It’s no secret that stress can take a toll on our mental and physical health. What may be less well known, however, is that stress is not always bad. In fact, moderate levels of stress properly managed can actually be helpful in stimulating personal growth and even improving our health. The key is learning how to manage stress so that it doesn’t overwhelm us.
When stress levels become too high and persist for too long, burnout can set in. Burnout is a feeling of emotional, physical, and mental weariness that can lead to cynicism and detachment from one’s job, as well as lower productivity and efficiency. It can be very destructive both to the individual and those close to them – and should be avoided at all costs.
Fortunately, burnout is just mismanaged stress. Proper stress management is composed of stress reduction and stress redemption. Overwhelm, alienation, and inefficacy are the three kinds of unnecessary stress you can reduce or eliminate. Healthy remaining stress can be converted into growth via stress redemption.
Let’s dive into each of these a little bit more. First: Stress Reduction.
Emotional overwhelm is the first pillar of burnout. This is a feeling of being out of control and unable to cope with the demands of our lives. Symptoms can include feeling constantly rushed and hurried, having difficulty relaxing or sleeping, feeling irritable and short-tempered, and struggling to concentrate or remember things.
One of the myths about overwhelm is that it is caused by too much work. This actually is not the case! We can be overwhelmed by a relatively low level of busyness and a high amount of rest and relaxation. This may seem counterintuitive. But in my research and practical experience as a career performance coach focusing on burnout prevention and digital wellness, this is reality.
So what is the true solution to overwhelm, you might ask?
The answer: clarity.
Clarity is almost always the most powerful antidote to overwhelm. So the first step when you are feeling overwhelmed is to take a step back and assess the situation. Then write down everything that comes to mind related to what is stressing you out – basically braindump everything that’s on your plate. Typically this resolves most cases of acute overwhelm on its own!
If you need more clarity, start asking yourself questions about what kinds of clarity you are lacking. Do you need to sort out priorities? Maybe you have competing authorities and you aren’t sure which to trust for a decision. Perhaps you aren’t sure what the first step is in a large project. Once you know what kind of clarity you need, you can do further exercises to drill down into it.
Burnout can be very destructive to our relationships. It can lead to detachment and cynicism, which can poison our relationships with others. It can also lead to us overloading or undervaluing the people in our lives. We may become irritable and demanding, or alternatively withdraw and become emotionally unavailable.
In its milder forms, burnout can simply look like being more annoyed with people and more sensitive to frustration.
At its worst, burnout can lead to abuse.
Mismanaged stress induces a survival-mode mindset. This defensive posture acts like a filter, coloring everything as a threat, and reducing our available options to fight, flight, freeze, or appease. These are all biological reactions that have legitimate uses. But they don’t increase human connection, they don’t spark creative problem solving, and they don’t allow us to discover value that is authentic to all parties.
The result is a downward spiral of perceiving others as threats, distancing ourselves from them, defending our own position, and isolating ourselves from our team.
So what do we do?
By training ourselves to recognize defensive reactions physically, we can start to short-circuit them and opt for a more solution-minded approach. Sit down and practice with a trusted friend. Roleplay a tense discussion and pay attention to your body. When you start reacting defensively, take note of how you feel. Are your ears warmer? Are your teeth clenched? Is your gut tight?
As you develop more awareness, you can start training yourself to instinctively respond to these triggers by asking solution-oriented questions.
- What is valuable to everyone involved?
- What can I ask that will help me understand the other perspective better?
- What can I be grateful for right now?
Questions like these help to break us out of a defensive mindset and into a solution mindset, allowing us to reconnect authentically.
Inefficacy is feeling like you can’t do anything to help. It’s feeling like you’re not good at anything, and that you’re just useless. It is a lack of a sense of meaningful accomplishment. It is also the third aspect of burnout.
Inefficacy is the foundation of imposter syndrome, which a great many of us are familiar with. It is usually experienced by high-achieving individuals who doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a “phony”. But impostor syndrome can apply to anyone who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes.
But how does stress lead to inefficacy and imposter syndrome?
When we are burned out, it is a lot harder to recognize our own accomplishments. Tasks and goals seem mountainous, and our abilities seem tiny. We start comparing ourselves to perceptions of success by other people, leading to a sense of inadequacy. While in a survival mindset, we disconnect from our values, making everything we do seem meaningless.
All these come together to undermine our ability to internalize success. So what can we do? We can increase our sense of meaningful accomplishment!
First of all: we break out of survival mode and into a proactive and values-oriented mindset by blocking out time for non-urgent but important tasks. By prioritizing these and taking action on them, we signal to ourselves that our priorities aren’t isolated to survival.
We can then also do exercises to increase the clarity of what is valuable to us. When our routine actions become connected to meaning, they become pregnant with significance and power. They are transformed into rituals that shape our identity.
These increase the ‘meaningful‘ part of the goal. Next, we can focus on the ‘accomplishment‘ part.
Breaking big tasks down into smaller, bite-sized pieces, and then tracking their accomplishment in a tangible way is critical for success. It tends to be more difficult to deeply connect to completing abstract tasks or tasks that just need to be done again the next day. We need to make them physical, indelible, and concrete.
Write down a done-list by hand and review everything you accomplished every day and every week. It adds up! And that sense of accomplishment transfers over to confidence for tackling the next set of tasks.
These are just some of the tactics you can use to reduce unnecessary stress, bringing your overall stress levels down within your capacity for stress redemption. The other part of stress management, of course, is increasing that capacity so you can push your limits and have more ability to deal with unexpected situations without collapsing into acute burnout. This is what I call stress redemption.
There is something incredibly empowering about realizing that we have the power to choose how we react to stressors in our lives. We can choose to give in to the stress and let it overwhelm us, or we can choose to fight back and grow stronger. When we manage stress effectively, we not only prevent burnout, but we also boost our resilience and ability to help others handle their stressors.
So how do we choose to fight back against stress? Here are some strategies to help you get started:
– Connect to a strong community: community is incredibly important for hope in hard times. When we feel overwhelmed and stressed, it is lifesaving to reach out to our community for support. A community can provide us with a sense of belonging, support, and identity. In tough times, it is essential to have a community of people who we can rely on to help us through. We are also stronger when fighting on behalf of those we care about.
– Set priorities: it is critical to set priorities and figure out what is most important to you. This will help you focus your energy on the things that matter most and let go of stressors that are not as important. When you know what is your top priority, you are able to say NO to other things, empowering your YES to that one thing. This frees you from concern about as many potential vectors for burnout.
– Discipline the skill of gratitude: when we focus on the positive things in our lives, we can begin to drown out the stressors that are causing us to feel overwhelmed. This is where the discipline of gratitude comes in. When we take time each day to be grateful for the good things in our lives, it helps us to shift our focus and see the stressors for what they really are: external hurdles that we can choose our response to.
I hope you found these stress management tips helpful! Burnout is a real issue that can lead to serious issues if left unchecked. However, by using stress reduction techniques and increasing our ability to convert stress into growth, we can get back on track. Remember to break big tasks down into smaller pieces, and make sure to track your accomplishments to stay motivated. Be grateful for the good things in your life, and focus on building a strong community to support you through tough times. With these stress management tips, you can take control of stress and use it to become stronger!