According to Psychology Today, burnout can be defined as a “state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion” and more. Sound familiar? If a friend tells you that he or she is “feeling burned out,” you know exactly what is meant by that phrase. There’s that awful feeling of just being tired, of feeling wiped out, of dreading what might lie in wait for you that day. To make matters worse, this kind of tiredness doesn’t always mean that you can quickly and easily fall to sleep. Oh, no. In fact, as Psychology Today also notes, insomnia might also rear its ugly head, adding to your feelings of fatigue and frustration.
When you feel worn down, this can naturally lead to a lack of focus, which might cause you to be late to appointments or perhaps even miss some, entirely. Soon you might feel physical symptoms creeping in, as well, whether that’s a headache, a stomachache or something else entirely. In this state of exhaustion, you’re actually more immune to catching the cold, the flu, and whatever bug is coming down the pike in your neighborhood—so add in the potential for real illness into the mish-mash of misery.
You don’t feel like eating, so your body isn’t getting the nutrition it needs. Plus, you’re worrying about everything—Did I remember to lock the front door before leaving for work this morning? What if I didn’t? And, if I didn’t, what if . . . you get the picture.
Taken all together, this can lead to feelings of depression, of guilt, of feeling trapped—or of being thwarted and angry. After all, you’re a good person and this just isn’t fair!
Long story short, if ever you hear the phrase, “Well, it’s just burnout,” know that there’s nothing “just” about it. In fact, burnout can take over your life, wearing you down, wearing you out.
Causes of Burnout
Burnout has been traditionally defined in connection with work—meaning, someone’s paid employment—but we believe this can also happen when you have plenty of unpaid responsibilities. And, the Mayo Clinic points out that burnout is more likely to happen when you feel as though you have a lack of control over what’s going on in your life. This could include the weight of your workload, your schedule, what you’re assigned to do, and so forth. Burnout can also happen when you aren’t given enough resources to do the job you’re responsibility for completing.
Other causes of burnout can include when:
expectations are unclear
dynamics are dysfunctional
activities are monotonous
life is chaotic
you lack support
you lack work-life balance
When certain factors exist, you’re even more prone to burnout, the Mayo Clinic adds, including:
Your identification with your job is very strong
You have a high workload, which can include overtime
“You try to be everything to everyone”
You work in health care or in another helping profession
Ready for one more factor? Although our ability to travel the world at a speed that our ancestors would have perceived as supernatural, traveling can also add to stress. In fact, TravelPulse.com reports on a recent study that shows how more than one third of people in the United States who frequently travel for work say that work-related travel stresses them out. The same percentage struggles to sleep on these trips, while more than half of them are less likely to exercise while traveling, missing out on the benefits of this stress buster. And, 44 percent admit they’re likely to settle for foods that aren’t that great for them on while on the road, and 16 percent drink more alcohol during these trips.
This can lead to health problems and/or worsening of already-existing health issues. And, listen to this. When losing out on sleep during a business trip, 13 percent of people therefore have enough focus problems that they don’t always remember to take their medications. Talk about a recipe for disaster!
If you’d like nine tips to help you to stress less while you travel, we invite you to download our free guide. Plus, here’s another post from Hardy Healthy Gut about maintaining gut health while traveling.
Now, let’s talk about more solutions for stress to prevent burnout and maintain better health.
Solutions for Burnout
An article at Forbes.com takes an in-depth look at solutions, and the first one is to give yourself permission to disconnect. In today’s world of always being connected via email, texts, cell phones, social media and more, this means that you can be subjected to barrages of information that prevent you from having quiet time to recharge and refresh.
So, give yourself time and space in which to breathe. This may mean that you deem evenings and weekends off-limits with the internet, or it can mean that you have specially designed times to check in, but otherwise stay disconnected from the influx of electronic inputs.
Also, pay attention to what your body is telling you (more about this topic later in this post!). Aches and pains may well be your body telling you to slow down, to take better care of yourself, to find healthy ways to manage your stress. It makes sense to be proactive and see your doctor when you’re chronically not feeling well—and also realize that “Burnout manifests in your body, so learn to pay attention to your body’s signals so that you can nip burnout in the bud. Your body is always talking, but you have to listen.”
This includes scheduling time for relaxation. For you, it might mean yoga and a walk in nature. For someone else, it could mean meditation and reading a good book. What’s important is to find out what allows you to relax.
Also, rely upon friends and family who are willing to offer support. Maybe your cousin offered to run errands for you, or your neighbor is willing to watch your baby so you can nap, while your best friend wants to take you out tomorrow for a cup of coffee and some laughs. It’s okay to lean on your support system. Having said that, don’t take on more social obligations if what they’ll feel like are, in fact, more obligations.
