Be more, be better, be different. Sadly, burnout, a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion, is a common experience in today’s fast-paced and demanding world, where MORE is a constant driver. Burnout can result from chronic stress, excessive workload, or a lack of balance between work and personal life. It may have its roots in unresolved trauma, including how we believe we need to operate in the world based on our life experiences. Recognizing the signs of burnout and taking proactive steps to address it are crucial for maintaining overall well-being and preventing long-term adverse effects.
What is it?
The symptoms of burnout include chronic fatigue, increased irritability, loss of motivation, and a decline in overall productivity. Steven Porges’s Polyvagal theory provides a helpful framework to understand what happens when we are ‘burnt out.’ According to this theory, the autonomic nervous system operates through three interconnected pathways: the ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal pathways. The ventral vagal pathway is associated with feelings of safety, social engagement, and connection. We are at our best when we feel connected to others. We think clearly, creatively and deeply, and we are connected to all our feelings.
The sympathetic pathway activates a fight-or-flight response in the face of a perceived threat, which is what we commonly call the ‘stress response.’ When we are in this stressed state our heart rate increases and muscles tense to get us ready to run from the predator. We make quick judgments rather than thinking deeply, and our emotional experience is on the anger-anxiety spectrum: irritable, cranky, anxious, nervous, and stressed.
This is adaptive if you must run away from a predator, but not so much when your body is reading ‘work’ as the danger, for example. We are meant to move from the stressed state of sympathetic activation back to connected ventral vagal regulation. We run from the predator into the arms of friends and family.
When we can’t escape from the predator, our dorsal vagal pathway leads to shut down and immobilization. In this state our thinking is foggy, we are exhausted, and we are emotionally numb. Our body thinks it is under an inescapable threat, and so kicks in this protective shutdown response. This is burnout.
The ultimate solution to burnout is to work our way back into ventral vagal regulation and spend more time there. We must teach our body that this regulated state, where we have access to all of ourselves including our feelings and can BE our best self, is ‘home.’ The experience of connection is a powerful doorway to the regulated state we deserve to live in most of the time.
How can we find our way ‘home’?
Let’s face it: the world is set up to activate our fight/flight stress response. Pressure to perform at work, media, social media, and advertising… so many aspects of the world we live in are activating, even deliberately activating. It’s all too easy to live in this state of activation until our body decides to shut down, and we burn out. Here are some areas to focus on that will support teaching your nervous system to find its way back home to a regulated state.
- Start with the basics: Sleep, eat, move. Make self-care a priority in your daily routine. Vigorous exercise communicates to your body that you’ve escaped the predator! Activities that promote relaxation and rejuvenation, such as yoga and meditation, will anchor breathing patterns that calm and support quality sleep. Our bodies are primitive. Eating well and regularly allows our body to trust that there is no famine and that all is well. Taking care of your physical health is essential for preventing burnout.
- Reach out to friends, family, or colleagues for support: When experiencing fear or perceived threat seek support and connection in the arms of family and friends. Share your feelings and experiences with these people you trust, as they can offer vital emotional support during challenging times. If you don’t have a network, consider joining a support group.
- Ask for help: Personally, and professionally. Don’t hesitate to delegate tasks or ask for help when needed. Sharing responsibilities and seeking assistance from others can alleviate your workload and can also draw people closer to you because they feel valuable when they can contribute and ease your load.
- Reevaluate your goals: Take a step back and reassess your goals and expectations. Are they realistic and aligned with your values? What state do you want to live in? Are you putting yourself under unnecessary pressure to perform? Adjust your goals to ones that will help you live in alignment with your desired emotional state.
- Set boundaries: Learn to establish clear boundaries to protect your quality of life. Avoid overextending yourself by saying “no” to excessive work demands or additional commitments that can overwhelm you. Leave yourself space to say “yes” to what matters most. Repeat and practice all the above until it becomes your lifestyle. Don’t expect that it will all turn around in a moment. Remember, you are living in a world where this way of living isn’t necessarily supported or natural. It requires persistence to make it natural for you.
- Consider professional help: If burnout persists or becomes overwhelming, consider seeking professional help. A qualified therapist or counsellor can explore the roots of your current dilemma, and help you lean into a new experience and way of being
Addressing burnout isn’t an individual task. We are living in a world that promotes a lifestyle that can easily lead to burnout. The more we can band together, teach ourselves that we are safe, we belong, we can ask for help and receive support, the more we can all be. Just BE.
Catherine O’Kane is a Registered Clinical Counsellor, teacher, workshop facilitator and a gifted and entertaining public speaker with Clearmind International. She has a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, and has been a practicing therapist since 1992, helping people evolve out of personal pain into purpose. She firmly believes that what we put out in all our relationships has the power to ripple out and effect positive change in our families, communities and beyond.