Chronic Stress and Burnout…Stopping the downward spiral

Before we proceed: This article is not politically correct or warm and fuzzy.  These are tactics that, through much pain, have worked for me.  My motive: If I can help one person by sharing, being open and honest, I have accomplished my mission.  Therefore, I offer no apologies.

Burnout

The dictionary definition of burnout (1) is: (2) physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress. “High levels of professionalism that may result in burnout.

That pretty much sums it up.  If only it were that simple to prevent and treat.  Burnout slowly creeps up, often without ever being noticed until…SMACK, it is right in your face and follows you around like the ‘black dog’ Winston Churchill (2) referred to throughout his highly productive and impactful life. Burnout results from feeling extreme pressure or stress over an extended period of time.  Severe stress and burnout rarely come from only one source in our lives.

There may be other factors at play as well.  Anxiety, depression, co-dependency issues, substance abuse and low self-esteem, only to name a few.  When it comes to falling prey to a state of complete and debilitating overwhelm, it often happens in the workplace and is most often referred to as job burnout.  The truth is, it happens in all areas of life, not just at work.  If you find yourself there, chances are, it is a result of multiple factors in your life…not just a job or profession.

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According to an article posted by the Mayo Clinic, “Job burnout is a special type of job stress — a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.”(2)  With the quickly changing and increasingly demanding roles we play throughout our lives, burnout is a very real and growing problem that needs to be recognized.

What are the causes of burnout?

Perfectionism and being overly conscientious are among the leading causes of burnout. The “super-heroes” are often the ones who fall prey to burnout the fastest. People who spend their lives constantly reaching for “meaningful achievements” and unattainable perfection in everything they do,  there is a lack of drive to break away and take time for themselves.  There is no semblance of balance (φ) in life while over-focusing in one area and neglecting others.  Doing something well does not have to be all-consuming.

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Burnout happens fast.  You can go from being absolutely stellar at everything (or appearing so) to experiencing complete burnout  in a very short period of time.  Those who have a daily focus on caring and advocating for others experience a high amount of burnout.  The bar is set high.  When we fail in some way, because we are not perfect, it is very hard to handle.

Anyone in a situation that causes continuous stress, no matter what the cause, over an extended period of time is at risk for developing burnout.

SIDENOTE: Placing blame everywhere except the kitchen sink will not help.   To make lasting change, we must all do the hard work of figuring out how we are responsible for the difficult situations we find ourselves in.

 

Why stay in a situation that causes severe mental distress?

We don’t want to be a proven failure?  We are our own worst critics?  We do not want to disappoint people who, we feel, are highly invested in us?  We have hope for the future that things may turn out well?  The reasons people stay in stressful situations or do not alter their responses to them, varies from person to person.  Most commonly, they do not know any other way to live.

If you were locked in a prison cell and knew the way out was as simple as taking action, would you do it?  That answer, you would think, would be an overwhelming “YES.”  Yet, many people are locked inside their own private prisons in their minds.

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Physical and psychological symptoms of burnout

What are the dangers?

During stress, the adrenal system starts to pump out cortisol, adrenaline and nor-adrenaline in increased amounts.  This is what is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response.  The result of increased production of stress hormones causes the body to perform quickly with extra energy due to increased blood sugar and blood pressure.

Prolonged stress causes the body to function at levels beyond what it can physically do. The consequences of high stress levels over several months are severe and can even be deadly in extreme circumstances.

Learning to recognize and deal with stress (in an adaptive manner) can make all the difference.  This should make your priorities crystal-clear, when making key decisions in an effort to reduce stress and recover from burnout.  

The following symptom lists are not “all-inclusive.”  They are not a diagnostic tool.  These lists are intended to help identify a potential problem for which you may need to seek professional help.  

Physical symptoms of burnout:

  • Exhaustion, fatigue
  • Insomnia, difficulty winding down and falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep
  • Increased susceptibility to acute and chronic disease due to lowered immune system function
  • Tremors, shaking
  • Restlessness
  • Headaches
  • Stomach and intestinal problems

Psychological symptoms of burnout:

  • Irritability (sometimes extreme)
  • Cynicism and detachment
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Forgetfulness
  • Feeling scattered
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Socially withdrawn
  • Frequent mood changes

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How to treat burnout

Though burnout is treatable, recovery does not happen overnight.  Burnout often creeps up on an individual undetected, until it reaches its full debilitating glory.  Where do we go from there?

Two things that must be understood to move toward a truly happy and fulfilling life:

 1) We must understand that perfectionism is toxic and unattainable.

2) We must learn how to create and maintain a well-balanced life.  WORK>FAMILY>HEALTH>FRIENDS>PERSONAL INTEGRITY

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Seeing a doctor, psychiatrist or counselor is a great first step toward coming up with a plan that is customized for you that will set you on the path toward a full recovery.  The ability to bounce back from chronic stress and burnout are dependent upon coping mechanisms that are unique to each individual.  Seeing a professional will help you learn to incorporate strategies to identify and replace the behaviors that lead to complete overwhelm (a.k.a. burnout).

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In most cases, a person has much more internal strength and resilience than they give themselves credit for.  Ironically, the people most susceptible to developing burnout are often the ones that are mentally equipped to overcome it.

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Honestly, if a job or life situation is sucking the life-blood out of you, leave!  If that is not possible, you MUST change the way you are responding to the stressors that have brought you to the painful, yet beautiful, place where you are forced to make changes.

Do some introspective thinking.  Ask yourself, how you are contributing to your own demise?  Turn your focus inward toward taking care of yourself.  Then, turn your focus outward and get out of your own head.  Work toward achieving balance in your life.  Know that, with VERY few exceptions, doing anything to excess will not end well.  Determine what is within your control and then take action.  STOP focusing on things that are out of your control.

 

Stay actively engaged with the people who are most important in your life.  Do not hide.  It is important to be able to maintain connections with other people.  Do some introspective thinking. Discover what inspires you.  Work toward things you are passionate about with hope and enthusiasm.  You must replace the destructive thought patterns and strategies for living that do not work with ones that do.

References:
  1. Definition of Burnout https://www.google.com/search?q=burnout&rlz=1C1AKJH_enUS719US757&source=lnms&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiM0OX7vd_WAhWD1CYKHViDBa8Q_AUICSgA&biw=1088&bih=438&dpr=1.25 Published: date unknown.  Retrieved: 7 October 2017
  2.  Winston Churchill and his ‘Black Dog’ of Greatness By Nassir Ghaemi (Professor of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, Tufts University.  Published: 1 January 2015; Retrieved: 7 October 2017
  3. Job burnout: How to spot it and take action. Discover if you’re at risk of job burnout — and what you can do when your job begins to affect your health and happiness.  By Mayo Clinic Staff Published: 17 September 2015; Retrieved: 7 October 2017
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