I have a friend (I’m not just saying that, I swear!) who gets overwhelmed and stressed out really easily. When we were in school, one additional piece of homework seemed to affect her more than it did me. Even now in our post-grad first jobs, she seems to struggle with stress in a very different way than I do. I have long suspected that she was experiencing burnout, so I recently did some research about it.
What Is Burnout
Psychological Science (APS) said that it is “…recognized as a legitimate medical disorder and has even been given its own ICD-10 code (Z73.0 – Burn-out state of vital exhaustion).” The article gets into the nitty-gritty of the brain structures and hormonal reactions that actually cause burnout to shift from I-had-a-tough-day to a medical disorder.
It’s worth a read, but the short and sweet version is that repeated cynical thoughts, being overworked, and persistent stress can actually lead to a rewiring of your neural circuits. With the new rewired circuits, you are more likely to think negatively and overreact to stress, which snowballs until it affects your amygdala, the part of your brain that deals with emotions. It weakens connections between your amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex, part of your brain that affects mood regulation and reasoning. This basically means you struggle to control your negative emotions even more.
Not to overwhelm you, but apparently burnout also affects the regulation of the body’s release of the “stress hormone” cortisol. The body’s messed up cortisol levels can lead to a lot of unpleasant things, including but not limited to weight gain, headaches, increased blood pressure, and even heart disease. The psychological symptoms of burnout don’t sound fun either: fatigue, loss of passion, and intensifying cynicism and negativity.
Ok take a deep breath, cause it’s going to be ok. According to Psychology Today, “You can activate the same neuroplasticity, that gave dominance to the lower brain networks in the burnout state, to construct a new, stronger positive default response.”
Basically, we can prevent and correct burnout if we put a little effort in.
Find an Outlet
Armed with this information, I wondered how our own employees combat this all-too-prevalent problem. I asked Survey Project Manager Tim Coyle to give me some advice.
“For me, it’s all about finding an outlet for your stress. When I was younger, my outlet was playing and coaching softball, but now I also do things like read or do puzzles. Each person has to experiment with what works best for them. I once heard a theory about the seven doctors of life: exercise, sun, sleep, nutrition, creativity, love, and breath. Making sure I get a good combination of these has been what has worked for me. Going for a walk gives you a lot- sunlight, breathing, and exercise, for example. Creativity can be putting in a new mailbox in front of your house or mow the lawn, seeing it and thinking ‘Hey that looks great, I did that!’”
That makes sense to me. I always wished I was more “creative” (a.k.a. could draw or paint), but I definitely do feel my stress go down when I channel it into a good workout or successfully assembling a piece of furniture from Ikea.
Though it is definitely a good first step, I also asked how he deals with stress specifically at work. Often, getting many tasks at once or having a lot to do can send the brain into panic mode. Cue burnout. But Tim said that he’s learned ways to stop himself from that mental spiral. He said, “I’m a writer, so I write down physical to-do lists. I get a clear idea of what I’m up against and prioritize each item. Having a tangible list makes it less overwhelming. That way you don’t miss anything either.” Easy enough! I can see how having your tasks plainly written down could stop them from swirling around your head.
He also pointed out that it’s important to make positive associations with work. In other words, you can’t just associate your job with stress and negativity, or you’ll never train your brain to think of it in a good light. Tim’s way of doing this is running our Charitable Friday’s program.
“It has been a good motivator because it’s helpful to do something on the side for a good cause. It not only keeps things in perspective but involves me with the company in a more fun way.”
Be Intentional with Your Thoughts
I also wanted to know how he deals with stress in the moment. “On the job if I feel overwhelmed, I focus on the parts of my job that I do enjoy, and the little accomplishments. Projects get done day-by-day, moment-by-moment. You might take months or years to finish a job. You can’t wait around for its completion before you let yourself feel good.”
Focus on the small wins to avoid burnout, huh? This is similar to what psychologists suggest as well.
Psychology Today says, “… you’ll need to strengthen your brain’s recognition that effort toward your goals can result in success. When the brain releases dopamine in rewarding bursts, you experience a deep intrinsic satisfaction along with increased motivation, curiosity, perseverance, and memory. The pleasure burst of dopamine’s intrinsic motivation accompanying your brain’s recognition of each progressive increment achieved in the goal pathway will keep you motivated to persevere.”
Learning to stop and recognize the small victories doesn’t just happen on its own, though. You’ve got to consciously do it. Tim explained, “Show me a person who is highly successful, and I’ll show you a person who focuses on positives and looks at things with an open mind. Avoid letting other people’s negativity bring you down.” Well said, Tim!
Small Steps You Can Take Today
Tim’s last bit of advice to avoid burnout? “Stop and breath, maybe really meditate, or maybe just have some dedicated stress-free time. One easy way of having relaxation time is letting yourself binge-watch Netflix without guilt.”
Now that sounds like something I can do today. Grey’s Anatomy, here I come.
Let us know your tricks for avoiding burnout in the comments… And I’ll catch you the next time I ask, “Am I Doing This Right?”