People in Burnout often feel like their central coping skills are broken. Somehow, somewhere, the wheels came off.
The important thing to recognise is that not all stressors are equal. Anxiety-producing events with a clear beginning, middle and end are more manageable than stressors that are repetitive, persistent, and never resolved.
What happened to my coping skills?
If you trace back along your path to Burnout, perhaps you can see how things started to drift once you hit the oil slick of an immutable stressor – administration, work quotas, family demands, resource constraints, and so on.
These anxiety-producing events are not quickly resolved or always within our control to influence. Their impact strikes at the very heart of our sense of personal integrity, professional pride, and desire for competence. It is uncertainty that helps to keep us stuck in stress.
Our brains are not well designed to tolerate ambiguity.
We perform a range of mental gymnastics to reduce uncertainty precisely because our brains find lack of clarity stressful. If you are living with constant change, variability, and unpredictability, you are hard-wired to head toward Burnout. In evolutionary terms, survival is often not best supported by indecision. Our brain wants answers right now and becomes increasingly agitated when it doesn’t get them.
Activating your stress response
In simple terms, the uncertainty, and associated agitation, is interpreted by our brain as threat, and this kicks off the stress-response cycle. Our parasympathetic system is activated, and we are beset with a range of psychological, emotional, and physiological signs that our system is on metaphorical fire.
Your rational functioning, emotional regulation, and overall wellbeing will not operating at their best. Feelings of bewilderment, overwhelm, panic, sadness and helplessness are often close behind. These further impact functioning and we get stuck in the stress-response cycle – think of it as the spinning wheel you see on the computer when it is having a melt-down. Our stress becomes an endless loop.
Slowing your system down
Once the physiology of the stress response cycle is involved, the first thing you need to do is to send regular messages to your brain that all will be well. Positive affirmations may not be enough; you need to manage the physical effects of being stuck in stress.
Conscious slowing down where possible helps. Take 30 seconds several times a day to mindfully breathe. There are helpful apps that provide visual guides for controlled breathing. Breath work activates compassion centres in our brain to help calm the nervous system. Practice stillness – pressing pause even for a short period can be helpful in disrupting the constant threat-alert messages your brain is currently receiving. Reduce decisions to be made, as far as possible, for that day. Lessen the cognitive load in this way to focus resources on what matters right now.
Taking small steps like this helps to slow your system down gently and helps you take a break from the tyranny of the “what if’s”.
Learn more in our free, downloadable BURNOUT RECOVERY (AND PREVENTION) – TIPS FOR BUSY PROFESSIONALS.
Dr Bek is a Burnout Recovery (and Prevention) Coach who helps busy people create workable plans for managing the stressors in their life. She has a special interest in working with professionals in the veterinary, nursing, and medical fields.
Rebekah Doley BA(Hons) GradDipPsyPrac MSc(Inv Psy) MJur(Law) MPsy(Clin)/ PhD
Clinical & Forensic Psychologist
Registered Psychologist (AHPRA) | Chartered Psychologist (BPS) | Mediator