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Mental Health – Stress and Burnout

“(Stress is) a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” Richard Lazarus

The stress response is not a bad thing. It helps us cope, gives us energy and resources, and has kept us alive as a species. Acute stress in itself – one-off stressful situations – are not too much of a problem for the body. However, when acute stress turns into ongoing, chronic stress, we can start to struggle to manage the impact of the stress response on our body and mind. Additionally, it is not just the source of stress that causes us problems, but how well – or badly – we manage our stress. A good stress management strategy can help to buffer us to the ill effects of stress, but a poor one may mean chronic stress persists and we start heading down the road to burnout.

Burnout is the name given to the state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by long-term chronic stress. Some people may be more prone to burnout than others; setting excessively high demands on oneself, overwork, and perfectionism can make burnout more likely. But it is not inevitable. If you can recognise those traits in yourself, you can make changes to mitigate them.

Three stages of burnout

Stage one:  Stress Arousal

Symptoms might include:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Teeth grinding
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness/poor concentration
  • Gastro-intestinal disorders
  • Headaches

Stage two: Energy conservation

Energy conservation attempts to compensate for impact of stress. Work performance may start to be affected, there might be an increase in social withdrawal, increased use of self-medication (drugs, food, alcohol), apathy, lack of motivation, persistent tiredness, and needing longer to recover from events.

Stage three: Exhaustion.

This is where people may really feel as though something is wrong.

Physical signs and symptoms:

  • Feeling tired and drain nearly all the time
  • Lowered immune system – constantly ill
  • Change in sleep and appetite
  • Chronic health problems

Emotional signs and symptoms

  • Sense of failure and self-doubt
  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Detachment and isolation
  • Loss of interest
  • Desire to escape, run away or withdraw totally
  • Depression

Behavioural signs and symptoms

  • Withdrawal from activities and responsibilities
  • Isolating self from others
  • Excessive procrastination
  • Absenteeism at work

The good news is that the process of burnout can be stopped at any stage. Taking positive actions to alleviate the physical and psychological impact of prolonged stress can help prevent burnout from occurring. Treating burnout may be harder, but there are still things you can do.

You can find out more about how to redress the work/ life balance here.

Stress-relieving Tips

We all know what stress feels like, and most people have heard of the body’s survival system, known as the sympathetic nervous system, or “fight, flight, freeze”. This is turned on when we are stressed, anxious feel under threat, and happens automatically without us having to do anything about it. But many people are not aware that there is a counterpoint to this, the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as rest and digest and this sometimes take a conscious effort to switch on, particularly if we are on the go all the time.

We cannot eliminate stress altogether in our lives, and we would not really want to, as at times it can be useful. However, we can do something to help us manage it better. Learning to switch on the rest and digest system is an important part of any stress management strategy.

Here are some tried and tested ways to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. Some of them might not appeal, and it is not one size fits all, but why not try a few out and see which ones give you that sense of calm, and letting go:

  • Deep belly breathing: why not have a go at this short, guided belly breathing exercise to help you slow and deepen the breath
  • Get out in nature: Nature can be very calming, lowering blood pressure and lifting our mood. If you have not got any greenery close by even looking at a calming natural scene such as a photo, or perhaps a gentle nature documentary might do the trick. You can find out more about nature and mental health here.
  • Try a relaxation – this muscle relaxation can be a great way to relax the muscles and calm the mind at the end of a long day. Why not try it before bed?
  • Meditation – learning a skill like meditation can help you become less reactive to stress, and better able to manage the peaks and troughs of life. This short check-in meditation is a good way to take a break in the day, and give you a chance to see what’s going on in body and mind.
  • Stroking your pet (or find someone else’s to stroke!)
  • Focusing on your senses – finding a nice smell that makes you feel calm or listening to birdsong can help you slow down and shift the focus away from a busy brain that might be making stress worse. Why not try this short senses meditation from Manchester Mind’s Mindful March.
  • Colouring, knitting, or crafting: Many people find crafting, colouring, or knitting helps calm them down, giving them something to focus on.

Source: Manchester Mind