Being Mindful of Burnout

In last month’s post, I talked about how stress can be a good thing, in appropriate doses with sufficient recovery time. Unfortunately, the physiological difference between a good stressor and an unravelling (or bad) stressor is still unclear. That’s because it can be foggy in the savannah of stress.

The general term “stress” is nebulous. It can range from extreme fear to intractable guilt to persistent worries. Each emotion floods our nervous system to varying degrees and reactions.

One of the hormones that can be measured to evaluate the stress or soothe response is cortisol. It comes from the adrenal glands which look like little hats atop each kidney. Cortisol is originally made from cholesterol, from which it is eventually converted into the active steroid hormone as needed. It is neither “bad” nor “good”. We need it every day for the entirety of our lives, in a rhythm that matches our sleeping, eating and energy cycles. It is crucial for immune system function, can reduce inflammation in the body, manages blood sugar, and gives us the resources for stressful situations.

What is “Burn-out”?

Dr. Hans Selye coined the term ‘General Adaptation Syndrome’. He stated that there were three stages of Adaptation (what we call “stress & recovery”).

Stage 1: Alarm – Stressor arrives, signals sent to adrenal glands and brain, alarming hormones and neurotransmitters to release. First into a stage of lowered cortisol, then increasing – a little bit like shock.

Picture a record screeching or a phone call: the moment it hits, it can seem like life is in slow motion as the information settles in; silence to regroup and on to the plan of action. This is the time when we are the optimists. When we have some sense of faith that everything will be alright. Proper functioning in all systems triggered to help the 4 Fs (flight, fight, freeze & fornicate). This is what I call “Go time” in the context of stress in life.

Stage 2: Resistance – Cortisol as well as epinephrine and norepinephrine rise and the stress is resisted (i.e.; a recovery stage begins).

All systems go. The front line charges and the plan of action has been initiated. The shields are down as we are not in safety and preservation mode anymore. This is when we give it our all. We throw our best tactics, all our coping mechanisms that have worked in the past. The hormones and neurotransmitters are full on, and so are we. This is our prime. We shine here. I call this “Show time”.

Stage 3: Exhaustion – If pushed for too long, the adrenals exhaust, no longer able to create cortisol, or appropriate amounts for stressors, and the individual is unable to cope with stress at all.

The reins get pulled in. The resources have been depleted. The casualties are outnumbering the victories. We gave it our all, and we didn’t gain control. It is time to wave the little white flag. It could be called “Woah time”.

The third Stage of Selye’s model, through several studies, has long since been shown to be a misunderstanding in stress physiology.This stage has been incorrectly coined by alternative health education as “Adrenal Fatigue”.

What has been found is that there are very few situations when an individual has lost the capacity to create enough cortisol and respond appropriately to stress. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Most chronic illness is a result of hyper-reactivity of cortisol. When our lives and/or bodies are under unrelenting stress, cortisol is constantly produced and released into our systems to assist our response while under duress. In a short time frame, this is a very effective mechanism for strengthening. The long term impact of continual secretion however, is that excess cortisol damages several body systems and exhausts the body’s ability to repair them. Hence, the sense of “burn-out”.  The exhaustion is real, but the Selye’s adaptation theory was flawed. Cortisol is not meant to continually coat nor retreat from our circulation. Cortisol is meant for rhythm and resilience.

The most effective tool for cortisol modulation is sitting mindfully, regularly. So simple (or not). Knowing the solution isn’t the hard part, it’s the habit that trips us up.

We are programmed to think, adapt, react. Sitting mindfully is inherently against survival mechanisms to fight, defend, flee or procreate. But ironically, it is the way we can grow in an inhospitable climate.

A sensory mindfulness exercise: Five minutes.

“Let’s sit down here… on the open prairie, where we can’t see a highway or a fence. Let’s have no blankets to sit on, but feel the ground with our bodies, the earth, the yielding shrubs. Let’s have the grass for a mattress, experiencing its sharpness and its softness. Let us become like stones, plants, and trees. Let us be animals, think and feel like animals. Listen to the air. You can hear it, feel it, smell it, taste it” (Abram, 1996, p. 225).

Find a location to sit down. It need not be quiet; it is more important that you should find somewhere you feel physically comfortable. Let your feet have a solid placement on the floor or ground. Place your palms on your thighs, and close your eyes. Take an inhale that begins slowly, and fills into your lower back. As the exhale begins, slow the pace of the breath out the mouth without restriction, as if you were fogging up a mirror gradually. Repeat this 10 times.

Next, without moving or opening your eyes:

1. Name five things you can feel. It can be as subtle as a gentle wind, or the feeling of your pants against your leg, or toes in your shoes.

2. Name five things you can hear. It may start with loud sounds in your environment and may eventually become soft sounds, such as your breath through your nose.

3. Now, open your eyes slowly, keep a soft focus forward without darting the eyes from side to side. Name five things you can see in your peripheral vision. Notice how it feels to take in the environment without directly turning the head or eyes toward the item.

Take 10 deep breaths, just as you did when you began – this time with your eyes open.

To sit mindfully as a habit does not mean to stop engaging with the world. Sitting mindfully means to release the tight grip we have around our reactions. That’s what stress is. When fear rises about things that we cannot change nor predict, we can build the skill of saying “OK, I’m still okay”, and keep doing our best work in the world. I think that’s a pretty good tool to have in your toolbox.