Chronic stress can make us lose sight of what brings us joy. Rediscovering that joy—and letting go of guilt—just might tip the scales back to happiness.
We’ve all heard of worker burnout; in fact, it’s recognized as an occupational hazard, especially in people-centered fields like health care and education. But increasingly we’re hearing of “parent burnout,” “creative burnout,” and more. All of this buzz makes us wonder: What exactly is burnout? It turns out, it has a lot to do with balance.
IT’S A JUGGLE
We all have different roles to perform throughout the day, and we try our best to balance them. We seek that elusive work-life balance. We balance caring for our families with caring for ourselves. We balance our budgets, our screen time, our diets, our moods, our exercise, our social lives, our downtime, and more.
In this effort to balance it all, we sometimes forget about the cost to our mental health. Each new item added to the scales, each “to do” on the list, is an acute stressor. When those pressures accumulate, they compound each other. Before we know it, we’re living in a state of chronic stress.
And that is where burnout comes in.
Brought on by chronic stress, burnout involves mental, emotional, or physical depletion that requires more resources than a person can muster to cope with it.
The symptoms initially seem like common, everyday complaints, but—like so many of us in today’s fast-paced society—they just don’t stop: persistent physical aches, endless exhaustion despite rest, recurring digestive trouble, headaches that never quite go away, feeling perpetually stressed out, and finding that what once brought you joy, excitement, and satisfaction now feels like drudgery.
Nicole Lapin, a successful American television news anchor and businesswoman, is the author of multiple books. Her latest, Becoming Super Woman: A Simple 12-Step Plan to Go from Burnout to Balance, was supposed to come out last year in early spring.
But Lapin pushed the publication date to the fall because she felt like a fraud.
Here she was, offering her real-life template for rebounding from exhaustion and overwhelm—yet she felt on the verge of relapse, slipping back into old, unhealthy habits. Lapin writes that she “got cocky,” “stopped practicing balance,” and “went back to thinking that there were external solutions to my internal problems. And, of course, there never are.”
How did Lapin, who lives in New York City, address the resurfacing burnout? “I literally went off the grid and read my own book,” she says, “which is how I know it works.”
“This is not a marketing thing,” she adds.
Lapin wrote the book because she wanted to help correct a misconception that too many smart, successful, and strong people believe: “when you’re successful you’ll be happy, and when you’re happy you’ll be balanced. But balance and chaos have to exist together, which is why you have to constantly work on mental health care.”
“It’s not something you figure out and say, ‘Cool. I’m better. I’m fixed.’ It’s something that requires constant attention and maintenance.”
DILIGENT & DEPLETED
While there is no conclusive overlap between burnout and depression, a study published in the March 2019 issue of Frontiers of Psychology found that burnout, if left untreated, can exacerbate depressive symptoms.
Furthermore, it seems that burnout is also contagious. According to the international journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping, even without direct or close contact, when there is a perceived collective burnout—specifically in the work environment—it can be transferable.
In a nod to the seriousness of this condition, in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its definition of burnout in The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). In the previous edition, the WHO had defined burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion.” But now, 45 years after the first formal study of professional burnout, the WHO recognizes it as a syndrome—one that is indicated by “(1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; (2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and (3) reduced professional efficacy.”
The WHO upholds that burnout is not a medical condition but an “occupational phenomenon” arising from chronic stress that “has not been successfully managed.” The data would seem to bear this out. A recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23 percent reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes.
Persistent stress and exhaustion are not limited to the workplace. In many areas of our lives, we push ourselves past healthy boundaries, increasingly doing more with less. Why do we feel this constant pressure to be so busy?
“It is first and foremost a badge of honor,” says Paula Davis-Laack, a burnout prevention and stress resilience expert based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “We get a lot of worth and a sense of accomplishment and purpose from doing a lot of things.”
And our society offers accolades like extra recognition, incentives, bonuses, and promotions to those who can accomplish a lot. “When you get rewarded for doing something, your brain goes, ‘Oh, that’s great. Let me keep doing this,’” says Davis-Laack.
There’s a problem with that, of course, particularly since that craving for more can lead to consistent feelings of dread, anxiety, self-doubt, and weariness—all underpinnings of chronic stress.
