Have you been feeling physically and mentally depleted recently? Overwhelmed? Frustrated? Unable to cope? In other words, have you set yourself up for burnout? Well that’s bad news, because you may be showing symptoms of burnout stress.
The good news is that burnout is preventable and even resolvable no mater how far down the path of self destruction you have already gone.
Burnout! It sounds reminiscently like a Jan and Dean song of the sixties, called “Wipe out.” And, in fact, that might not be a bad way to describe it.
Herbert J Freudenberger, Ph. D., who first identified the syndrome among social workers and coined the word, defines burnout as a state of depletion and of physical and mental exhaustion caused by over commitment to a job, cause, relationship, or way of life.
Sufferers complain initially of feeling “overwhelmed,” “frustrated, blocked by insurmountable circumstances,” or “unable to cope.” Eventually, they feel “drained of energy,” “used up”, “having nothing more to give.”
This, in turn, gives rise to a calloused cynicism a “don’t knock yourself out for anyone anymore” attitude and, finally, to a sense of personal powerlessness (that the situation is beyond their control ) which tends to become a self fulfilling prophesy.
At highest risks are the high achievers, goal oriented people with great expectations. These are the people who “want their marriages to be the best, their work records to be outstanding, their children to shine, their community to be better,” says Dr Fruedenberger.
“All their lives, they have undertaken tough jobs and prided themselves on their ability to master situations. Now, however, no matter how great their efforts, the only result seems to be frustration.”
What pushes them over the edge of high achievement to a chasm of low energy and self esteem?
Dr Freudenberger says it occurs when commitment becomes over commitment.
Commitment, he says, is a very positive life force. Over commitment, on the other hand, robs us of energy, enthusiasm, and fulfillment. It obliterates our true purpose and goals in life. It threatens our physical and emotional well being.
Falling off Balance
Dr Dennis Jaffe, a California stress management consultant, describes the turning point as one of imbalance when you’re giving more than you are receiving. “
When you are in balance, you have a sense that your efforts are being rewarded. Your energy is continually renewed. You have the ability to rebound from emotionally or physically taxing situations.”
When we fall off balance, the blame tends to fall on external factors such as the job, spouse, kids, whatever.
But rather than looking outside for fault, Dr Jaffe suggests we look inside for answers.
The bad news, according to Dr. Jaffe, is that burnout looms ominously on the horizon of everyone’s stress response scale.
The good news is that it is preventable and completely resolvable, no matter how far down the path of self-destruction. In other words you can turn back on the road to health and high performance.
Three Steps to Recovery
But getting yourself back on track and keeping yourself there requires more than a few good intentioned resolutions.
Nothing short of a drastic attitude and lifestyle changes will reverse its course of healing, says Dr. Jaffe. In fact, it hinges on a three tiered process involving self awareness, self management and self renewal.
“People are not machines that can be pushed to high performance,” says Dr Jaffe. “When we push ourselves to accomplish something and we experience resistance, we need to ask ourselves why are we doing this, why is it important to us.”
“Burnout and distress are sometimes messages from our bodies that we need to explore these basic questions. The symptoms signal not an inability to manage the outside world, but a disconnection within ourselves.”
To reconnect, then, we must first tune in to our thoughts and feelings.
“You have to be willing to look honestly and deeply and to incur some pain. The more you know about yourself, the better,” says Dr. Freudenberger.
“First, think about your image, that competent you others have come to expect so much of. Think about the schedule, the tasks you perform, your family’s expectations, your own expectations of yourself.
Get a pad and write a short vignette of the ‘you’ the world sees and hears every day. Then put your pad aside and close your eyes.
Let that other you emerge. The real you, that’s tucked away beneath all those layers. The one you see first in the morning when you walk into the bathroom to prepare for the day ahead. The one you get brief glimpses of when you’re all by yourself and feeling kind of beat.
Now let that real you speak. Hear some of his or her feelings. And, for once, listen. Don’t shut the voice away. It may have important things to say, so write a second vignette.
Even if only fragments of thoughts come through, jot them down. Whatever feeling you noticed, no matter how fleeting, include them.”
By comparing these two images, Dr Freudenberger believes, you can get to know large parts of yourself that have been shut away, something that is essential to burnout treatment and prevention.
