Avoiding Burnout in the Midst of a Pandemic

By: Gina Shuster, LMSW

For many years, the topic of burnout was primarily discussed in reference to professional burnout, however, we can all experience personal burnout as well. We are currently in the throes of an ongoing global pandemic, which has both professional and personal burnout rates on the rise. Life is more stressful for many and we are all having to learn how to adapt and adjust to the ever-changing world around us. Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski speak about the effects of personal burnout in their new book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.

They state that Herbert Freudenberger first coined the term “burnout” in 1975 in reference to professional burnout, but his definition can also apply to burnout on a personal level. He described burnout as consisting of three main elements

1) Emotional Exhaustion – the fatigue that results from caring too much for too long; 2) Depersonalization – no longer being able to feel empathy, a lack of caring or compassion; and 3) Decreased Sense of Accomplishment- an insurmountable feeling of futility, like nothing you do matters or makes a positive impact.

Nagoski and Nagoski talk about how many people are experiencing the emotional exhaustion of burnout because they get caught in what they refer to as “the stress cycle”. When we encounter a stressor, such as dealing with traffic, a family conflict, financial strain, etc. our bodies create a stress response, releasing stress hormones into our body. This release of hormones signals to our body that there is potential danger and ignites our flight, fight, or freeze responses. Once the stressor has passed, we then need to signal to our body that it is safe and that the danger is no longer a threat. However, in our modern, fast-paced world, we often neglect to adequately signal our bodies that the danger has passed, thus we get stuck in the stress cycle. Being caught in this stress cycle and the constant state of emotional exhaustion can lead to depersonalization and a decreased sense of accomplishment, which
are the other main components of burnout. They state that if we continue to experience stressors that create a stress response without completing that response cycle, burnout is inevitable. So, what do we need to do to complete this stress cycle?

According to the research from Nagoski and Nagoski, they have identified seven evidence-based ways to complete these stress cycles.

  • Physical Activity- any movement of the body that
  • Breathing-deep, slow breaths in and out
  • Positive Social Interaction- friendly, casual conversations can signal to your body that the world around you is once again a safe place.
  • Laughter-deep, belly laughter can increase social bonds and help to regulate emotion
  • Affection- a warm hug, a kiss, a way of connecting with others
  • A Big Ol’ Cry- letting emotions out through tears can be very therapeutic
  • Creative Expression- any form of creating something or being artistic such as, music, painting/drawing, sculpting, writing, theater, or other forms of expression

These seven ways of completing the stress cycle are not the only ways to achieve this but can be very helpful and effective in doing so. So, the next time that you encounter a stressor in your life and feel your body engaging in the stress response, try to make a conscious effort to complete your stress cycle. Completing the cycle is the only way to avoid or decrease your chances of burnout in both your personal and professional life.

Remember to be patient and kind to yourself. The stressors in life can be difficult and overwhelming at times. Grab yourself a copy of Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, for more helpful tips and practical advice on dealing with stressors, stress, and completing the stress cycle.

Gina Shuster is a Licensed Master’s Social Worker and Therapist at Oakland Psychological Clinic in Grand Blanc. Gina’s areas of specialty include grief and loss, trauma, and abuse. She has been working in the field of grief and loss since 2007 and in mental health since 2005.

*Nagoski, Emily, and Amelia Nagoski. Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Ballantine Books, 2020.

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