Burnout. After an intense year of multiple crises happening all at once, many of us are there - the emotional exhaustion and subsequent withdrawal due to higher workloads and for many institutional stress to boot.
It’s nice to know you’re not alone… but what do you DO about it?
As with anything, naming it is the first step. Notice how you have been feeling. You may have noticed a decrease in empathy or compassion due to a lack of energy to truly care (or at least not the way you would like to care). Those of us in helping professions have been hit especially hard - nurses, nursing assistances, respiratory therapists, mental health therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, nursing home workers, teachers, social workers, and more. Further, many of us are finding ourselves busier than ever, with less resources at our disposal, and often at relatively low pay. Burnout not only makes sense but seems inevitable.
Before giving up there, read on - I believe there is hope.
While we can’t fix the systemic issues in the agencies for which we work, at least not on our own or immediately, there are things we can start doing to help ourselves cope and perhaps even feel better than we have been, and it all goes back to the nervous system.
Our nervous systems are taxed to the max right now. Many of us are alternating between our fight or flight response (which may look like anxiety, anger, irritability, overwhelm, and/or a desire to fight or flee) and our shutdown response (which may look like depression, disconnect, giving up, lack of empathy, difficulty having compassion, and/or feeling shutdown). The good news is that this isn’t entirely bad. I mean, our nervous system is meant to respond to crises in this way. The problem is, the crises we find ourselves in now are ongoing and our bodies weren’t meant to stay in these states for extended periods of time. When we do, we start to get sick, having trouble sleeping, have digestive issues, and more.
The nervous system is key. Got it. Now what?
Now that we have an understanding of what our nervous system is doing (i.e., trying to help us cope with crises the only way it knows how), we can work with our nervous system to be more effective in the current situation. This might be tricky, because we need to complete the stress response and do something to send signals to our bodies (essentially our nervous systems) that we are safe. No small task in the middle of a pandemic where access to our usual coping skills is limited.
In their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, co-authors and sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski share the following strategies to complete the stress cycle:
Okay, we’ve all heard this one before, but the reason we have is because it works. Try taking a slow breath in and a long breath out all the way to the end until your abdominals contract*. An option I like is to do movement with the breath as in Volcano Breathing**; check out my YouTube video to walk you through that practice.
As humans, we are wired to connect. When we are around other humans, particularly those with whom we feel safe (especially when they are relatively calm), we can co-regulate with them - that is, if they are calm we can feel calm by being around them. So whether it is your kids, your pet, your partner, your parents, coworkers, or your local barista, have a positive social interaction (in person, not just online or texting) to complete the stress cycle and calm your body.
Uncontrollable, ridiculous, full-bellied laughter (no fake laughter here) is what we’re going for here, or even reminiscing with someone about a time you laughed like that. This is a great and fun way to complete the stress cycle and regulate your body.
This is what I call a “decent hug”. It a 20 second+, no holds barred hug where you are both leaning into each other and breathing together. The oxytocin released will help calm your body while completing the stress cycle.
Ever notice how much better you feel after a big cry? Especially if you just pay attention to the crying itself versus thinking about things and feeding it thoughts about the stress? It seriously works. If you’re not sure how to get started, consider free writing whatever comes up. I find you’ll get there eventually.***
Do something, anything, to express yourself creatively. I find writing works well for me but also am finding solace in planning a fun and special night for my nieces with decorations and special food I am creating.
While doing these once or twice in our chronic crisis won’t cure all, doing these things more often will certain help take the edge off to make things more manageable.
Another important piece in addressing burnout is to have your plan B.
Start to look at additional options. When I was burned out working for a community mental health agency that churned out therapy like factory do cars, it helped to think about other options. At the time I thought about being a barista or working at Whole Foods or Target, jobs that paid only slightly less but with significantly less stress. The idea isn't necessarily to do your Plan B, but to have it so you know you can. And maybe, just maybe, you might do it.
Curing Burnout = Community Care
Since curing burnout is not only about self-care, it’s also about community care, it is important to enlist the support of those closest to you to help. That may be your family, friends, coworkers, and more. This may look like your partner and/or children doing more of their part around the house or you and a friend taking turns watching each others’ kids to have a night off or maybe covering each others’ shifts while one of you takes a day off. It may involve being the squeaky wheel at work to advocate for change so you and your colleagues are getting the support you need. It could be many of these things. Whatever it is, get connected and create your system of support, remembering to include yourself in your offerings of care.
Looking for more community support?
Join one of my Facebook groups for women where I share tips for getting through these challenging times (and more) and create a safe space for women to support each other. Find those groups here:
* NOTE: If you are a complex trauma survivor or are a provider experiencing compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma, another option is to just notice your breath and inviting it in versus trying to breath in a certain way.
** Volcano breathing is a technique from Yoga Calm and works great with adults and kids alike.
*** A word of caution about crying and feeling the big feelings. If you are a trauma survivor and/or have a history of emotional regulation struggles that include suicidal ideation and self-harm, you may want to consider doing this in a safe environment perhaps around someone you trust who can hold a safe space for you.