Becoming conscious of our physicality (do you have any aches, pains, or pent up tension that has gone unrecognized?), or changes in behavior patterns (Are you drinking more alcohol or coffee lately? Eating or sleeping more or less? Watching more TV?)
All these things can also help you get in touch with your feelings. Sometimes we hurt physically or drift unconsciously into bad habits when our stress coping mechanisms aren’t working properly, Dr. Jaffe says.
In connection with that, he suggests that you explore your reaction to stressors.
All of us develop coping methods, some of them more effective than others. Very often, however, the ineffectiveness of a coping method is not noticeable until a real crisis arises or we become inundated with multiple stressors. Then, the method that carried us satisfactorily through mild to moderately stressful situations suddenly fails us.
Dr Jaffe reminds us of four such methods:
- withdrawal (postponing action and/or refusing to face the problem),
- internalizing (stewing over the problem without resolution or reaching out for help),
- emotional outbursts (the long term outcome of internalizing reaching the boiling point) and
- over controlling (trying to resolve every problem, including those that don’t warrant our attention and even those that haven’t yet been encountered)
Generally, those who confront stressors head on – who take action to resolve only those problems that are within their power to control and seek support or help from others when they encounter difficulty in coping – are good stress managers, says Dr Jaffe.
But, What’s more important is what works for you.
By looking closely to how you cope with each stressful situation and most importantly, how you respond emotionally and physiologically to your stress response, you begin to get a clear picture of which methods work for you and which work against you.
Dr. Jaffe says that a personal stress log can be extremely useful.
Note the action you take in response to specific stressors as well as your subsequent feelings (relief, frustration, helplessness, exhaustion). Within a week or two, you will begin to notice the definite patterns.
One very important aspect of this is assessing the importance of each stressful situation and determining how much energy you want to expend on resolving it.
Sometimes we have no choice. For example, an emergency situation presents itself and we must act on it immediately. All other priorities suddenly move down a notch.
But how many times have you worked yourself into a frenzy over something that was of very little value or consequence?
Think about this the next time your adrenaline spurs you into action. Before you start pumping energy into the situation, ask yourself how important is it to you personally. Can you really make a difference, and what’s the worst possible consequence if you don’t get involved?
Don’t waste your stress energy. It is possible to spend ten dollars worth of energy on ten cent problem.
On the other hand, it’s possible to under spend.
Have you ever allowed a relationship to disintegrate, admitting only after it ended how important it was to you?
Have you ever ignored signs of trouble with your children until the problem was nearly too big to handle?
Have you’re ever closed your eyes to injustice on your doorstep, in your own neighborhood or social group, because it was easier not to speak up?
If so, you know what it means to spend ten cents worth of adrenaline on a ten dollar problem.
That’s why stress management consultants all agree that a key element in stress mastery is assessing your personal values and goals. “If you don’t know what your goals are, you may move from one meaningless talk to another or make sloppy decisions by default.
The vague uneasiness you may feel is a symptom of your aimlessness.
So start today! Determine what’s important to you. List the things you like to do, the things you don’t like to do, and what you wish you could do.
Then look at your day. Do you see any conflict between your values and the way you spend your time?
Alan Lakein, a time management consultant whose advice has gone a long way to prevent corporate burnout at such fiercely competitive firms as AT&T and IBM, offers his technique of self reflection.
He poses three questions:
- What are your life goals?
- How would you like to spend the next three to five years?
- If you had just six months to live, how would you spend them?
Take about two minutes (four at the most) jotting down your answers to each of those questions.
Then spend another two minutes to review your responses and improve your goal statements Again, your statements should not conflict with your current life.
If you’re putting a disproportionate amount of effort into areas that do not reflect your life goals, if your five year plan is a major departure from the present, and if the prospect of a six month death sentence fills you with a longing for a better way of life, then some changes may be in order.
Establishing clear goals is the first order on the agenda of self management. Write them down, and review them every month or two. Reconfirm them or revise them (remember life is constantly changing and so, too, do our goals and priorities).
Also, while it’s natural to have more than one goal at any time, too many goals or conflicting or competing goals are certain to lead to frustration and distress.
So be very selective and keep each goal in its proper perspective.
