I write this from two unrelated experiences I had this week. A former client of mine really taught me something of great value when she shared with me how impossible she is finding it to selfcare, to take the well known steps to rebuild calm, balance and wellbeing from a place of deep depletion and burnout. Even taking a few intentional breaths seems too much. And this morning I heard an interview on radio with Dr Chris Luke a leader in emergency medicine in Ireland about his new book ’ A life in Trauma: Memoirs of an Emergency Physician’. His essential story is that he
built his whole career on being kind, then experienced burnout, and is still recovering. During the interview we were invited into his world of early trauma, and amazing skills and achievement in emergency medicine. During the interview we met his vulnerability and bravery as he spoke of living in and distracting himself from his burnout for years ,and now recovering though still vulnerable an shedding tears as he connected with this while speaking with the skilled interviewer.
Lets normalise the reality of burnout
For people with high-stress jobs — maybe you’re a nurse, doctor, or paramedic, social worker, therapist or teacher firefighter or anyone supporting vulnerable people — there are times where your adrenaline is going, you feel really alert and you’re very productive.
But if you stay on this high stress response over a period of time without giving your nervous system a rest, you will burn out. If you are a woman working in these high stress professions we know now that you respond to stress differently- you are likely to respond later, and to pay a higher price in terms with health issues. My own work is in this space – alerting women working across human care services to this reality and teaching simple evidence based micro steps that will bring us away from burnout towards hard core resilience, balance and wellbeing.
Burnout always surprises
Burnout as a consequence of chronic stress totally blindsides us. We can usually see its trajectory and trace its increasing hold on us as we look back. We can see easily enough in retrospect our dramatic loss of self-esteem, and collapse of confidence.
We notice how:
– We were tired.
– We could not concentrate.
– We were acting cold and callous toward people we really cared about.
– We wondered why we hate this career that you know you love.
– We were constantly having our buttons pressed-reacting rather than responding from our wisest self
– We forced ourselves to work harder
– We took our work to bed with us
– We lost all balance- started freaking out.
Women who are the most susceptible to burnout, and compassion fatigue are those ones who are naturally compassionate, skilled, and leaders in their professions ,experienced, competent and committed. If you are such a woman experiencing some symptoms of burnout or wondering how you might take your own micro steps away from chronic stress and burnout it is possible to stop the slide with some understanding of what is happening and some tiny micro steps that help even in the moment of deep depletion.
Self-regulation begins with understanding the stress response
Self-regulation — the ability to respond to and manage stress even in the face of trauma — is the foundation of resilience. When we sense danger, the brain activates our sympathetic nervous system, triggering a fight-or-flight response; other parts of ythe brain shut down so we can cope with the stress in front of us.
Imagine a zebra lazily grazing contentedly on the wide open grassy plains. All is well. Then a lion…stalking and waiting to pounce comes into view. The zebra takes off at speed, literally running for her life. She escapes the danger and then with relative ease she can relax again and resume her lazy grazing with a fully relaxed body. She has completed the stress cycle.
The human equivalent of that is the way the parasympathetic nervous system shifts our human bodies back into relaxation mode when we sense we’re no longer in danger. Very often as 21st century humans we do not complete the stress cycle. We stay slightly (or alarmingly) wired- geared up in full fight or flight mode when in fact there is no lion. There is an imaginary lion ( our minds cannot distinguish what we think or imagine from reality). By staying stuck on the stress response and not completing the stress cycle we move from a healthy stress response to danger or threat to living with chronic stress with all of its known impact on our physical and mental health.
Micro steps to manage chronic stress
If you are stuck on the stress response the part of the brain that shuts down is the area that deals with your judgment, creativity and systematic decision-making. If you are in this moment it is difficult to engage in deep selfcare and healing. So what can you do? Firstly recognise that you are in a moment of depletion and let go of all your ’shoulds’. As a competent, compassionate, skilled and experienced woman you know about the stress response and the building blocks to living from a place of wellbeing, balance and real resilience. That is for later. For now I invite you recognise where you are, explore the possibility of micro steps…..tiny, repeatable actions you can bring into your day that will begin to close the gap. I offer three here that might help. If these do not resonate with you I invite you to identify your own three micro steps that you can weave into your day. Tiny steps….too small to fail but still helping you to close the gap, to remember that like Dr Luke you will in time engage in deep selfcare and reconnect with your most resilient self.
Micro step One
‘You can begin to close the gap, and give yourself a chance to respond more wisely within seconds’
When you are in the height of it, facing a new or familiar stressor, a deadline, a toxic work situation or a challenging family member, get into the habit of taking just 5 to 10 seconds to scan from the top of your head to your toes and relaxing all the muscles in your body.
Micro Step Two – a nod towards acceptance and surrender
‘ You can only change what you have control of, you can’t change what you don’t have control of.’
When faced with a challenge take a pen and paper. Put a line down the middle and a heading on each half of the page-What I can control here, what I cannot control here. Brain dump. Chose one thing you can do-take action on this.
Micro Step Three
‘ It is just as important to learn how to practice self-care quickly in the moment when you get triggered by something stressful.’
Distractions — whatever gets you in that relaxation mode — are good for your mental health. One of the biggest causes of burnout is repetition, so it’s helpful to turn your focus toward something you can lose time in and get sent to another place for a while. Even if it’s just for a few minutes, the more that becomes a daily routine, where you include these little distractions and happinesses, it makes the work so much easier.
And Anne this poem is especially for you
This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.
Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.
If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.”
― John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessing
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Peace to You