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Navigating Burnout

Are you familiar with burnout?

It’s the “state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet constant demands.” (helpguide.org)

Doesn’t that sound like the perfect description of 2020?

Which is precisely why I chose to spend time at a friend’s cabin in the woods recently. Canoeing, hiking, reading and away from my phone. It was exactly what I needed. Because 2020 has been relentlessly stressful for all of us. We’ve spent months navigating loss, anxiety, and uncertainty. In many ways, it feels like we’re still trying to find our footing on a constantly shifting landscape.


When I returned from the cabin I discovered a recent episode of Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast where she interviewed Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski about their aptly named book ‘Burnout’. I loved this episode because they confirmed what I knew to be true. That burnout often shows up in order to force us to sloooow down (another 2020 theme) and deal with our emotions instead of avoiding them and soldiering on.

Now listen, I used to be skeptical about these things we call “emotions”. I knew I was an emotional gal but I had a hard time believing they actually affected me or my life. I mean, they were all in my head, right? In fact, I used to have a hard time buying into anything science couldn’t prove with a double-blind, peer-reviewed study. After all, it was medical science that saved me when I got cancer as a child.

But when I started coaching, practicing yoga, and digging into the research of Brené Brown (hello emotions + science!) I began to understand that our emotions and how we deal with them…influence everything.

And lately,
Science has been catching up.

Turns out, emotions aren’t simply something we make up, “every system in your body responds to the chemical and electrical cascade activated by emotion.” (Unlocking Us podcast)  It’s also recently been proven that removing the stressor doesn’t mean that you’ve dealt with the stress (and emotions) it caused. The effects of these emotions accumulate over time resulting in burnout because we haven’t properly processed them.

Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in our emotions.

Unlocking Us podcast

For example, anyone who’s had someone dangerously cut them off in traffic and found themselves still cursing 5 blocks later with a pounding heart and sweaty palms knows that just because the car is gone doesn’t mean that the emotional and physical side effects are over. Yet, our society acts like we should be fine once the source of our immediate stress is gone. Like we have this magical ability to instantly get over it. This is evidenced in the fact that most workplaces in Canada only give 3 days off for bereavement. THREE DAYS!!  The attitude is the person died, you had the funeral, you should be good now, right?

Except that’s not how it works. Trauma is what happened, grief (fear, anger, shame, etc) are what linger. 

Have you heard the line that ‘the body knows and it’s always keeping score’? It means we need to find a healthy way to complete the stress response cycle and move through these emotions, otherwise, the body stores the stress (aka unresolved emotions) until we’re ready to deal with them. And if we don’t deal with them? The result is (dis)ease. Something we’d all like to avoid. 

I learned about burnout the hard way. 

I’ve burnt out in every sector of the workforce (yes, including government which is notoriously slow) so I knew the job itself wasn’t to blame…it was MEI was to blame. I was told about ways to manage the stress, but always raised a skeptical eyebrow to it. Instead, I believed the solution was to simply work harder and longer to get the work done. But of course, the ‘to do’ list was never-ending. And the more I took on, the more I was given. So when any project was done and dusted, I was too.  

It’s actually quite common to get sick after prolonged periods of stress. I could almost predict to the hour when I’d get sick after a big event. My boss knew this happened too and urged us to take “lieu days” because she knew we needed the downtime. It also reminds me of a friend who got sick every July when she was done teaching. Have you ever ended up sick during your vacation time? It’s like our body knows it has time to shut down, so it does.  

In the Grief Recovery Method® we look at significant events and ask if there were any illnesses or accidents around that time. It’s a clue that while the stressor was gone, the stress was not completed. It’s getting stuck in these emotions that creates the problem. And science is also pretty clear about what helps, how we can complete the stress response cycle, and avoid feeling stuck, overwhelmed, and exhausted.

Here’s what helps…. 

PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

Movement helps our bodies complete the stress response cycle and that movement can be anything that…well…moves you! Yoga and dancing will always be my favourite ways to move my body but I also loved the change to canoeing and proper hiking at the cabin. Even if your favourite physical activities are unavailable with COVID this could be the perfect time to try something new. 

BREATHING

Science is catching up to what yoga’s been preaching for 5000 years (give or take). Mindful breathing is one of the most powerful things we can do. It’s easy to scoff the first time someone tells you to stop and take a breath. I mean, we breathe every minute of every day…it’s not hard to do. But sometimes we want the solution to be as complicated as the problem feels. As if that somehow justifies why we’re so overwhelmed. Breathing seems too easy of a solution. But I urge you to try it anyway. Start small.

The breath is always your entry point to the present moment because breath is always happening. It acts as a barometer for the body and carries lots of information because it reveals our true/underlying state. The breath is also a mirror of the mind. If your breath is short and shallow, you might be anxious. If the breath is long and deep, you’re likely feeling calm and relaxed.

But here’s the super cool Jedi-master thing about it – we can control the breath and shift our energy at will. By simply changing the breath, we can shift our mind and emotions! Seriously, how amazing is that?! From Lamaze to Wim Hof, we know breathing methods can help us find and maintain calm in extreme circumstances.

Even if you can change nothing else in your circumstance, you can shift the way you’re breathing through it. Even just 2 min of noticing your in-breath and out-breath and mindfully slowing it down will help.

CONNECTION

Having a positive interaction with another human being helps our bodies complete the stress response cycle. It can be short and simple like giving or receiving a compliment. Or it can be giving a 20 second hug (to someone in your bubble) which helps produce feel-good chemicals like oxytocin. Or chatting with the girl who takes your order at the burger shop. This literally happened last weekend and I KNOW I made a positive difference to her day, as it did to mine. It felt fantastic to share a laugh with a stranger again. So chat up some people today!

MINDFULNESS

Mindfulness is one of those trendy wellness terms that often leaves us confused.  What is it…?  How do I…?

Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. (Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley) *If you have a hard time with the word “Mindfulness,” try using “Paying Attention” or “Being Present” instead.

Mindfulness involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.

The practice of mindfulness has been shown to improve immune, respiratory, and cardiovascular function. It lessens hypertension and anxiety. Gives us greater focus, attention, and a sense of well-being.

Some people believe ‘downtime’ is wasteful and unproductive. But ideas are generated when we’re feeling free, not when we’re tired, stressed and up until 3am hammering out your presentation. Ever have a fantastic idea while you’re in the shower? Or out for a walk? Or driving in the countryside?

LAUGHTER OR CRYING

Not nervous laughter or the fake, polite laughter when you really didn’t get the joke but the tears streaming down your cheeks, loud snorting, maybe even peed-your-pants-a-little laughter is healing. Hmm, maybe this is why we developed a morbid sense of humour? Laughter as a way through the uncomfortable feelings around our own mortality.

They say you can either laugh or cry when it comes to stressful situations and it turns out either one works!  Tears are just as healing as laughter. They’re your body’s natural physiological response to intense emotions which is why we can cry when we’re sad, angry, scared, joyful or moved. You can even see the microscopic structural differences in types of tears.

And usually, when we let ourselves really cry (ugly cry as Oprah would say) it only takes a few minutes to complete the emotion and feel relief.

CARING

Caring for each other. Both being the person who cares AND being the person who is cared for are essential for social creatures like us. 2020 has been especially challenging because we’re missing that in-person community to help us navigate all the losses we’re experiencing. But we CAN still show up in online spaces with our besties and while Zoom doesn’t come with a 20 sec hug it can help us feel connected at a time when so many of us are feeling isolated and lonely.

Stress isn’t bad for you. Being stuck is bad for you.

Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski – ‘Unlocking Us’ podcast

As Emily & Amelia said in that podcast, “Emotions are a lot like tunnels.” They have a beginning (stressful event), a middle (all the emotions that happen as a result) and an end (the completion of those emotions). But the ‘messy middle’ can get pretty dark and if we don’t find our way to the light at the other end of the tunnel, we end up stuck and sick, exhausted and burnt out.

Sometimes the only way to get through the tunnel is with a loving presence to walk beside us through the darkness, help us tune into our emotions, meet them with compassion, and complete the grief (stress, anger, guilt, shame, despair or whatever else we find in there) so we can finally step into the light at the other end.

This is why I do what I do for a living. 💗

If you’re feeling exhausted, burnt out, emotionally drained, or your tunnel seems to be going on forever I’d love to help you. I’ll bring all my tools (GRM, Brené Brown, yogic philosophy) + my years of experience to help guide you out of that exhausted, overwhelmed place.

Let’s find the best way to work together.

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