I hope you have been enjoying these last days of summer!
Stress levels are on the rise. “Stress” has been labeled the “Health Epidemic of the 21st Century” by the World Health Organization, and is estimated to cost American business up to $300 billion a year. Workplace and job-related stress seem to affect us the most but, whatever the source, the effects of stress on mental and physical health can be overwhelming.
If you were to ask a dozen people, even therapists or physicians, the definition of stress, you would likely get back a dozen different answers. And burnout – you’ve heard about it, too, but are stress and burnout the same thing? If not, how do they differ?
Stress and burnout are different. Let’s look at both of these, and some possible strategies to neutralize their negative effects on our physical and emotional health.
Stress – Acute or Chronic?
First of all, let’s look at the definition of stress. I like to think of stress as a person’s response to a change in environment. This is not just any change, but a change that requires your body and/or mind to adapt to it. The ways that we react to stress can vary widely from person to person but always involve a response that is physical, emotional, or mental and frequently involves all three. Because people react differently to the same stressors, the symptoms of stress can vary widely from person to person.
Stress can be acute, as when you are suddenly confronted with a snarling dog while out for a run, or chronic, such as when you are a caregiver with a chronically ill parent or child day in and day out. When stress is acute, as in the snarling dog example, your body prepares you rather quickly to get yourself out of danger by activating your sympathetic nervous system, releasing hormones which increase your heart rate, slow your digestion, reroute blood flow to your major muscle groups and increase your blood pressure and blood glucose (sugar) as well as speed up your respiratory rate. Once the snarling dog is gone (or you have successfully outrun it!), your body gradually returns to its normal state in about 20 to 60 minutes. In this case, your body did a superb job of getting you out of danger. This hard wired response to danger is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
When stress is chronic, though, your fight or flight response stays permanently switched ‘on’ and if this continues, it can wreak havoc over time. The constant flood of stress hormones, particularly cortisol, causes a major disturbance in nearly every bodily process and can lead to many health problems, including anxiety, trouble sleeping, digestive difficulties, heart disease, impaired memory and difficulty in concentration, headaches, depression and weight gain.
If chronic stress goes on for too long, it can lead to what is known as burnout, which is a psychological state characterized by disengagement from life and work, depression, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, blunting of emotional responses, and loss of motivation and hope.
Burnout and Its Symptoms
Notice I said chronic stress ‘may’ lead to burnout. People who are chronically stressed can still be fully functional and many of these chronically stressed people never experience burnout. But for some people, there seems to be an additional psychological factor that pushes them from being chronically stressed into full scale burnout. People who are experiencing burnout often experience physical and emotional symptoms including lack of energy, trouble sleeping, frequent colds, digestive problems, and headaches, as well as feelings of sadness, frustration and irritability.
It’s important to develop ways to manage chronic stress in order to prevent burnout from paying us a visit.
Because stress begins primarily as a physical response, the body is a good place to start. Go ‘back to basics’ by making sure you are getting adequate nutrition, sleep and exercise. Unfortunately, for many people, these three are the first to go by the wayside when you are under stress. An excessive intake of unhealthy foods, too little sleep and no exercise will only make you feel worse and can perpetuate the stress response, making you an even more likely candidate for burnout. If you are suffering from chronic stress, do your best to eat well, get enough sleep and at least get out for a brisk walk regularly.
The One Technique
There is one ‘technique’ I highly recommend when facing stress. This practice will support and augment all your other efforts. And no, I’m not talking about meditation, although that’s been proven helpful as well. I’m referring to breathing.
Breathing is the one process in our body that is both voluntary and involuntary. Thank goodness you don’t have to remember to breathe! But when you choose to, you can have a lot of control over how often and how deeply you breathe. This means that you can choose, at any time, to interrupt your body’s involuntary stress response.
Here’s what you need to take away from this: your nervous system has two branches, the sympathetic (the accelerator) and the parasympathetic (the decelerator). When these two systems are in balance, with neither one having dominance, you are in a state called coherence. When you are under stress, your sympathetic system has dominance and your parasympathetic system is dampened down, so you are always running at full tilt, like having your foot on the accelerator and never touching the brake.
This is where having control of your breathing comes in. When you breathe in, your heart rate accelerates and when you breathe out, it slows down. (If you are a ‘show me’ kind of person, try this: put your fingers over your pulse at the wrist and breathe in slowly and deeply. Your pulse will speed up. Then breathe out. Your pulse slows down.)
Here’s the really cool thing: Your heart rate information is sent directly to the part of your brain that helps to regulate your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. When you practice a pattern of regular inhalation and exhalation, you are helping to re-establish the balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, leading you back towards that state of coherence.
Here’s a simple 3-step process to try, whether you are feeling particularly stressed out or not. The more you practice the better, so that, when you are stressed, you can just move into it without too much thought.
One – Choose a verbal cue.
When stress comes your way, as soon as you recognize the symptoms, give yourself a verbal cue, such as saying the word ‘breathe’ to yourself. This primes your mind.
Two – Begin conscious breathing.
Take two or three long, deep breaths and just allow yourself to notice any physical sensations that arise when you do this.
Three – Transition to ‘signal’ breathing
Transition to signal breathing by inhaling, through your nose, as far as you comfortably can. Then just let your breath flow out naturally through your nose, allowing your chest to collapse naturally but not using your muscles to force the breath out. Then at the end of the outbreath, simply wait…for a ‘signal’ or urge to breathe in. Don’t hold your breath while you are waiting. Simply relax and wait for the signal. You may be surprised at first by how long your body takes to signal you to breathe in and this interval may vary from breath to breath. Breathe this way for as long as you are comfortable. This is a very, very effective technique to stop the stress response in its tracks.
Stress and burnout are complicated topics. I hope this has given you a primer on what stress is, the difference between acute and chronic stress, how chronic stress can lead to burnout and how taking care of your body and control of your breathing can go a long way toward mitigating its effects.
Remember to breathe!