How to Avoid Burnout When You're Really Stressed

Avoid Burnout When You Are Stressed

Many of us have experienced burnout without fully understanding what it is and how to move beyond it.

Let's face it: the world can be an extremely stressful place to be and we all have stressors that can't be fully avoided or controlled. We feel pushed to the max in our daily lives and up against the limits of what our bodies can handle.

On her recent podcast, “Unlocking Us,” Brené Brown, professor and renowned author of many bestselling books on topics like vulnerability and shame, chatted with sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski, co-authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.

First of all, please consider listening to the podcast itself, which is fascinating and focuses primarily on one of the main components of burnout: emotional exhaustion.

The authors define emotional exhaustion as “the fatigue that comes from carrying too much for too long” (via Herbert Freudenberger who coined the term “burnout” in the 1970s).

Essentially, as the Nagoski sisters explain, emotions are cycles that happen in the body. They are an involuntary neurological response with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

From the book: “In short, emotions are tunnels. If you go all the way through them, you get to the light at the end. Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion.”

So...what happens if you get caught in a tunnel?

Unfortunately, this means that you’re operating at a chronically-elevated stress level for much longer than your body was designed to withstand. It can go on for hours or days (even months or years!) causing all kinds of problems throughout the systems of your body (digestive, immune, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, reproductive, etc.).

When stressors trigger a stress response, a chemical stew activates inside the body (think fight/flight/freeze)--but removing the stressors does not mean the cycle is complete.

You need to do something to signal to your body that you’re safe or else you’ll never fully shift back into relaxation.

How to Avoid Burnout
Photo by Chermiti Mohamed on Unsplash

So, what’s an efficient way to complete a cycle after a really stressful incident?

The Nagoski sisters share some simple strategies:

    • Any type of physical activity that feels good to you: walking, running, cycling, rock climbing, dancing--or even simply standing up from your desk and tensing every muscle really hard and then letting your body release.


    • Breathing: Breathing down-regulates your nervous system, like flipping a switch. Take a slow breath in and a slow breath all the way out. Repeat.


    • Positive social interaction: When we connect with people we care about, it tells our bodies that we’re somewhere safe. We feel at home.


    • Laughter: When you laugh really, really hard in an uncontrolled and ridiculous way, it releases lots of tension. Even talking about a time when you laughed that hard can help!


    • Affection: Engage in a really long, warm hug. The authors recommend super awkwardly-long hugs, like 20 seconds. Breathe together until you feel the shift in your chemistry.


    • “A big ol’ cry”: Turn toward the physical experience of crying--pay attention to the sensations without feeding it more thoughts that sparked the crying. When it resolves itself, you’ll feel better.


  • Creative expression: Channel your rage, fear, grief, anxiety or any other difficult emotion into something creative. Many types of artists intuitively found their way to this effective outlet for stress.

How do you know when you’ve reached the end of a cycle?

Your body tells you. We’ve all experienced the relief that comes at the end of a big cry. It’s like that.

So many people come to see us who are dealing with chronic stress and the toll it takes on their bodies. Hopefully some of these strategies can help you get ahead of it. Let us know how it goes!

(And if you’d like to check out the Nagoski book, be aware that it’s mostly focused on women’s experience of burnout. You can learn more about it here.)

Contact us today to learn about Atlas Brain and Body and the many conditions we treat. 828-253-0700

Dr. David Nygaard, MS, MBA
Board Certified Atlas Orthogonist
Atlas Brain and Body
(828) 253-0700
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