Whoa, baby. These are some hard days. Conflicts, health threats, economic uncertainty, racism. As a nation, we may be inching toward a post-pandemic phase, but life “in the now” still feels impossibly heavy for many.
Are we simply drained or have we slipped into a more dangerous, toxic, stressed-out state?
Stress: A Rainbow of Responses
The stress-response is a complex process of changes our bodies undergo to boost our chances of survival when facing a concrete threat (a charging grizzly) or an anticipated threat (a thug lurking on the subway platform). It’s marked by an uptick in cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones, an elevated heart rate, shallow breathing and temporary, intensified focus–all for the purpose of prepping you to evade or fight off the threat.
Other body functions—digestion, reproductive and interestingly, memory and critical thinking – are slowed in the moment of fight or flight to allow our energy and focus to be purely dedicated to survival.
When the threat passes—we outrun the bear, the thug decides we’re not worth the bother—our bodies recalibrate and return to a state of homeostasis. Our heart rate returns to normal, our breathing slows, our blood pressure drops. We can relax.
However, when stress becomes chronic and we’re living in an elevated, aroused state for days or weeks rather than minutes or hours, this is not healthy. Research into chronic stress has revealed how seriously it taxes our bodies and can damage our health.
Chronic stress even impacts our brains. Over time, chronic stress:
- Causes the hippocampus to shrink, leading to memory processing and problem-solving issues, difficulty focusing and maintaining drive.
- Leads our brain to amplify our reaction to possible (if unlikely) threats around us. This results in greater attention paid to negative events and outcomes. We may see signs of loss and fear more readily and over-react in response to them.
- Can fuel depression, obsessive worrying, anger and a sense of hopelessness and overwhelm.
Beyond Stressed? Signs & Symptoms
Are you feeling angry or frustrated more often with loved ones? Sharp responses come easily. Formerly minor irritants seem to shred your nerves and send you spinning.
Are you procrastinating on critical tasks? Waiting to pay bills, delaying following-up with that difficult coworker or putting an important work project off to the side? Stress may be hindering your ability to follow-through.
How’s the internal dialogue? Is your inner critic getting salty? Research shows that stress can affect how we speak to ourselves. We may encounter more self-doubt and feel regret more often about decision-making. We’re harder on ourselves at a time when we’re already taxed.
How’s your skin? Your digestion? Well beyond puberty, but discovered a sudden outcropping of adult-onset acne? Long-term stress can produce a myriad of unpleasant body changes—skin breakouts or rashes, hair loss, digestive discomfort (diarrhea or constipation), random pains and aches, the cold or flu. Your immune system is compromised under stress and less able to protect you.
If you’re encountering these signs and symptoms and a long weekend of rest hasn’t helped, you may have entered the burnout zone.
The Burden of Burnout
Burnout is deep exhaustion. You’re emotionally, mentally and physically drained and resting for a few extra days doesn’t adjust your overall attitude. That feisty internal voice? It’s getting audible. Cynicism, irritability, and judgment of others around you becomes even stronger. You feel like your life is not your own. You dread starting work, getting out of bed, and dealing with others, including those you love.
Most importantly (and urgently), burnout is characterized by a feeling that’s persistent. Your outlook has dimmed and the suffering appears never ending. The burden feels permanent.
Burnout can result from unresolved, long-term work challenges (like an unrealistic project load that isn’t shifting), long-term caretaking obligations, or from job or financial insecurity, as during periods of lengthy unemployment.
Tactics to Treat & Prevent Burnout
Although it can feel like this state of elevated stress is the “new normal” and that solutions to addressing it are insufficient or mere band-aids, there are meaningful steps we can take to treat burnout (or better yet, avoid it).
Begin by setting boundaries and asking for help. These steps can alleviate some of the pressure of carrying the burden alone.
- Not all Zoom calls, team meetings and assignments are essential. Apply a critical eye to your work obligations. What routine meetings can you drop (or take a pass on for a few weeks)? Are there any that could be made bi-weekly or replaced by email updates?
- Drop the people pleasing. You are liked and worthwhile just as you are. Care for yourself as you would a dear friend and prioritize your needs FIRST.
- Got a draining team member? High-drama or unreliable? Take steps to insulate yourself and create barriers for relief. Make it clear by email that you’re unavailable except at select times (from 3-3:30 on Thursday or 4pm on Fri) or only accessible by email (not text or phone). Not everyone is owed an audience with you. Take back control of your schedule. Ask for additional support if you’re paired with someone who’s often AWOL or never follows through.
- What deliverables are you juggling? Which have a long lead time?Who else on the team could help? Delegate as much as possible and cut back from spending time on anything that’s not imminently due.
- Let colleagues and your supervisor know what you can and can’t do (work weekends, take calls after 5, work through lunch). Emphasize this is a health matter. It is.
Start practicing self-compassion and self-forgiveness for “missing the mark”. We’re often the worst to ourselves. Experiment with reducing expectations of yourself and make room for a little grace. So you’re not the perfect parent, award-winning caregiver or employee of the year–let it go. Remind yourself “I’m doing my best.” You are.
Additional Strategies to Offset Stress
- Move your body. It’s amazing what a brief walk outside can do for mood, energy and perspective.
- Get more rest. Wind down for bedtime earlier, skip the wine and add a nap to your afternoon.
- Create a morning and bedtime routine. Do a few stretches, ditch the screens, reflect/pray/meditate or listen to relaxing music for 15 minutes.
- Nourish yourself. Don’t skip meals. Do your best to balance carbs and veggies. Take a multi-vitamin. Junk food may feel good in the moment, but it won’t sustain you for the days ahead. Fuel up with healthy choices.
- Reduce sugar, alcohol and caffeine. I know, it’s hard. Do your best to cut back. You’ll get a clearer view of your true level of exhaustion and will sleep deeper when it’s time to rest.
- Fit in creative play time. Pull out that knitting project, invest in some paints or clay, dig out board games, coloring books or puzzles and unwind without a screen. Streaming is mindless but not as restorative as you might think.
Burnout may be widespread in these challenging times, but it isn’t inevitable. Be mindful of your mood, energy levels and responses to external stressors and take action early. Your mind, body and relationships ALL benefit when you take steps to restore yourself on the regular.
For more on the stress-response check out Richard Sapolsky’s mildly amusing book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Written with a light tone, Sapolsky provides a detailed tour of how our bodies react under duress. An informative and very thorough read.