WRITTEN BY STEFF BRAND, M.S., NCC, Licensed Professional Counselor- Intern
An American-German psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, first defined this term in 1975 with the following criteria:
1. emotional exhaustion – the fatigue that comes from caring too much and for too long
2. depersonalization – the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion; and
3. decreased sense of accomplishment – an unconquerable sense of futility: feeling that nothing you do makes any difference
While this is a relatively new term, the idea is timeless and remains highly prevalent in conversations today. Burnout is sturdily linked to stressors related to health, relationships, and work; and the epidemic is only getting worse. As of this year, burnout is no longer just a feeling word. The World Health Organization has publicly recognized the severe impacts burnout has on physical, emotional, and mental health and has officially categorized the phenomenon as a medical condition.
What to watch out for?
Stressors related to health: anything that deprives you from getting enough physical activity, healthy foods, water, positive interaction, or sleep. The World Health Organization and the National Sleep Foundation both necessitate eight hours of sleep per night for adults. In today’s fast-paced environment, two-thirds of adults in all developed nations are not allocating enough time for sleep, but that is a whole other topic in itself.
Stressors related to relationships: is there anyone that cannot identify with this one? I am not just talking romantic relationships, but we encounter stress from siblings, parents, co-workers, friends, leasing agents, contractors, and the dudes at the grocery store that ask, “is this all today?” when you clearly have nothing else on the conveyer belt. Even if you consider most of your relationships to be satisfactory, there is no perfect relationship that completely lacks conflict. Everyone experiences stressors and is susceptible to future burnout.
Stressors related to work: it is difficult to really pin-point when we started glorifying the employee that works all weekend, but it is no secret that said appraisal exists in this generation. Our culture celebrating this workaholic identity is one of the main reasons we are seeing an increase in physical, emotional, and mental burnout. Not only does this notion affect the employee that is losing sleep, depriving themselves of self-care, and ultimately denying their opportunity for happiness, but this also hurts the employee that spends time with their family on the weekends. Their self-esteem is being compromised because they are unable to meet the same standards as their overachieving peer in a 40-hour work week.
How to manage the stress?
Get physical. “But I have zero coordination or endurance, and even if I did, there is no time in my day.” Listen. Physical activity does not have to be a daunting task or a time-consuming part of your afternoon. Some people thrive off of their 6AM cycle class, but others produce the same endorphins by dancing to Taylor Swift in their living room. If you have an office job, try investing in a standing desk and use it for part of the day. Or try taking a quick walk around the building on your lunch break. Have regular sex. Find some sort of physical activity that you enjoy and schedule it into each day. Treat it like a hobby and look forward to it.
Release oxytocin. Be affectionate and seek affection. Most often this comes from someone you love. Relationship researcher and clinical psychologist, John Gottman, recommends a six second kiss. Six seconds is far too long to kiss someone that you do not really like or that you feel unsafe around. When someone kisses you for this amount of time, you can establish the right amount of trust and security to feel confident battling life’s stressors. You know you have someone else on your side. Dr. Brian Baker, a psychiatrist that researched ways that marital dissonance and work-related stress affect blood pressure, found that just being in close physical proximity to your partner can lower blood pressure (if the relationship is satisfactory). In their book Burnout, psychological scholars, Emily and Amelia Nagoski discuss how a twenty second hug can change your hormones, lower your heart rate, and improve your mood. Exactly twenty seconds is not necessary, but this is the average amount of time for someone to feel relaxed and safe with their partner. And for you single individuals or those of you in long-distance relationships, try connecting with a pet. Research shows the same positive effects from giving affection to dogs, horses, and all sorts of animals.
Connect socially. Instead of pretending to do something on your phone in the elevator, smile at strangers. Tell someone you like their outfit. Pay it forward in the Starbucks drive thru line. Leave a thank you note for the co-worker that chose to give you constructive feedback in private. Be empathetic when your server gets your order wrong. Tell the mom with four kids in the grocery store that she is doing a great job.
Breathe. Deep and slow breaths down-regulate the response to stress. Exhale extra-long until you feel your stomach contract. Breathe in for five seconds, hold for five seconds, breathe out for ten seconds, then pause for another five seconds. Try that a few times and see how you feel. World-renowned researcher and clinical psychologist, Julie Gottman, recommends making each muscle group tense and then releasing the tension throughout your breathing exercises. Spend extra time on the areas that you carry the most stress. Notice sensations along the way.
Laugh. I am talking BELLY LAUGHS. Reach out to that one childhood friend that really gets you. Reminisce on that time that dad’s swim trunks practically came off while going down the super steep waterslide. Connect with your youthful side. Remember what gives you feelings of joy and hold on to that. Fake it ‘til you make it.
Let it go. The stress. The toxic relationship. The mistake your boss told you ten times not to make. The piece of German chocolate cake that was way too big. The three-week break from the gym. The critical deadline you did not meet. The wrong thing you said. The rejection you experienced. The apology you never received. The ending you never wrote. Just let it go.
Be kind to yourself. Start each day with positive affirmations about yourself. Yesterday was a bad day, but you are proud that you finished 75% of your to-do list. Practice gentle self-talk and befriend your inner critic. Set your ideal threshold and strive for good enough, not perfection (or anything close to it). Give yourself an eight-hour sleep opportunity every night, and do not feel guilty about it.
Meet with your therapist. No one said you have to do it alone. Similar to scheduling regular primary doctor visits, be proactive about your mental health. Go process the neurological and physiological shifts that are happening in response to the stressors. Regularly seeing a therapist can help normalize your experiences, help you develop coping skills to self-manage stress and stay grounded, and help you think rationally in (let’s face it) a world that sometimes expects too much of you. Meet with your therapist BEFORE you experience symptoms of burnout.
Freudenberger, H. (1975) “The Staff Burn-Out Syndrome in Alternative Institutions.” Psychotherapy Theory Research and Practice
Nagoski, A. and Nagoski, E. (2019) Burnout. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Heller, Rachel and Levine, Amir (2011) Attached. New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC
Walker, M. (2017) Why We Sleep. New York, New York: Scribner. An Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.