Stress is the body’s response to worry or fear caused by a situation or life event which can be real or imagined. Over a sustained period of time, stress can lead to burnout which is when continual stress does not abate and results in mental and physical exhaustion.
Burnout has been recognised by the World Health Organization as a syndrome caused by chronic and long-standing workplace stress. But burnout can be as a result of chronic stress from any life factors: death of a loved one, money worries, work pressures and divorce, to name just a few. The symptoms of a pending burnout can creep up slowly until an individual eventually reaches breaking point and cannot continue.
Effects of burnout
As well as the emotional complications of burnout; feeling demotivated and defeated, having a negative outlook, doubting oneself and feeling unable to cope with the demands of life, burnout also has a significant effect on physical health.
Burnout and the associated chronic stress can cause long standing fatigue, headaches, nausea, and difficulty sleeping. When stress becomes excessive and our stress response is activated repeatedly, one can feel in a permanent state of flight, fight, or freeze.
The fight, flight, or freeze response is the body’s natural and automatic physiological response to an event which is perceived as stressful or frightening. This in turn, activates the sympathetic nervous system as the body releases adrenaline to prepare to fight or run away, the body may also freeze, with an inability to move or act against a threat.
Self-regulation and burnout
This continuous state of stress for the body, can lead to or be a symptom of burnout. The good news is that there are practical steps we can take to calm and self-regulate our emotions when this fight, flight or freeze response is triggered as well reset our minds and bodies once breaking point has been reached and continue the path to recovery.
Self-regulation plays a crucial role in managing the effects of burnout. Self-regulation means taking control of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour in a crisis.
Here are three simple practical strategies that we can use when we feel that we need to regulate:
- Engage your senses. One way we can engage our senses is through the technique of ‘proprioception’, also known as ‘heavy work’. Proprioception means drawing our senses to parts of the body through using effort to move. Giving someone a tight bear hug, clicking a pen, reaching with your arm to scratch your back can all offer simple proprioception moments. Eat a little snack, such as crunchy Hula Hoop crisps, carrot sticks, or drink some liquid through a straw; these simple techniques are shown to help with grounding and self-regulation.
- Control your breathing. Controlling our breathing is a key way to self-regulate. Breathing into a paper bag is a great way to channel our breathing, but if you don’t have a paper bag to hand, focus on your breathing through a simple breathing practice such as ‘lotus’ breathing; imagine your hand is the lotus flower. Hold your hand with the palm facing up to the sky, and slowly close your fingers to your fingertips touch like a closed flower, whilst inhaling a long, slow breath for the count of 4. Hold your breath for the count of 4, and then slowly ’open’ the flower as your fingers open out as you exhale for the count of 4.
- Stimulate your vestibular system. The vestibular system uses receptors in our ears to perceive our body’s movements and balance, and notice when our body is lying, sitting, or moving. You can stimulate this system through taking a walk, or finding a swing or rocking chair. Car motion also stimulates the vestibular system, which may be why the rocking motion can be soothing for some infants. If you are at a desk and unable to move outside, slow head movements, such as rolling your neck, can also help to self-regulate.
Chronic burnout negatively affects day-to-day activities. People with elevated burnout symptoms have difficulty to translate momentary boosts in regulatory resources into adaptive strategies that are linked with higher performance.
By drawing our senses to particular physical parts of ourselves, we can take back control instead of letting our emotions escalate.
Poppy Gibson, EdD currently leads the innovative Blended Accelerated BA Hons in Primary Education Studies at Anglia Ruskin University (Essex).
Amber Browne is an MSc Psychology student. Her primary research interest focuses on trauma-informed care.