Have you ever had a morning like this?
Slept past my alarm, and I woke up with a pit in my stomach. Got some coffee, showered, dressed. Can’t find my keys. Anywhere. Another surge of stress as I tear around the house and through everything. I use my spare set so I won’t be late. At least my husband is taking the kids to school today. Get in the car and ten minutes into my commute I realize I don’t have my phone. All my appointments are on my phone. Stress surges really high as I turn around race home and grab my phone. Back on the road, later than I usually am, and of course, traffic. An accident. Stress levels climbing again. I arrive late to work and my boss is at the front desk. Wow am I stressed. Sit down, try to breathe, log in to my computer. My cell phone vibrates. It’s the nurse from my son’s school. He has a fever. Can I pick him up, now?
Not every day is like this, thank goodness. But I have them, and my guess is, so do you. And if our lives continue in this fashion for days and weeks on end, we are facing burnout.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, founder and director of Growing Self Counseling and Life Coaching says in the above scenario, what really damages our well being is that we don’t get that chance to recover. “See, your body has a relaxation response to soothe you and bring you back down once the danger has passed. But when your stress response surges time after time, your relaxation response doesn’t have a chance to do its job. After awhile, your relaxation response actually becomes disordered and you feel as if you can’t calm down and get to a baseline.”
Sound familiar? Dr. Bobby says if we don’t pay attention to the signals that things are spiraling out of control, that feeling of being burned out manifests itself as chronic stress.
In other words, “you’re operating with no gas and no brakes, you are officially burned out.” Dr. Bobby says this is when you’ll notice “that food doesn’t taste good because your digestion is disrupted, you wake up at 2am because your sleep is disrupted, you get sick easier because your immune system is disrupted. All of the things you need to keep you healthy are out of whack.”
And it’s not just your body. Your mind is impacted, “and you are hyper-focused on negativity and possible threats. Since we’re not in actual danger, our minds wander into the future to find danger that fits with that anxious feeling. That,” says Dr. Bobby, “is why we find things to worry about and then we elevate our stress level all over again.”
Just reading this stresses me out because I’ve been there. And Dr. Bobby nails it, “the consequence of being burned out is that we become numb, joyless, and exhausted. Overwhelmed, easily irritated, cynical, and hard to calm down. And we lose that sense of meaning and purpose.”
Without intervention, chronic stress often blooms into depression. And if all this isn’t bad enough, Dr. Bobby says “the worst effect is emotional. We lose our ability to empathize because we have no bandwidth to be generous to others. And that lack of empathy can be damaging. Relationships can get ruptured during burnout periods.”
“Fortunately,” assures Dr. Bobby,”there are ways to move out of this, and it’s a two phase process.” She discusses this in her podcast, How to deal with stress and burnout.
Phase one has to do with self awareness:
1. Stop believing the big lie. “The belief that you should be able to do it all. If you believe burnout is because of your shortcomings, you will not be able to do the things to recover: like rest, say no, take care of yourself and exercise. You can’t set boundaries for yourself. Instead, start saying, ‘I’m not made to be under this stress.'”
2. Understand the physical processes in your body must be respected. “What goes up: stress, must come down: relax. A lifestyle that prevents you from re-setting your clock will harm you.”
Phase two – how to be a human being:
1. You are going to need time to recover. “Take a stay-cation, as many days as you can make happen. This is what it will take to re-set your baseline levels, allowing relaxation to return and you’ll start to recovery. Don’t plan to do anything. ‘But,’ you say, ‘I’m too busy and too important.’ Let go of the need to control and achieve and do everything.”
2. Focus on your foundation. “This is about the basics, which are the easiest to dismiss. Eat nutritious, good foods, get enough sleep and exercise. That’s the Royal Road to Restoration. And set a cut off time to stop working every day and stick to it.”
3. Remind yourself you are not a robot. “Tell yourself you need rest, nutrition, nurturing, fun, love, safety, meaning, exercise. Because if you don’t, you will break down. I find the best way to prioritize taking care of myself is to schedule that time. I plan when I take walks, what my cut-off hour will be, what I’m going to eat, when I go home. My work and family schedule have to fit around this. “
Sorting through Dr. Bobby’s solutions gives me the chance to breathe. And I find when I do breathe I can actually examine those things which I allow to take over my life.
Like you, I have a lot of moving parts at home, at work, in my social life and in projects I do for others. There are times when I have no choice but to take on more than I’m comfortable with, sometimes intentionally other times because it just happens that way.
But if I am willing to be more clear with boundaries in my life, and I’m doing those things I need to care for myself, there’s a much better likelihood I can make it through a series of challenging events without taking it out on myself and everyone around me with the attitude of ,’#*&%@!*&!’ and instead live by the motto, ‘this too shall pass.’
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