In short, it’s about focusing on self care to reduce your stress to prevent or heal burnout.
Self Care Strategies
Besides the ones we’ve alluded to already, they include good sleep habits, eating a healthy diet, and regularly exercising. Lack of sleep can have a negative impact on your ability to handle life’s stresses, while a poor diet can make you more vulnerable to stress. (Seriously! An unhealthy diet can lead to blood sugar imbalances, caffeine crashes, and much more.) Exercise can provide a healthy outlet for stress, allowing your body to release the endorphins that can boost feelings of well being.
Make time for hobbies that you enjoy. Creative ones can be especially healing, whether that means writing poetry, drawing, designing a garden and then planting the sweet-smelling flowers, or something else appealing to you that allows you to relax. Creative journaling can be highly effective and healing, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a writer.
What about a massage? A pedicure? How, specifically, would you like to be pampered?
Consider focusing on your personal spiritual practices, as well. Research indicates that people who embrace a religion or spirituality, in general, can live a healthier lifestyle.
And now we’re going to take a deeper dive into the physiology of stress and burnout, to provide insights into what’s actually happening to your body when stress moves in.
Physiology of Stress
SimplyPsychology.com does a great job of providing an easy-to-understand overview of stress and its effects on the human body. Stress is, the post explains, both a biological and a psychological response—a mind-body response, in other words—to a threat that we don’t feel we have the capability of handling. This can happen when someone loses a job, feels unprepared for a test, needs to move, or any one of countless other life events taking place.
When stress is sudden and severe, this can trigger bodily responses, such as:
heart rate increase
breathing increase as lungs dilate
digestion decrease, which can cause a lack of hunger
liver releasing glucose for energy
More specifically, our body will first judge whether or not a situation is stressful, using what we see, hear and otherwise perceive in a situation, as well as memories of what happened when we were in a similar situation in the past. With stress, the hypothalamus kicks in at the base of your brain, sending signals to your pituitary gland and adrenal medulla to create a fight or flight response.
For most of human history, the fight or flight has been extremely helpful. For example, when our ancestors were faced with large and scary animals, physiological changes took place in their bodies to better equip them to either fight that animal or to flee from it. Their bodies sent extra fuel to their limbs, both energy and oxygen, to give them bursts of extra power to respond to the danger. Extra blood flowed to the brain, so they could reason out the best response; and to muscles, legs and arms, so they could throw spears or run like heck. Then, when the danger was over, the body could return to its more normal state.
Here’s the problem, though. Today’s stressors aren’t typically the same as the life-threatening ones of yesteryear. If your stress is coming from having to frequently give speeches as part of your job when that terrifies you, the fight response isn’t appropriate, because you certainly can’t throw sticks and stones at the audience members. Neither, is running out the room, screaming down the hall. So, your body’s physiological responses to stress, once so helpful, aren’t so much, anymore.
So, you need to send messages to your body that counteract the stress response. A Harvard article shares how the following approaches can work especially well: “deep abdominal breathing, focus on a soothing word (such as peace or calm), visualization of tranquil scenes, repetitive prayer, yoga, and tai chi.”
These let your body know that you’re out of danger. After all, would you be humming a calming sound if a dangerous beast was still in front of you? Of course, you wouldn’t, and this is how you can send that message to your brain.
Dangers of Chronic Stress
By now, hopefully it’s clear how long-term stress can easily lead to burnout. Here’s the thing, though. There are numerous other dangers associated with chronic stress besides burnout, with Healthline.com naming several. It’s hard to manage your emotions when you’re constantly under stress. In fact, a 2013 study showed that even relatively mild levels of stress can cause us to lose our cool, which in turn can damage relationships. Stress can promote disease, giving certain conditions “the green light.” These include but certainly aren’t limited to “cancer, lung disease, fatal accidents, suicide, and cirrhosis of the liver.” It can also contribute to mental illness, and affect your teeth and gums. Stress can physically damage your heart muscle. Hormones triggered through stress make your heart have to work harder than it needs to, which also increases blood pressure. In fact, the American Institute of Stress has even monitored the rates of heart attacks and sudden death after hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. And, yes. They increase.
Stress can lead to weight gain. Why? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed to eat as much food as possible when it was available, to keep them alive during lean times. So, when we’re stressed, our bodies can revert to that behavior. In fact, University of Miami researchers found that people can eat 40 percent more food when stressed than when life is relatively more normal. As part of their prescription, they advice shutting off the news.
Chronic stress can even make you look older, and lead to long-time disability. It’s just no good for us.