Although we can feel the stress of some events sharply and shortly after they happen, like the pangs of anxiety that may follow a startling thought or worrisome piece of news we hear, an insidious form of chronic stress can build up into a condition experts call burnout. Definitions aren’t entirely clear on burnout, but we know that when people talk about burnout, they talk about a looming, ever-present sense of fatigue and exhaustion, an inability to cope, and maybe a numbness to responsibilities and activities that were once enjoyable. This kind of feeling can come from the compounding of daily stresses and pressure, whether from work-related duties, responsibilities of parenthood or deadlines during school. In fact, when the word burnout was first coined several decades ago, it focused specifically on the exhaustion that psychologists, therapists, teachers, doctors and nurses felt after day in and day out of tending to patients. Unfortunately, in a year like this year, where around every corner seems to be a new obstacle or something new to adapt to, more workers are feeling burnt out than ever (according to Glint studies of Employee Burnout). On the bright side, researchers have been studying these feelings of exhaustion, especially job-related burnout, for decades now, and there are actionable steps you can take to get back to feeling healthy.
How it Happens
In a 2004 study on burnout, researchers explain that stressful events can stop the creation of new neurons in a specific brain region associated with stress and memory, which they presume leads to the feelings and symptoms of burnout. This process of new neurons being created is called neurogenesis, and stressful events can slow the rate of new neurons being created. Although the neuroscience on burnout isn’t 100% figured out, the researchers see this research as a hint on potential treatments and suggest possible solutions, two of which we’ll focus on: (1) Eliminating stressors and (2) physical activity.
Focusing efforts on removing the stressors from our lives is easier said than done, but there are a few tangible steps you can take to appraise the stressors in your life and make them easier to deal with. A good first line of defense is something I call the 4 Self C’s, a tool you can use to patch thorny thoughts or habits that may be contributing to exhaustion.
The first is Self-Compassion. If you find yourself berating or feeling down on yourself, give yourself explicit permission to make mistakes. You’re only human after all, and all of us are fallible, so extending that courtesy to yourself is perfectly healthy.
The second is Self-Conditioning. Burnout is characterized by negligence of your personal well-being for the sake of work or school responsibilities, but this habit might be feeding into a cycle of exhaustion. Remind yourself of the importance of a good nights sleep or a nutritious meal and work to reverse the cycle!
Self-Conscientiousness can refer to checking in on your actions and making sure they’re aligned with your larger goals. If you don’t feel like something tracks with your intentions, there is power in reevaluating your engagement with it.
Self-Care involves reflection and habit creation that centers on making you feel well. Take time to add in activities that you know are stress relievers for you, and somewhat counter-intuitively, those breaks from work may end up making you more productive.
To read more in depth about these facets of dealing with long term stress, read more here.
The researchers of the original study on burnout recommend physical exercise because it’s been shown to promote the creation of new neurons, which is what stress can stop in its tracks. Not only does it increase neurogenesis, but the other benefits of physical exercise make it a keystone habit, where pluses like more self-confidence, better sleep, and a boosted sense of well-being can bleed into each other causing you to feel healthy, motivated and productive.
If you haven’t already, try to schedule 30 minutes of physical activity into your day, five days a week. An easy first step to not only get the positive effects of physical activity, but also mindfulness, is a walking meditation practice. For detailed instructions on how to get started building a practice, and what to do while walking, read more about my primer on Walking Meditation here.
So, whether you’re finishing up finals or pushing through busy season at work, if you feel a chronic sense of exhaustion or burnout, worry not. There are steps you can take to feel well that don’t require doubling down on your work output, but instead require you to take a step back, reflect, and take a moment to relax.
Thanks for reading! Follow me here for updates on new pieces on mental health and wellness. And click to follow me on instagram here.