Burnout can creep up and surprise you with all-out physical, emotional and mental exhaustion long before you admit that combining remote work, home schooling and aggressive holiday plans will require a small army. A 2020 Mental Health America study found that 75% of workers have recently experienced burnout, with 40% relating it to the pandemic. Learning the warning signs of burnout and neuroscience strategies to address them can help relieve exhaustion, boost resilience and increase wellbeing. There is no time like the present.
There is stress, and then there is excessive, unrelenting stress that can lead to the extreme emotional, mental and physical exhaustion we know as burnout. Women often possess more of the risk factors for burnout and need to know the tell-tale signs that they are overwhelmed.
“Burnout is stealthy, and we don’t always recognize our exhaustion as something that needs to be addressed and mitigated,” says Dorsey Standish, Chief Mindfulness Officer of Mastermind
, a Dallas-based organization that provides research-driven approaches to help individuals and organizations foster mental wellbeing and emotional intelligence.
“Even when we feel burned out, we may also have this sense of shame, especially if we identify as givers,” Standish adds. “If we don’t have anything left to give, we feel our value is diminished. Or that we must be doing something wrong.”
Give ‘till it hurts
Women, in particular, are often expected to be human givers
rather than human beings, according to the authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle
by Amelia and Emily Nagoski. That can lead to an energy imbalance where women are the givers in multiple life roles without adequate ways to replenish.
“In any position where you are constantly asked to deal with other people and their emotions, you need to balance that with a lot of self-care and processing of your own emotions,” Standish cautions.
Frog in hot water
One way chronic stress becomes so dangerous is that we become accustomed to it. “Living through a pandemic, caring for elderly parents, homeschooling kids and adjusting to extreme work disruptions can create a new normal in our bodies where we forget what it feels like not to be stressed,” Standish says.
Ongoing stress is tied to numerous negative outcomes, according to researcher and psychologist Herbert Freundenberger, one of the first practitioners to describe the symptoms of burnout and a significant contributor to the understanding and treatment of stress and chronic fatigue. He identified three key characteristics of burnout.
- Emotional exhaustion that may lead to poor health consequences, especially among women.
- A depletion of caring where you can no longer empathize with the suffering of others, and may also feel guilty for those feelings.
- Decreased sense of accomplishment, feelings of hopelessness and a desire to give up.
“Many of us respond to those warning signs by being hard on ourselves,” Standish cautions. “But really, those are red flags that we need to be more compassionate and caring toward ourselves.”
Another warning sign of excessive stress can be working harder and longer hours and getting less done. Standish suggests looking at stress like a physical injury. You may be tempted to keep powering through, but you are ultimately making your recovery take longer. She encourages people working 12- and 16-hour days to keep a journal to see what they are actually getting done in that time.
Research shows we need to spend about 42% of our time resting. For most people, that means eight hours of quality sleep and two hours of restful leisure activity. Standish advises aiming for that general balance and then choosing an approach that works best for you. That might mean closing the laptop for good at six in the evening. Or creating “sacred” times where you do not work or check email. “All that time checking back in on email pollutes our downtime,” she says. “People who are more resilient have cleaner dividing lines between work and home.”
Complete the stress cycle
A major tool for combating stress is to perform what the authors of Burnout
call completing the stress cycle. Your body will reset itself to calm when it receives a signal that the danger has passed and you have outrun the proverbial tiger. The problem comes when we never provide that signal and unresolved stress remains in the body.
“You need to process the stress,” Standish says. “Too often, it’s like we get stuck in the middle of a tunnel. You have to get all the way through it and feel those emotions to get to the light at the end.” Here are seven critical ways to complete the stress cycle.
- Exercise and moving your body enough to breathe deeply is the most efficient way to complete the stress cycle.
- Slow and deep breathing with extended exhales siphons off emergent stress.
- Social connection via casual and friendly interaction signals the world is safe.
- Deep belly laughs, or even reminiscing about a time you’ve laughed, helps.
- Showing affection with humans and/or animals.
- Allowing yourself to cry, even by watching a sad movie.
- Creative expression encourages big emotions and will leave you feeling more energetic and enthusiastic.
Another great antidote to burnout is focusing on meaning and purpose, or what Standish describes as the light you are moving toward. “Women who feel overwhelmed often share this image of slogging through mud. They feel stuck in stress and anxiety. But our greatest power as human beings is the ability to choose where we focus our attention. By focusing on your end goal, you can see the light you are moving toward.”
Even as we approach the winter solstice, let there be light!