How to Get on Top of Stress Before it Morphs into Burnout

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How to Get on Top of Stress Before it Morphs into Burnout

What’s the difference between stress and burnout?

  • A certain amount of stress is a healthy and adaptive part of being human
  • If we didn’t feel stress at all we wouldn’t be motivated to do things like visit the doctor to have our skin checked, meet deadlines at work, study for exams or plan for the future
  • Ongoing or high levels of stress put you at risk of burnout though
  • Burnout is what happens when we are emotionally, physically and/or mentally exhausted by ongoing stress and/or severe stress

So how do we stop stress morphing into burnout?

1. Know thyself

Self-awareness is the most crucial skill you can develop to manage burnout. Why? Because you can’t change something if you are not aware it is happening.

So what should you be on the lookout for?

2. Get specific – What does burnout look like for you?

What are your red flags or warning signs that you might be moving towards burnout?

Ask yourself these four broad questions:

  • In what ways does my thinking or self-talk change?
  • How do I start to behave differently?
  • Which emotions tend to pop up for me?
  • How does my body start to change?

Changes in your thinking or self-talk

Try to pick up on reoccurring themes in your thinking. For example, do you tend to assume the worst? Underestimate your ability to cope? Become judgy of yourself and/or others? Take things personally?

Changes in how you behave

Keep your eye out for:

  • Disconnecting or feeling detached from your work
  • Withdrawing from other people
  • Not making time for taking care of yourself
  • Extending your hours at work
  • Becoming snappy or irritable
  • Pushing down feelings by binge eating, drinking, shopping, gambling or sleeping
  • Self-sacrificing (consistently putting other people’s needs ahead of your own)
  • Becoming controlling, having difficulty delegating or receiving help from others
  • Having difficulty setting boundaries
  • Not making time for the fun, playful and spontaneous parts of life
  • Procrastinating
  • Feeling overwhelmed by tasks that would normally feel quite minor
  • Not knowing where to start
  • Giving up

Changes in how you feel

Common emotions that arise during burnout are:

  • Anger
  • Resentment
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Hopelessness
  • Helplessness
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Loneliness
  • Emptiness
  • Sadness
  • Despondency
  • Feeling unmotivated
  • Feeling like you don’t care anymore
  • Feeling numb

Changes in your body

We can sometimes become quite disconnected from our bodies when we are on the verge of melting down. We tend to overvalue our mind, looking constantly to what it has to stay about what’s going on. But our bodies are wise and can often pick up on burnout before our mind even has an inkling about what’s going on.

Think of your body like a barometer for stress and burnout. The key here is to become attuned to changes that happen in your body when you’re stress levels are at a moderate level so you can catch yourself before things escalate into the burnout zone. The sooner you can catch burn out the better.

Try to tune into the obvious, but also subtle changes in your body including:

  • Rapid or shallow breathing
  • Feeling on edge or racy
  • Tension or holding
  • Racing or pounding heart
  • Changes in posture
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain, tightness or discomfort
  • Sweating, chills or feeling hot all over
  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleeping more than you normally would, or less
  • Weight loss or gain

Of course some of the above changes in your body could relate to a medical condition, so please see your general practitioner if you are unsure.

3. What’s your plan for preventing burnout?

  • If you don’t have a plan – you need one!
  • Don’t wait until you are on the verge of meltdown to create your plan
  • When you’re potentially on the path to burnout you can’t expect yourself to think clearly
  • When we are experiencing intense or prolonged stress the fight-flight-freeze response “hijacks” the front parts of our brain, which means your ability to think in a calm, rational and clear way goes out the window!
  • Write your plan down (in a journal, on a card in your handbag, on your iPhone, on your fridge) so that you don’t have to rely on your memory. Having it written down can help with keeping yourself accountable too.

4. Start with the basics

Start by asking yourself – what do I need right now?

If you get stuck think about what you would do for someone who you loved.

Do you wait until you’re at rock bottom to take care of yourself? Why do we do this? We would never make a friend wait until they were desperate before you gave them support, love and care!

I like to use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a bit of a guide here. Maslow was a well-known psychoanalyst who suggested that until humans have their basic needs met they don’t have the mental energy to focus on higher up needs like taking care of others, going to work, being creative, improving their self-esteem and learning new things.

Basic needs are the bottom rung of Maslow’s ladder. Think things like food, water, sleep, exercise, making time to go to the bathroom, being warm enough, having sex. Simple things really, but often these are the first to fall by the wayside when we are on the path to burning out.

maslows hierarchy

5. Once you’ve got the basics sorted, what else do you need?

  • Mindfulness?
  • Strategies to calm your body (which will subsequently calm your mind)?
  • Techniques for dealing with your thoughts/self talk?
  • Time away from factors triggering the burnout (work, people, situations)?
  • Support from friends and family?
  • Help from a professional? Don’t be afraid to seek help! Psychologists are experts at equipping people with individualised, evidenced-based tools and techniques for managing stress and preventing burn-out

6. Moving out of the way of yourself

What happens if in theory you know how to take care of yourself when you’re heading towards burn out, but you just can’t seem to do it?

Explore what gets in the way:

  • Are you prone to self-sacrificing?
  • Do you feel undeserving of rest?
  • Are you a people-pleaser?
  • Do you engage in self-sabotage?
  • What messages did you receive during childhood about “success”, busyness, taking care of others, balance, asking for help, showing vulnerability, being “good”?
  • Do you feel empty or alone when your life slows down?
  • Is being stressed and/or burnt-out distracting you from parts of your life that feel painful or that might need changing?
  • Is there a secondary gain that comes with running yourself into the ground (you feel you can finally justify resting? Or prove to yourself or others how hard you work or how successful you are? Or give yourself permission to quit?)
  • Are you scared of success? Scared of feeling good? Or maybe you don’t feel you deserve it?

7. What was your burnout trying to tell you?

After you’ve got yourself back on track after burnout spend some time reflecting on what your burnout was trying to tell you:

  • To slow down?
  • To figure out what really matters, where your priorities lie?
  • To change paths?
  • To stick with it?
  • To take a different approach?
  • To appreciate what you already have?
  • To carve out a life that feels more satisfying?
  • To manage your time more effectively?
  • To plan ahead?
  • To go with the flow?
  • To ask for help?
  • To listen to your gut?
  • To step back?
  • To take a risk?

Interested in learning more about stress and burnout?

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About the Author:

Dr Jacqueline Baulch is a clinical psychologist and the director of Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology.