By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
Burnout is something I’ve been talking a lot about in clinic, online and in conversations with colleagues. It seems as if our non-stop, high-pressure days are really beginning to take a toll.
What’s going on behind the stress?
When stress levels are persistently high, every body system is impacted and even more importantly the mechanisms of rest, recover and repair are essentially disabled so the damage can accumulates inside. Some of these effects include:
- altered blood sugar metabolism (hypoglycemia or insulin resistance)
- poor sleep quality, and reduced REM sleep cycles
- changes in neurotransmitter production resulting in anxiety, depression, lack of motivation and drive
- either a rise of fall in blood pressure depending on whether cortisol is high or low
- tendency to gain abdominal fat, and lose muscle tone
- digestive symptoms like bloating, IBS and acid reflux
- body aches and pains, and an overall increase in inflammation
- changes in immune system function, which can result in more allergies & hives, more frequent colds and illess, or autoimmunity depending on your susceptibility
- stress on your cardiovascular system
First signs of burnout
The very first signs that you might be heading towards burnout are actually very consistent. They include:
- A change in your sleep patterns, especially waking up frequently in the night and having a restless sleep.
- Feeling unmotivated at work.
- Being very irritable with a short fuse.
When you see these three signs together and they’re persistent, it’s time to take some serious action to turn it around – your body is calling for attention, and especially a reduction in stress load, and more rest.
When does feeling stressed & tired turn into complete burnout?
When stress is persistent without a break, you will eventually hit a wall where you’re forced to slow down. The other common scenario is when stress is always pretty high, but you’re coping and then a big, sudden stressor hits – something like a job loss, a death in the family, a health scare, etc. Burnout is characterized by exhaustion, overwhelm and anxiety. It may also look and feel a lot like depression – you want to be alone, your motivation is low and your mood is flat.
If you’ve identified that you may be in a burnout right now, there is definitely hope. It is important to remember that burnout is actually your body’s way of protecting you from the harmful effects of stress, but creating a wall or a boundary that stops you for a while. It’s also important to know that your body and nervous system is going to be very sensitive to stress for a while – meaning small stresses are going to feel intense, and you might also feel more generally on edge. You startle more easily, you might be sensitive to sound, and you’re needing more quiet and alone time.
First steps to feel better
One of my favourite places to start with burnout is to have a very simple daily practice of 3 self-care practices each day. It works best if you write them down – the checking off at the end of the day is helpful for your brain chemistry (it raises dopamine levels). In the beginning these self-care practices are VERY small, and very easily doable. The whole point is for your body to begin to feel that you’re paying attention. For example, beginning self-care practices may be things like: drinking 1 glass of water before a cup of coffee in the morning; getting outside for a 20 minute walk; spending 3 minutes stretching before bed; or having a healthy afternoon snack. Don’t be too ambitious here!
From here the sequence for recovering from burnout is:
- Building a consistent foundation with nutrition, gentle movement and stress-reducing activities.
- Balancing hormones, balancing your nervous system and reducing the overall stress load.
- Getting reconnected to what’s important to you, nurturing community and support, and practicing strategies to protect against stresses in the future.
Getting through burnout can take time. Just think about how many years you had high stress before it happened. If this is something that you currently need help with, please ask.
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