Feeling the Heat? Here’s How to Cool Down the Stress and Avoid Burnout

Stress sneaks into our lives on three main levels: acute (short-term), episodic acute (frequent bursts), and chronic (long-term). Chronic stress is the sneaky thief of joy and energy, leading to the dreaded burnout. If you learn to recognize the signs as it moves from acute to chronic, you can take appropriate action before it becomes a serious problem. The more accurate terms for these 3 stages are described below.

The three stages of stress, known as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), describe the physiological changes your body undergoes when faced with stress:

  1. Alarm Stage: This is the initial reaction to stress, where your body activates the “fight-or-flight” response. Your heart rate increases, adrenaline surges, and cortisol (a stress hormone) is released, providing a burst of energy to deal with the stressor. You may have more energy, clarity of mind and actually feel good – some people actually become addicted to this!
  2. Resistance Stage: After the initial shock, the body tries to return to normal by lowering cortisol levels and stabilizing heart rate and blood pressure. However, if the stressor persists, the body remains on high alert, adapting to cope with the higher stress level. Typically, at this level, people start to problem solve, rationalize, disconnect from themselves and become irritable, easily angered, and they feel tired but do not sleep well. Often the attempted solution is drugs or alcohol, or simply to plough on in the hope that you get on top of things. At this stage you have started to live in “fight or flight” mode which starts to create digestive problems, sleep problems, early stages of anxiety or even panic, lack of clarity of mind, and a sense of losing control. THIS IS THE STAGE WHERE ACTION IS NEEDED BEFORE IT SHIFTS INTO BURNOUT!
  3. Exhaustion Stage (Burnout) : Prolonged stress leads to this stage, where the body’s resources are depleted, resulting in fatigue, burnout, and decreased immunity. Chronic stress at this level can have serious health implications, making it difficult to recover without adequate support – this can include cardiac problems, hypertension, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, chronic anxiety and panic and clinical depression. People typically start to withdraw, and the lack of stimulation and isolation adds to the problem.

Recovery from level 2 stress, the resistance stage, is often easier because the body has not yet reached the point of exhaustion. It’s still capable of returning to a pre-stress state if the stressor is removed or managed effectively. The body is resilient and can repair itself to some extent.

However, once level 3 stress kicks in, the exhaustion stage, the body has been under stress for an extended period, and its ability to bounce back is compromised and will require a longer term strategy for recovery.

Recognize the Signs of Level 2 Stress Shifting to Burnout!

  • Constant fatigue
  • Irritability or mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches
  • Potentially anxiety or the beginnings of depression.

A Part of the problem of dealing with stress before it goes out of control, is we lose connection to ourselves and lose access to our right brain hemisphere which is where the solutions lie and where joy and relaxation is more likely to be generated.

So, what do we do when we recognize that acute stress is turning into chronic stress?

There are 3 levels of response that will be helpful:

  1. The First Aid Response:
  2. Acknowledge the stress – recognize what is going on – how the stress is being formed – what is maintaining it. This will enable you to start to get a handle on the stress and will be the first step to letting go of built up tension, and the hormones that sustain the response
  3. Apply a relaxation technique – this might include breathing techniques, meditation, yoga, tai chi, self-hypnosis, neurofeedback, guided imagery etc
  4. Create some space to stop! Give yourself a break – build in some quiet or alone time. This might even include staying in bed for a whole weekend, with a good book and sleeping lots! Alternatively, watch some comedy!
  5. Instead of going for the quick fix of self medication, be it with alcohol or other addictive activities, identify activities that are relaxing and joyful – for example going for a walk in nature can be hugely calming.
  6. Exercise – this is one of the most powerful ways to quickly burn up stress hormones and at least temporarily return to a state of well-being – even if you don’t feel like going to the gym, you will be glad once you have done so.
  7. Talk to someone you can trust – expressing what is going on and how we feel, helps us to feel better because we are being heard, we start to gain a better perspective on what is going on, and we start to release our tensions via expression.

The first aid level is unlikely to be a solution in the long term. But it enables us to “return to ourselves” so we can think more clearly and begin to discover some genuine solutions. It is also imperative for our mental and physical health.

  • The External Response:
  • Consider the external factors that are driving the stress response. Often there are several. This might include relationship difficulties, work pressure, bullying at work, financial difficulties, health problems, teenager problems, juggling too many things, not having enough time in the day etc.
  • Notice how resistance to dealing with external issues often results in a sense of disempowerment and procrastination.
  • Consider external situations in terms of how to better handle them. One framework we use in coaching is called CIA: (control, influence, acceptance)  
    • To what extent do I have control over this situation – what can I do?
    • If I don’t have control, do I have influence over this situation – what can I do?
    • If neither of the above, for now, can I just accept this situation?
  • (the following 2 articles gives more details on this technique:
  • The CIA model: Control, Influence, Accept | Target Training GmbH)
  • How to coach with the CIA Model: Control, Influence, Accept — The Coaching Tools Shop
  • Ask yourself what specific communications you need to do that will help with the external situation.
  • Ask yourself if there is a new perspective (a reframe) you could have of the external situation that will take the heat out of it.

Dealing with and resolving external drivers of stress will make a significant difference. In many cases, external drivers are strongly linked to weak boundaries (see next section). To deeply resolve potential burnout and certainly recurring long term acute or chronic stress, it is necessary to look more deeply at the emotional and mental drivers.

  • Mental and Emotional Drivers
  • This is deep work and will usually require a good therapist or a transformational coach to help reveal and heal underlying issues.
  • Very often, the driver will be low self-esteem or low confidence.
  • Often associated with the above will be self-doubt alongside a negative inner voice.
  • Within a work context, much of this will be so-called Imposter Syndrome which is guaranteed to create long-term low-level stress that will eventually lead to burnout.
  • When you delve deeper, there will often be limiting beliefs such as I am not enough/not good enough/not loveable/not capable etc
  • Sometimes trauma and adverse childhood events will drive stress as well.
  • A learned behaviour of suppressing emotions and needs and not communicating well.
  • Poor boundaries and poor self-assertiveness skills
  • Perfectionism and constantly needing to prove yourself/overextending yourself.
  • Often there is a network of beliefs and behaviours that make up a person’s personal paradigm – which on one level seems to help them but ultimately keeps them stuck.
  • Not getting enough sleep – waking frequently – this is a vicious circle.
  • Learn to defuse from your thinking.

Immediate Steps

Read the book: F**K IT THERAPY by John C Parkin

Learn the following meditation (you can record it and listen back to it on your phone)

  • Sit in a relaxed quiet place, close your eyes and choose to connect to yourself and to relax (have that intention)
  • Take a few minutes to notice your immediate experience – how is your breathing, what are your thoughts like, how do you feel emotionally, how does it feel in your body – where is the tension located, beyond all of that is there a deeper sense of something? Acknowledge what you are noticing.
  • Shift your awareness out of your head into your body – do this by focusing on the physical sensations in your body and slowing down your breathing.
  • Begin to make the out breath slower than in the inbreath, pause for a few seconds after the outbreath. Let the breath become increasingly calmer and slower.
  • If thoughts appear and try to pull you into stress, choose to notice the thought and let it go without involving yourself with it – refocus on being in your body and on your breathing (takes a little practice but makes a big difference).
  • If emotions are present, allow them simply to be without the need to get rid of them or manage them.
  • This will take around 10 minutes – repeat several times during the day.

Steven Lane, www.achangeofmind.ie