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Burnout is a term that has been in the news ever since the beginning of the pandemic. While it can mean different things to different people it is generally understood as emotional exhaustion – the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long, and is often accompanied by a decrease in empathy and a sense of futility, feeling that nothing you do makes a difference. Normally, when we feel emotions, they naturally dissipate on their own. Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in emotions and we are constantly exposed to situations that activate emotions, such as the helping professions, caregiving, or parenting.
This kind of chronic stress creates a neurological and physiological shift in our bodies know as the fight or flight response. We are on “high alert” to deal with whatever crisis has come our way during the day. However, even if the crisis has passed, the kids are in bed, our nursing shift is over or we’ve left the classroom for the day, our bodies are still holding the stress response. We must find a way to dissipate the emotions that are stuck. This is called completing the stress cycle.
There are many ways to complete the cycle and let our minds and bodies know we are safe again and no longer need to be on “high alert”. The most efficient way is physical activity. Just taking a walk at the end of the day will allow the stress to leave your system. Some other ways that help can be deep breathing, positive social interaction such as time with friends and family, laughter, affection (try hugging your partner until you relax – or petting your cat!), spiritual connection, having a good cry or creative expression such as painting, dancing, or making music. All these complete the stress cycle and send a signal that we can relax.
Chronic stress can lead to burn out and many of us have experienced this over the last two years. Since we experience stress every day, we must build completing the stress cycle into our everyday life. Even when we can’t change the stressors around us, we do have the power to complete the cycle and allow our stuck emotions to move through and out of our systems!