Stress and Burnout | How Mindfulness Helps

In this episode of Mindfulness Off the Cushion, we discuss something all of us experience, and most of us want to experience less: stress.


What is the relationship between stress and burnout? Is there a difference?


We’ll cover these questions, while also exploring major symptoms of stress and burnout, how mindfulness can help with stress management, and what effective stress management might look like for you. We’ve packed a lot into this brief episode and it's our hope that it will help you get a jumpstart on easing more gracefully through your own daily struggles.


Defining Stress and Burnout


Stress is energy. What do we mean by this?


Nearly a century ago, medical doctor and research Hans Selye developed a curve describing the three-stage process of stress. Essentially, with too little stress, both animals and humans become demotivated to make progress or change. On the far end of the curve, too much stress causes exhaustion and makes progress or meaningful action difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. This level of exhaustion is what we also know of as burnout.


So, how do we avoid burnout? Energy management. By managing the energy we call stress, we can maintain a level of productivity, without slipping into total demotivation. Coping effectively with stress is a constant balancing act - and its why we make understanding and harnessing the skills of mindfulness our goal here.


Remember, mindfulness is attentiveness. By learning to hone our attention on the state of our mind in this present moment, we can better identify - then cope with - the level of stress we are experiencing.


Recognizing the Symptoms of Burnout


In the early stages of burnout, many sufferers will experience a temporary increase in effort. They may put in longer hours at work or school, stay up later, or get up even earlier in order to put more effort into their everyday tasks. The flip side of this stage is that the increase in efforts only results in a decrease in returns.


In the earlier stages of burnout, we may not recognize that we are beginning to burnout - we may not even attribute our busyness to stress - and instead, we keep pushing ourselves harder. This becomes a vicious cycle of nonadaptive stress response, a lack of proper self-care, and overall poor energy management.


Another common symptom of burnout is emotional exhaustion. Beyond the physical exhaustion that stems from lack of sleep or working too hard, emotional exhaustion soon takes over, telling us we simply cannot deal with minor situations any longer. This may also express itself as frustration, nervousness, forgetfulness, avoidance, or apathy.


As these mounting symptoms of burnout continue to set in, some people may also find themselves becoming increasingly cynical. Cynicism is often perceived as a dark sense of humor, but too much of this attitude may also lead to a lack of care or a feeling of hopelessness. At this stage, symptoms may also develop into depression or anxiety for some individuals. If you are experiencing lack of hope, or depression, anxiety, or burnout is disrupting your ability to cope with stress, please reach out for help.


For many individuals, the symptoms of burnout can also be expressed as physical conditions. Pushing through burnout for too long leaves the body in a constant state of high alert. This can elevate our cortisol levels and blood pressure, and can also result in musculoskeletal pain, headaches, fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, weakened immune system, and other conditions. For individuals prone to substance abuse, burnout also becomes an increased risk factor.


How Mindfulness Helps with Stress Management


If you are already in burnout, it may mean that you were just not paying attention. This statement is not meant to get you down or blame you for stressors outside of your control. Rather, it highlights the importance of noticing our stress before it becomes completely overwhelming. This is exactly where mindfulness comes in - the early stages, before stress has mounted into total burnout.


There’s a common misunderstanding of mindfulness in our society. Mindfulness meditation is often treated as a way to leave all our stress behind and go to a happy place. The reality of it the practice is far different. Mindfulness teaches us how not to avoid our stress - it trains us to not run away.


Mindfulness is a practice of paying greater attention - even to the things that don’t feel so good. In noticing, we aren’t encouraged to cling to the stress. Rather, we are encouraged to acknowledge it, accept it, and then reach out for help. Whether that’s taking a break, getting some exercise, heading outdoors, talking to a friend or therapist, or embarking on a lifestyle change that makes your own self-care a greater priority, you are intervening through mindful awareness of your stress in order to manage that stress more effectively.


With practice, this ability to notice, to intervene on your own behalf helps to avoid burnout.


We simply can’t avoid stress 100% of the time. But we can manage it.


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