Sadly burnout is becoming increasingly more common.
But a lot of us don’t actually know what burnout is, how to spot the warning signs and what to do about it.
In 2020, the number of internet searches for ‘signs of burnout’ increased by over 20%.
The biggest difficulty with burnout is that if you’re headed for burnout, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have enough self awareness to notice the signs.
More often than not, when we are deep in chronic stress or burnout - the only thing we can think is something like:
‘What’s wrong with me’?
’Why can’t I cope’?
We feel flawed, broken, damaged, weak, less than.
One important thing to note is that chronic stress and burnout takes a village. It takes someone (a friend, a colleague or family member) to have enough compassion to notice somethings not quite right, to notice the signs and help steer you towards the help you need.
So - What are the signs of burnout?
The components for burnout were defined by Herbert Freudenberger, a German American psychologist back in 1975.
His definition still stands today, and consists of 3 components.
Emotional exhaustion. that exhaustion that comes from feeling you’ve given too much to too many others for too long. Feeling like you just have nothing more to give, emotionally.
Depersonalisation. A sense of brain fog, and depletion of empathy. Feeling unsympathetic. A sense of feeling numb to everything, cynical, detached and excessively negative.
A decreased sense of accomplishment. An unconquerable sense of futility. Feeling inefficient and unsuccessful, like nothing you do is good enough, or makes a difference. At this stage there’s a deep sense of incompetence, feeling inadequate and lack of productivity. Signs of depression are clear here too.
It’s important to compassionately look at the people you care about and take note. Are they exhibiting any or all of these burnout components?
If so, it’s important to be there for them. Offer them support, let them know that they aren’t broken, weak or flawed! Be a part of their support community.
Now you know the signs, what can you do about it?
The first thing to really fully understand is that stress is a normal function / response of the body.
There are lots of events that happen in our day that can trigger the stress response. That’s not so concerning. What is concerning is that most of us don’t proactively close out the stress cycle on a daily basis.
I‘ve created a S.T.R.E.S.S acronym as a simple methodology for understanding the various phases of the stress cycle.
You can use this to figure out which stage of the cycle you are getting stuck in, and what you can do to move through the remaining stages to complete the cycle And hopefully avoid burnout.
Sense - usually our subconscious will SENSE a threat to our survival. Real or imagined! We have a natural intuitive impulse reaction to any and every threat.
Tune In - once you’ve had the intuitive impulse, you’ll be able to look around and identify the threat. It’s like your mind and body hone in and identify the actual issue. (imagine a caveman out hunting, first he might have a sense that there’s a danger and then he’d tune in and actually see the danger - say, a saber tooth tiger hiding in the bushes )
Respond - this is where your fight, flight or freeze response kicks in.
It’s important to understand that our subconscious mind analyses each potential threat and then identifies the response most likely to help us survive.
We don’t CHOOSE our response.
(I feel like now is a good time to mention that we need to stop judging various peoples’ responses. There seems to be an unspoken hierarchy where people who Fight are considered braver, more heroic than Flighters and then somehow Freezers are lowest on the ladder.
There is no merit to this thinking! All responses are based on survival potential given the particular factors of the threat - each response has its merits.
If you tend to be a freezer in stressful situations or a flighter - please give yourself grace. You are not weak, or lacking in bravery.)
This is usually where we STOP & get STUCK in the stress cycle. We don’t usually make it through all of the next 3 stages.
Exertion - engaging in the fight, flight or fright response, requires an exertion of energy. Yes! Even in freeze mode your body is running a range of physiological changes, down-regulating blood flow, hormones and neurotransmitters to the systems of the body - cardiovascular, nervous, musculoskeletal, immune, digestive, circulatory, respiratory, endocrine, etc.
Often when a mere thought or worry triggers the stress response, our bodies are stuck in this phase unbeknownst to us - because physiologically our body is prepping for the perceived threat but we don’t actually take any physical action/exertion.
We carry on unaware because we can’t physically FEEL these physiological changes but the actual result is that we can’t quite think clearly, our immune system takes a hit so we are more susceptible to getting sick.
It is VERY IMPORTANT that we help move our body OUT of this phase.
In an event that is an ACTUAL threat to our survival (like a fire, earthquake, a physical attack ) our body will fully exert energy by actively using the fight, flight, freeze response. But when stress is triggered by a thought or imagined threat, we don’t actively exert any energy.
Survive & Share - after surviving a threat to our survival, a natural next phase is to celebrate your survival and share it with your tribe!
“Omg, did you see what I just did? I just out ran that saber tooth tiger !!!
I can’t believe I survived
woo hoo” Cue a group high five session and hug fest.
This is something we definitely do NOT do on a daily basis. If you’ve had a worry, anxiety or stressful day, it’s important to exert some energy and then celebrate that you made it! You survived. Its also helpful to share your good news with others and enjoy that you are part of a tribe!
Sleep - the final stage is to rest and recover. Allow your body to fully reset by prioritising your sleep.
You can create a bedtime routine and set yourself up to fully switch off from the stress cycle and give your body and mind a chance to reset all of the hormonal changes that have occurred.
Reset, refresh and renew.
The S.T.R stages tend to happen automatically, it is usually the last 3 stages that require our attention
Need some E.S.S ideas ?
try a short sharp burst of exercise maybe bust out 10 press-ups or high-knee runs. It’s not necessary to do an hours worth, a mere 30 - 60 seconds will do the trick.
go for a brief, brisk walk in nature (or just out around the block)
Simply bouncing up and down from feet flat on the ground, up onto your toes and back a few times.
literally any physical exertion will help. Walk, run, dance, climb, whatever floats your boat.
Laugh - for reals! A proper laugh, that embarrassing, almost pee your pants laugh. Not a little ‘lol’ but almost make you cry laugh. Find a comedian you love and watch a clip of them online. Or a funny movie (if you’ve got time for a movie!!)
Listen to something entertaining on your commute home.
S (Survive and share)
create a new routine for when you get home - maybe a simple high 5 with your partner, kids or roommates
celebrate the fact that the day is over, that you are now moving into routine down time.
simply stating ‘woo hoo, I made it through another day‘
Social interaction, a simple smile to a person on the street can help create this sense of being a part of a positive community / tribe!
- dont half-arse this. Give it gusto. Imagine how you would respond if you‘ve just survived an actual life threatening event, how would you celebrate that?
Bring that kind of celebration energy to your new daily ritual.
A common subconscious habit is to come home and grab that glass of wine, or that bag of chips.
While those things may FEEL like your reward for surviving the day, they don’t quite send the all important signal to your brain that you’re safe. So before you reach for that much needed ‘treat’ that you deserve, add in a celebration move.
create a sleep or bedtime ritual
run a bath
get off your device and go old school with a good book right before bed time
most importantly- PRIORITISE your sleep.
be sure that you are getting your 6,7 or 8 hours a night. (not everyone needs that full 8! Figure out what your best sleep time is and then make sure you are getting it consistently.
Now get busy and think about what steps, Or daily habits you can introduce to help improve your emotional and physical wellbeing!!