Your alarm is blaring, and you think to yourself, "there is no way it’s morning; I just fell asleep, and I am still exhausted!" Another day is starting, and the burnout slowly creeping into your mental and physical health won't quit. The first thing we need to get straight is that you are not alone. You and the rest of the human population are taught (especially in America) that your worth depends on your ability to be productive, work harder, and achieve more. But this isn’t true, and you can ground yourself and your nervous system, once you understand what burnout is, and why it’s plaguing so many people.
Your Nervous System is Trying to Reach You…
As human beings, anything our brain perceives as a threat causes a natural stress response. It's normal and healthy to respond this way. It's our nervous system doing its job to protect us. We all have a natural stress response and cycle our body goes through that's meant to be completed the way it was in the environment we evolved and adapted into. Think running from a bear, exerting physical energy to save our own life, which would then disperse neurochemicals and hormones associated with the stress response. And while we aren’t running from bears anymore, modern stressors, like that micromanager at work or traffic through downtown, can't be solved by running away or punching someone (Please, don't punch anyone). This means we are likely to get stuck in the stress cycle, and when the cycle gets stuck, burnout is the result.
Burnout is physical and mental exhaustion, feelings of dread or cynicism about activities you may have previously enjoyed, anger, irritability, and a sense of emptiness or loneliness. Your nervous system has had enough, but it's important to remember that you are not to blame for your burnout. Instead, you deserve support and help to get through it. Our body's stress cycle is a biological process with a beginning, middle, and end. If we move through the cycle completely, we stay happier and healthier, but if we don’t that’s prime ground for burnout to rear its ugly head. Our culture doesn't teach us how to deal with stress by taking the stress cycle and completing it into consideration. We are sold a lot of talk about "Self-care" that includes spending money, owning a particular product, or having a specific career. We can't control all external stressors, but we can control how we respond to them.
Coping Skills for Burnout
The good news? Some strategies can support you in completing the stress cycle, resetting your nervous system, feeling in control, and avoiding burnout.
Make something with your hands, draw something, play music, write. Whatever creative activity lights you up and sets fire to your soul— do that!
Get out into nature, feel the grass and dirt under your feet, notice the sunshine on your skin and the scenery around you. Nature grounds us, makes us present with ourselves and the world around us, and regulates our nervous system.
Find out what movement of your body brings you joy. You're not confined to the walls of a gym (unless that's your jam!) have a dance party with yourself or friends, walk your dog, swim, punch a pillow, take a run. Whatever way feels best for you to move your body, embrace it.
No, you don't have to meditate for an hour. No one is making you practice Lion's Breath, but taking some time to get quiet and listen to your inner voice will support you in completing the stress cycle. Find a tool that works for you. Even a few minutes of this practice can calm your nervous system and complete the stress cycle.
Emotions, especially outward ones like laughing or crying, can be scary to express. Some of us were raised not to show emotion because it was "weak" or inconvenient for those around us. But, you can move past that. Laugh out loud with a friend, watch something that makes you laugh (corgi belly flop on YouTube is one of our clinical director’s favorites!), have a good cry session, scream into a pillow. When you do this, you’ll notice a feeling of relief and maybe even feel a little lighter in your body.
You are Not Alone
Burnout is a scary thing to experience, especially because it has gone undiagnosed in the population for a long time. The COVID-19 Pandemic shed light on career burnout, but burnout could happen to anyone at any time and for a myriad of reasons. You aren't broken, and there is help and support out for you to learn how to complete the stress cycle, stave off, or start to heal from burnout.
"Wellness is not a state of being—it's a state of action. It is the freedom to oscillate through the cycles of being human. Real-world wellness is messy, complicated, and not always accessible. If you sometimes feel overwhelmed and exhausted, that doesn't mean you're doing it wrong; it just means you're moving through the process. Grant your body permission to be imperfect and listen to your own experience." - Drs. Amelia and Emily Nagoski from their book, "Burnout."
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