Tom Alcock, PsyD, from Chicago, says that burnout is “not the kind of tired that sleep can cure—or a vacation, or if you drink enough water or exercise. It’s the kind of tired that happens when your soul is tired.”
Lapin, who has found a niche delivering no-nonsense advice about money and business to young women, pushed through a long-percolating burnout until she experienced a breakdown.
While in treatment at a psychiatric ward, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her struggles, Lapin says, were rooted in what she describes as “a broken and traumatic upbringing.”
To numb herself from that experience, Lapin turned to work. In Becoming Super Woman, she admits to hiding from her trauma by “working and then working some more.”
And the more she achieved, the harder she worked. With two bestselling books to her name, Lapin certainly “leaned in”—jumping on every opportunity for success. But at what cost?
Our culture responded exuberantly to Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, but Lapin—who has a section in her latest book titled “Please Lean the [Expletive] Out”—believes we’ve gone too far.
“I think we lean into everything so hard that we’re falling over,” she says.
Alcock, the clinical psychologist from Chicago, describes two kinds of coping styles when it comes to burnout: Active coping is when people, like Lapin, go and go until they end up crashing; they often become anxious, irritable, or angry. Passive coping is when people respond by becoming despondent; they may sleep more often or stop eating regularly.
“Just like everything else in this field, it would be lovely if we could find a good balance, and, of course, it’s really hard to do that,” he says. “Everybody has to look at their personal ability, their own efficacy, and try to see how they can mitigate the factors that get them to the level of burnout.”
Deb Bishop, a freelance graphic designer who dedicated a lot of her time to volunteer work, knew she needed to make changes when she started to feel tapped out.
“I was resentful and overwhelmed and woke up through the night with all sorts of concerns or thoughts about what I had to do,” she recalls. “I just felt like I was getting a little lost in the shuffle.”
With her oldest son soon leaving for college; her younger son, a freshman; and her daughter in middle school, Bishop felt like her time with all three kids was fleeting.
“I remember, we were all home one night on a Friday, squeezed on this little couch, watching a comedy on Netflix,” says Bishop, from New York. “I thought, ‘Oh my God … when’s the next time this will happen?’ I realized, probably not much more, if at all again,” she says. “I just tried to feel that moment.”
“I felt like everybody, including myself, was going through a transition,” she says. “I needed to focus on what I wanted.”
Seizing the opportunity to enjoy these moments and make more of them, Bishop has reduced her volunteering commitments.
PARENTS UNDER PRESSURE
Like Bishop, we might identify our own personal signs of being off-balance, but there is a science to recognizing this syndrome. The Maslach Burnout Inventory is the most commonly used instrument for measuring burnout, and it assesses (1) emotional exhaustion, (2) depersonalization—feeling disconnected from your body and thoughts—and (3) personal accomplishment.
As different groups of people have begun to experience the tell-tale symptoms of burnout, researchers have had to take their experiences into account. In fact, the Maslach scale was adapted to assess parental stress, and research is expanding to explore how all parents are battling daily stressors that can lead to burnout.
Stephen, a father of two sons, has experience with both parental burnout and depression. He knows when he is close to reaching his limit because he starts to lose interest in what he’s passionate about, including the personalized jewelry and accessories business he owns with his wife, Lisa.
The California native says burnout “is like trying to pedal a bike, but there’s no chain. You’re putting in all the effort, but there’s no drive forward.”
That kind of intense exhaustion is a leading element in the definition of parental burnout. As shown in a study published in 2018 in Clinical Psychological Science, exhaustion becomes burnout when it leads parents to feel detached from their children and unsure of their parenting abilities.
Stephen, who is also a former pastor, came up with a strategy for thriving in life, which he calls “Life by Design.” This strategy is grounded in an understanding that everyone is inherently worthy.
“When I begin to move into darker places, when I doubt my value and whether I have anything to offer, I grab hold of the fact that this must be true for me, too,” he says.
To better understand parental overwhelm, researchers at Nanyang Technological University, looked to the brain—specifically the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with the ability to understand someone else’s point of view. They measured the brain activity of mothers and their children during a shared experience, then assessed the synchrony, or alignment, of brain activity between the mothers and their children.
