Stress is the body's reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Stress is a normal part of life caused by all sorts of factors such as your environment, your body, and your thoughts. We all encounter stressful situations in our daily lives, and it's important to remember that it is normal to experience stress as we deal with and work through these situations.
So how do we get from a 'normal' level of stress to burnout?
Mostly, we get there because we are unaware of how stress affects us and what the stages of stress are. This means we continue to ignore the signals that our body is giving us. In fact sometimes we may even start out enjoying the buzzy highs and feelings of invincibility that increased levels of adrenalin and cortisol give us. And so we seek out situations that give us this thrill and dislike and avoid the signals of recovery. Living like this means that we are on the downward spiral towards burnout.
There are 5 stages of stress, knowing them helps us take action to prevent stress spiralling out of control.
Stage 1: Fight or Flight
We perceive a threat of some sort. Our response is to feel alarm and our heart rate increases along with our focus. Our body is filled with adrenalin and this helps us increase activity for a short time. This stage is designed to help us to survive the threat and our impulse is to either stay and fight or run away. In a work situation think boring monotonous work that fills us with dread, working to deadlines, managing higher volumes of work, coping with demanding bosses, difficult relationships or changes outside of our control such as company takeovers and restructures.
Stage 2: Damage control
Once we are in the heightened state of stage 1 our body helps us by flooding our system with cortisol and this means that we can sustain stage 1 for longer without sustaining any serious damage to our system.
Stage 3: Recovery
After the initial rush of adrenalin and cortisol, our bodies begin to reset. This stage is marked by a feeling of exhaustion or fatigue. This is the time to take a step back and do some self-care like relaxtion or rest. When we listen to our bodies and take steps to embrace this stage we are able to reset ourselves for the next stressful event.
Stage 4: Adaption
We make it to this stage if we have gone through stages 1-3 and we ignore the signals our body is giving us to recovery. Adaption is when we tell ourselves that this level of stress is here to stay for the foreseeable future and we have to adjust to it. This stage is marked by all the negative effects of long term stress: irritability, overwhelm, overthinking, poor sleep patterns, fatigue, loss of self-esteem and confidence, second-guessing yourself and so on.
Stage 5: Burnout
This can be defined as the loss of meaning in one's work, coupled with mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion as the result of long term, unresolved stress.
Once we understand these stages, it gives us the ability to determine where we are in the stress-burnout cycle and we have more choice about how we respond and can take steps to ensure that we are managing ourselves in ways that help us respond more effectively to the stressful situations that surround us.
Here are some of the things you can do to help yourself manage a stress:
Take breaks throughout the day away from your workplace. It depends on what sort of work you do… if you work in an office this may mean just going outside and taking in some fresh air. If you already work outside then perhaps going into the work cafeteria for a breakaway is just as good. The point is to move away from where you are working.
Introduce laughter and fun into your daily life. If you are already stressed this may be a little difficult but find ways to laugh at silly situations or introduce some playful approaches to your daily routines. For me, since I work alone and from home, it means occasionally taking a bit of time out to watch comedians on YouTube.
Physical activity. This is especially important to those of us who are spending a lot of time at a desk (even standing desks) or in confined spaces. Taking a walk a couple of times a day is all that is needed but you can increase this if you take exercise classes. It's entirely up to what level of exercise you want. The point is to move around, and if you can do it outside surrounded by greenery all the better.
Meditation and mindfulness, this is not as difficult as you might think it is. And the benefits outweigh the effort tenfold. If you are already doing this great, but if it's new to you then all you need to do is sit and concentrate on your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Doing this a few times a day will help interrupt negative thought patterns and calm your body.
Increase your EQ (emotional intelligence) skillset. The easiest way to do this is to take a bit of time to reflect on those things that went well throughout the day and congratulate and celebrate these. Then turn your mind to things that didn't go so well and just review what happened without judgement. Ask yourself, 'if I was to do that again what different choices could I have made?' and 'how would that have played out?'. Try to imagine what a more positive outcome could be. Do this as many times as you like with different imagined scenarios. And to finish this exercise off consider what you would do in the future if this situation should arise again. This activity helps us become more self-aware and more able to be flexible in our responses and choices when stressful situations arise.