the stress cycle:
- Physical activity
- Positive social interaction
- Creative expression
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Strategy #1: Physical activity
Physical activity is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live. Physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle. [It is] your first line of attack in the battle against burnout.
Put on your favorite music and dance around your living room or take a Zumba class, or do anything that gets you moving your body enough to get you breathing deeply. “Even just standing up from your chair, taking a deep breath, and tensing all your muscles for twenty seconds, then shaking it out with a big exhale, is an excellent start.” Ideally, you need between 20 and 60 minutes of physical activity most days. After all, as the Nagoski sisters point out, “you experience stress most days, so you should complete the stress response cycle most days, too.”
In my case, evening walks provided a balm to my frazzled nerves. The dramatic skyscape, especially during the lockdown, and watching the flight of the birds filled my heart with wonder and awe and a feeling of things being right in the natural world.
Strategy #2: Breathing
Deep, slow breaths downregulate the stress response—especially when the exhalation is long and slow and goes all the way to the end of the breath, so that your belly contracts.
But keep in mind that breathing is most effective when your stress levels aren’t too high. “A simple, practical exercise is to breathe in to a slow count of five, hold that breath for five, then exhale for a slow count of ten, and pause for another count of five. Do that three times—just one minute and fifteen seconds of breathing—and see how you feel,” suggest the Nagoski sisters.
Strategy #3: Positive Social Interaction
Casual but friendly social interaction is the first external sign that the world is a safe place.
Makes sense, right? Simply wishing the barista a “nice day”, complimenting a co-workers outfit, or smiling at strangers as you pass by can reassure your brain that the world is a safe, sane place. That’s probably also explains why you almost always feel better after spending quality time with friends, partners and loved ones.
Strategy #4: Laughter
Laughing together—and even just reminiscing about the times we’ve laughed together—increases relationship satisfaction. We don’t mean social or “posed” laughter, we mean belly laughs—deep, impolite, helpless laughter.
According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter helps to increase the endorphins that are released by your brain, as it enhances the intake of oxygen-rich air, and stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles. It can also stimulate circulation and help with muscle relaxation, which can help to reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress. And these are just the short-term benefits. In the longer term, laughter can help improve your immune system, relieve pain, increase personal satisfaction, and improve your mood.
Strategy #5: Affection
When friendly chitchat with colleagues doesn’t cut it, when you’re too stressed out for laughter, deeper connection with a loving presence is called for. Most often, this comes from some loving and beloved person who likes, respects, and trusts you, whom you like, respect, and trust. It doesn’t have to be physical affection, though physical affection is great.
Hug someone you love and trust — research suggests that “a twenty-second hug can change your hormones, lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and improve mood”. Even petting your cat (or dog) for a few minutes can lower your blood pressure, as this cat owner can attest. In fact, many pet owners find that their attachment to their pets is much more supportive than their human relationships.
Strategy #6: Creative Expression
Engaging in creative activities today leads to more energy, excitement, and enthusiasm tomorrow.
And I sure can attest to that! With a caveat: if you’re feeling burned out, engage in a creative activity just for yourself. Don’t think about sharing it to social media or let thoughts of monetization come in the way. And if you wonder what the point of creative activity is, remember that “Like sports, the arts—including painting, sculpture, music, theater, and storytelling in all forms—create a context that tolerates, even encourages, big emotions.”
As the Nagoski sisters write:
Writers and painters and creators of all kinds have said the same thing one Nashville songwriter told us: “Looking back at my very first songs, it’s completely obvious that I was dealing with my past, and trying to process my trauma history into something meaningful. At the time, I was completely in denial—I didn’t even know I had pain. But writing songs helped me feel what my mind had hidden from me. My songs were a safe place to put what I couldn’t deal with otherwise.
Long-term impact of stress related exhaustion & burnout
As you may have surmised, my burnout story isn’t too old. Looking back, I had started to feel the impact of stress as early as in 2107/2018. By the end of 2019/beginning of 2020, I was severely burnt out, but I kept on pushing forward anyway. Were it not for the pandemic, I’m not sure if I would have been able to continue working. In many ways, the pandemic saved my life, and my sanity.
And no, that isn’t an overly dramatic statement. There are long-term consequences to burnout. According to one long-term study, only 16% of patients who were treated for stress-related exhaustion disorder reported that they were fully recovered seven years later, though 59% reported that they were much better or better (21%). The most commonly reported residual symptom among study participants was reduced stress tolerance, though many patients also reported problems with concentration and memory and sleep disturbances.
As for me, I’ve noticed a considerable improvement in my symptoms. How much of that is due to the fact that I’ve been working from home since March 2020, I will only know once we return to office, which is slated for some time this year. The saving grace is that we will now follow a hybrid work model, which should help ameliorate some of my work-related stressors. That, at least, is the hope.
Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski
Some unusual signs of burnout from Everyday Health
Preventing burnout + tips for dealing with burnout from Everyday Health
Relaxation response to reverse stress from Very Well Mind
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This post is part of Blogchatter’s CauseAChatter.