Stress. It’s part of our everyday vernacular. In today’s demanding, fast-paced society, we all seem to be experiencing more and more stress of some kind—from work to relationships to finances to constant time constraints and so on. And as we’ve said before, stress isn’t necessarily bad. Indeed, stress can be good. In fact, too little stress is as bad as too much.
So, when does run-of-the-mill stress cross the line and lead to burnout?
Burnout, it turns out, is that state of chronic, can’t-escape-from-it stress that results in both physical and emotional exhaustion. It causes even the most naturally optimistic people to feel cynical and detached. And it leads to feeling ineffective—like you can’t accomplish anything. And when you’re in the midst of it, you aren’t even able to function effectively—personally or professionally.
What’s worse, burnout is the kind of thing that can creep up slowly. You might even ignore the early signs of feeling more fatigued and frustrated as stress starts building. You start losing sleep—and that might mean having a difficult time falling asleep, staying asleep, or both. Perhaps you find it difficult to focus or remember. Or, maybe you find yourself getting sick more often or feeling anxiety, depression, and anger—often at the same time. And all that can lead to feeling more burnt out!
Too bad there’s not an inoculation to prevent burnout.
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Wait, is there? While serious burnout may mean you need to head to your healthcare professional for support, there are some surprising—and refreshingly simple—tools to help you manage stress before it becomes burnout, or you can even put them into practice if you’re staring the initial stages of burnout in the face. Either way, putting these tools to use can help enjoy the Goldilocks’ effect of “just the right amount” of stress.
Let’s take a look at what they are, why they can be so effective for helping prevent burnout, and how they can help you recover faster if you do find yourself victim to “too much.”
How to Prevent Burnout in 3 Steps
1. Exercise: Get Moving
“If exercise could be packed into a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.” – Dr. Robert Butler
Exercise, you gotta love it—or at least its numerous benefits. And when it comes to stress, it’s not surprising that exercise—in just about any form—can help by boosting your body’s feel-good hormones known as endorphins.
In addition, exercise can be a form of moving meditation, helping you let go of the worries and irritations of the day and center your awareness to your body and how it moves. From downward dog to heavy deadlifts, you have the opportunity to shift your focus to your movement and your breathing as you let go of mental and emotional battles.
Exercise is also good for mood; in fact, regular exercise has been shown to increase confidence, enhance relaxation, and even lessen mild depression and anxiety. Plus, it’s been shown to make you more likely to be resilient in the face of stress—helping increase your stress tolerance and ultimately prevent dreaded burnout.
Another fairly newly discovered benefit of exercise is that it helps enhance your brain power by making your brain more “plastic,” or flexible. This can be especially beneficial as we age and strive to continue to adapt to a seemingly more complicated and fast-moving world.
Even better, it doesn’t take a lot exercise either to enjoy many of these benefits. You don’t have to go for the runner’s high or commit to a time-intensive, drawn-out exercise program. Even a 20- to 30-minute walk can help you better deal with everyday stress and prevent burnout.
2. Connection: Get Social
How cool is this: When you’re stressed, your body releases oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” “cuddle chemical” and the “moral molecule.” This neuropeptide hormone, which is set off by stress, actually primes you for one of the absolute best ways to protect against unhealthy stress. That is, it encourages you to strengthen social bonds—by increasing physical contact with friends and family, encouraging empathy, and increasing your willingness to help and support. In other words, it’s a stress hormone—although it arguably acts as an anti-stress hormone—that motivates you to seek social support, which can help buffer stress.
In addition, oxytocin has natural anti-inflammatory properties. For instance, it helps blood vessels stay relaxed, and it even helps heart cells regenerate. Yep, with the help of this stress-induced hormone, stress can actually strengthen your heart. What this all boils down to is that our bodies were designed for stress, and we already have a very cool mechanism in place to help us regulate.
When it comes to stress, health, and longevity, human connection is HUGE! It should come as no surprise that being surrounded by people who care about you and who you care about is good for you. How good? Get this: One study found that a lack of social connection was more harmful to health than obesity, smoking, or high blood pressure! On the other end of the spectrum, folks with strong social connections have been found to have stronger immune systems, are able to recover from disease faster, and even live longer—up to 50% longer, in fact.
Have you ever heard, “It’s better to give than receive?” (Yep, Mom, I hear you!) This is pretty quality advice supported by science. It turns out that providing social support may be even more beneficial than receiving it. Research has indicated that people who help out friends and neighbors and care for others experienced a 0% increase of death risk in the face of intense stress. In other words, they became virtually invincible to stress. Those who didn’t take the time to give of themselves, on the other hand, experienced a 30% increase!
It’s pretty simple: If you surround yourself with people you care about (and who care about you) and seek to support those around you, you’ll be much more likely prevent burnout. So, go forth and connect (or reconnect)!
3. Reframe: Change Your Mind About Stress
You have to stand up in front of a crowd and give a speech…you’re starting a new job…you’re going into the office to face a challenging co-worker or client…you’re lost in a foreign country… any of these can stimulate a pretty intense stress response. Your heart starts pounding, and your breath quickens. You may even breakout in a sweat.
You might even be feeling a bit of anxiousness just thinking about these scenarios or the last time you experienced one of them (or others).
But what if you viewed these common stressful situations and the ensuing reactions in a different light? Psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains that stress is not the enemy we think it is. And in fact, it can be seen as a force for good. By reframing the stress response as helpful, we can experience the positive benefits of stress, which, you guessed it, also helps prevent burnout.
In fact, scientists discovered that it’s not stress that’s harmful. It’s the belief that stress is bad that’s bad for you! In one large-scale study of nearly 30,000 participants, researchers examined the effects of stress and how it affects health and mortality. What they discovered was that people who experienced high stress and believed it would have a negative effect on their health experienced a 43% increased risk of premature death. On the other end of the spectrum, the people who experienced high stress yet believed stress was NOT harmful experienced the lowest risk of death—even lower than those who didn’t experience much stress at all.
So, the next time your heart is pounding, instead of allowing it to alarm you, remind yourself that it’s preparing you for action as well as delivering more oxygen to your brain. Simply reframing how you view a stressful event can change it from the “stress response” to being what the body experiences during joy and courage. This response allows your arteries to remain more open and relaxed.
Once again, your body was designed to help you rise to the challenge. (Thanks, body!)
While we all experience stress—and that’s a good thing—burnout is a different animal. Fortunately, these three simple tools can help prevent burnout in the face of intense and accumulating stress, so it doesn’t become more serious and lead to burnout.
So, the next time you start feeling tension building…go for a walk, work out, connect with your friends and loved ones, and remind yourself that you’re resilient and your body was built to help you deal with and regulate stress…and become stronger and live longer as a result.