Some of your goals will no doubt be very concrete and specific, such as taking a self-defense class, buying a new car and painting the kitchen.
Others may be more vague and philosophical, e.g. becoming a better parent, expanding your circle of friends, and improving your feeling of self worth.
And then, of course, there are your long term life goals, such as becoming financially independent, getting in shape, or achieving spiritual fulfillment.
Long term life goals are top priority on everyone’s scale.
But with so many more immediate concerns, we often lose sight of them and as a result they may never become realized. That’s why setting priorities and planning is essential to any stress management program.
Lakein begins and ends every workday with a plan. He makes a “To Do” list of everything he wants to accomplish that day. Then he reviews them in terms of his goals and determines the order of priority.
The A tasks are those that are of highest priority – the important things that are absolute “musts” in order to achieve our goals, including our life goals. “I make it a point to do something every day toward my life goal,” says Lakein.
B tasks are of secondary importance. “if I have time, I’ll tackle them,” says Lakein. “But not before all the A’s are taken care of first.”
C tasks are those that when you really think about them, you realize that you’re not significant at all. “if they don’t get done, it’s not a big deal,” says Lakein.
According to Lakein, 80 percent of the items on any to-do-list are insignificant and unnecessary.
It’s in that 20 percent of significant tasks that 80 percent of the value lies.
“Concentrate your effort on these high priority items” he explains. “Don’t get bogged down in C tasks no matter how quick and easy they are to do.”
And if you have trouble deciding which of your tasks deserves the C rating, Lakein says to ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t do it. If you can live with the consequences, don’t do it.
As with most things, however, moderation is the key.
“If you think that trying to ‘get control’ of your time and your life means becoming super organized, super busy, or preoccupied with every moment as it slips by, let me assure you that this is not the case,” Lakein explains.
“Too much organization is as ineffective as too little. The ideal is balance”, he says.
Balance! That’s the word that every stress manager lives by.
They say that people who know how to balance work with play, wakefulness with sleep, stress with relaxation, activity with rest, giving with receiving, have discovered the key to health and happiness.
One of the most difficult conflicts is finding enough time and energy to do everything we want.
Work can eat up our time and energy, sometimes leaving us with little left over for our family. Tragically, working people too often make their family and personal relationships their lowest priority, giving them what, if anything, is left over.
Yet people who are successful at managing stress and remaining healthy are often those who make their personal and family lives a priority and are able to say ‘no’ to some outside demands.
Sometimes, setting those priorities requires that you first develop new, more flexible attitudes toward yourself and your work.
You’ve got to realize that you don’t have to do everything yourself and, in fact, that you’re more effective if you don’t.
By accepting that premise and developing contacts, networks, support groups (whatever you need to help you get your work done and problems solved), you can free yourself to do more of the things that you enjoy doing and that you’re good at.
Self renewal is the ultimate exercise in balance. It is the process of continually renewing lost energy (physically and emotionally), something that is essential no matter in what performance state you are functioning.
“If you’re in burnout and don’t make some effort toward self renewal, you’ll break down,” Dr Jaffe reminds us.
“And if you’re in peak performance for too long – which requires a tremendous amount of energy to sustain – and lose sight of your need for self renewal, you could eventually skid down the path to burnout.
It’s like running a marathon,” he adds.” “That’s a peak performance type of effort. Now you wouldn’t just get up the next day and run another one. Common sense tells us that we’ve got to rest up and renew our energy. The same holds true with any high achievement activity.”
How do we Renew Ourselves?
We do it through meditation or other relaxation techniques practiced on a regular basis. Also by giving and receiving love and devoting time to people who energize us.
In addition we do it through physical pursuits,such as running and the like, which discharges tension and renews our energy.
And by taking time off, if possible, perhaps even an extended leave of absence, a so-called job sabbatical.
People can use a sabbatical to get what they’re not getting in their routine life.
If you’ve always wanted to play your guitar seriously, but never had enough time for it, taking a sabbatical can be a real opportunity to satisfy that kind of need that’s never been satisfied before.
Some people want to travel. If their life is very routinized and sedentary, a traveling sabbatical fills a complementary need.
Time off can give you the perspective that helps you get over burnout. Taking time off can bring you back more motivated.
Please leave your comments or observations.