Mothers who reported high levels of parental stress showed less synchrony with their children than did mothers who reported lower levels of stress. When brain activity is not aligned between two people, it can be harder to share emotions and communicate easily.
“It’s not like you can power through,” says Robyn Koslowitz, PhD, of Lakewood, New Jersey. “You won’t be able to manage, because your brain won’t let you.”
Chicago psychologist Tyler Fortman agrees that we cannot power through burnout. He finds that burnout arises when people are stuck in a situation that doesn’t give them meaning, yet they “try to white-knuckle it or grit it out.”
“Most people can do that for some period of time,” he says, “but it’s just not sustainable.”
Koslowitz believes that we must learn the difference between self-care and self-maintenance—a difference people often don’t recognize.
Going to the gym, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep—these are all basic, self-preserving needs that have to do with maintenance. On the other hand, “self-care is engaging in an experience that brings you joy,” she says.
In a society that often mistakes maintenance for care, we need to clarify what self-care and joy might look like.
According to Koslowitz, it’s not “eating snacks and mindlessly watching some reality-TV family until you fall asleep. That’s not self-care, and that’s not self-maintenance—that’s just anesthesia.”
What brings us joy, then, is what makes us smile without effort. It’s what we daydream about. It’s about the people, the passions, and the simple pleasures that give meaning to our lives.
Those sources of joy will be unique to each of us. So we should not think poorly of ourselves when what “should” bring peace and fulfillment doesn’t quite do the trick: “It’s great that you took your kid to the park and played ball,” says Koslowitz, “but that might not fully recharge your battery, and you don’t have to feel guilty about that.”
That kind of guilt is not helpful; in fact, it might just add fuel to the fire. “Guilt only contributes to burnout,” she says. “If you haven’t done enough self-care, you’re more likely to overreact, and then you’re going to feel even more guilt.”
Even the good parts of our lives can cause stress and burnout—the job we love, the family we treasure, the passion project that became overwhelming. And that’s okay. It just means that we might need to seek the personal joy of self-care from activities that are separate from our parenting, professions, or whatever else is causing us to feel burned out.
Finding your joy might mean going out for tea and window-shopping with a friend; playing flag football with your old college buddies on the weekend; teaching your child how to play a new board game; or having uninterrupted alone time to read a book.
“It’s unrealistic to expect that your behavior is going to change completely overnight,” says burnout specialist Davis-Laack. “Just start to think differently. Doing little things to change the way your life is organized, consistently over time, will move the needle to get a better handle on or reduce stress.”
For inspiration, we might look to Lapin’s reinterpretation of what true superpowers and real superheroes actually look like.
In Becoming Super Woman, Lapin writes, “A real Super Woman—Super (space) Woman—is a woman who is dedicated to the pursuit of her own happiness, who decides what’s important to her and makes time for it, who listens to what’s going on in her own head and then deliberately and thoughtfully acts on it. A Super Woman is her own … hero, who writes her own story and, when needed, saves herself.”
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When symptoms crop up, speak up. Burnout prevention expert Paula Davis-Laack says the sooner you do, “the easier it will be to reverse it and get back on course.” First, determine specifically what you’re feeling and what you need. (For example, you’ve been sick on and off for two months—atypical for you—and you would like to go on sabbatical or be reassigned.) Then talk with a trusted person, ideally a boss, leader, or healthcare professional, who can help implement the change.
Be curious about and accept emotions. Recognizing our feelings allows us to confront them. For example, when you feel guilt, Robyn Koslowitz, PhD, recommends acknowledging it and letting it go: “Tell yourself, ‘It wasn’t a good thing to yell at my kids. I’m going to apologize to them and say good-bye to the guilt.’”
Practice self-care. The book Thriving in Healthcare: A Positive Approach to Reclaim Balance and Avoid Burnout in Your Busy Life suggests taking short “humanity” breaks to focus on human experiences like positivity, fresh air, laughter—even a pleasant errand.
Printed as “From burnout to balance,” Winter 2020
via hopetocope.com | Hope To Cope With Anxiety & Depression
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