Understanding Stress & Burnout
Updated: Aug 11
None of us leads a stress-free life, so finding ways to manage our workloads and the demands of our day-to-day lives is necessary. There are some important questions we need to answer about our stress experiences – how can we manage them, how can we recognize when we’re courting burnout, and how can we respond when we’re overwhelmed?
Kelly McGonigal has a wonderful TED talk about how stress can work in our favor. Like a lot of uncomfortable human experiences, the experience of stress probably helped us survive. The physiological consequences – fast breathing, elevated heartrate, increased blood pressure, change in hormone levels – are all designed in part to help translate your body’s watchfulness cues: “I see a threat” into movement and execution: “I am doing something in response”. Our physical response primes us for action, which is useful when you need to sprint away from something that wants to eat you.
To a point, we can view stress as our bodily response that can work for us, instead of against us. Much of our present discussion on the topic focuses around toxic levels of stress, and chronic feelings of overwork and mental distress can indeed lead to harmful physical and mental effects (2). There is a degree of stress which is unavoidable in our lives, and we can use our physical reactions to that kind of manageable stress to our advantage.
A hundred years ago, two researchers, Yerkes and Dodson, wrote a paper on optimum stress, or arousal, levels: too low and we’re bored and apathetic, too high and we struggle to function (3).
The authors present a bell similar to this infographic (4):
This paradigm is partially useful: we often need a certain level of expectations in order to function at our best. This will vary widely from person to person, and is affected by access to familial support, financial circumstances, chronic illness, and systemic injustice. Provided that we are operating under a fair load – one that provides opportunities and doesn’t overwhelm – we can work with our stressors to achieve our goals. Some self-talk, provided that we’re working in a healthy stress space, can help: “I’m noticing that when I think about this project, I feel my heart racing and my breathing getting shallow. This is a little uncomfortable, but it’s an example of my body trying to help me achieve my goals. I can use these physical responses to give me the adrenaline and motivation to accomplish what I need to do.”
One of the more helpful stress management techniques I’ve found takes advantage of our body’s natural expectations. Dr. Emily Nagoski writes about this in Come As You Are: our ancient stress responses had a natural cycle, and we evolved expecting that stress has three distinct periods: 1) identify threat, 2) do something, 3) threat ends. In contrast to when we had high threat level stressors that had clear endings (a lion chasing you, which you then succeeded in getting away from), our stressors are usually lower and much longer-lasting, leaving us with an uncompleted stress cycle, and always caught up in background feelings of fight, flight, or freeze.
The solution, Dr. Nagoski says, is finding something to communicate to your nervous system that the threat has passed, particularly by finding a way to complete the stress cycle. Movement is one of the most classic examples – if we anciently knew that stress had passed when we got to stop running, we can take advantage of that today by doing something that rapidly elevates our heartrate and then allows it to come back down, including running, swimming, or dancing around in our bedroom.
That doesn’t have to be the case for everyone, though, as she goes on to say: “…some other things that science says can genuinely help us not only ‘feel better’ but actually facilitate the completion of the stress response cycle: sleep; affection…; any form of meditation, including mindfulness, yoga, tai chi, body scans, etc. …; and allowing yourself a good old cry or primal scream…if you’ve ever locked yourself in your room and sobbed for ten minutes, and then at the end heaved a great big sigh and felt tremendously relieved, you’ve felt how it can move you from ‘I am at risk’ to ‘I am safe.’ “(5)
What if, however, you are in an intense stress response that a run or two can’t stave off for long? What if you are overwhelmed, burned out, and struggling to find a way to accomplish even basic tasks?
Not all stress is good stress, and not all expectations on us are reasonable. Being in overdrive for long periods of time can lead to destructive burnout, and systemic power structures affect individual access to support systems. In particular, long-term burnout often requires rest, and we sometimes fail to acknowledge how productive rest is in a world that calls us to be busy all the time. A much more recent paper discussed the limitations of Yerkes-Dodson’s ideas: in a culture obsessed with “productivity” at the expense of all else, we should be cautious with attitudes that people need others to stress them out to function well. (6)
How can we identify burnout as opposed to healthy stress? The first step is noticing how effectively you can perform everyday tasks. Are you struggling to get out of bed, eat, shower, etc.? Are you experiencing severe dread around whatever tasks cause you distress? These are tell-tale signs that you are acting outside of your capacity, and that your body needs a rest and reset.
Everyone’s capacity is different and varies throughout our lives, so we need to be cautious not to expect that we should be able to do something because we might have been able to in the past, or because someone else with similar circumstances doesn’t seem to be having any trouble. When we experience overwhelm, we should approach ourselves with understanding and compassion: “I can see that I’m really struggling right now. That makes sense because my circumstances changed quickly/my depression is severe right now/I don’t have the support I need to take a break.” The first step in the face of destructive stress is honoring our own capacity, and extending loving kindness to ourselves for struggling – not telling ourselves we should do better.
The next step has an individual answer and a community one, and both are important. On an individual level, the most direct response to overwhelming stressors is to off-load any responsibilities we can and honor our desire to rest. Rest is valuable and critical for our well-being. Question the idea that you should feel shame in recuperating after a long period of working too hard or too much – we live in a culture which prioritizes busy-ness over all else. Similarly, we should seek out personal relationships where a sense of emotional reciprocity is possible, where both parties can expect the other to give when they’re overwhelmed and burned out. The support each of us has available to us is critical to the community aspect of responding to stress. Each of us is largely only capable of rest when we have a solid support system to diffuse our responsibilities. Again, race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, gender, and family of origin will all influence our ability to seek support and find rest, to varying degrees. In order to have a world where fewer people experience debilitating stress, we must work to change our culture – to change the support systems available so that everyone has equal access to rest, and to change our attitude toward the value of working past our capacity.
Stress is a part of life and a little can boost us into a healthy functional state, but exhaustion and lack of support are destructive. They do not have to be inevitable. We can take better care of ourselves and each other on an individual and community level.
3. Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908). "The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation". Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology. 18 (5): 459–482.
4. Godin KW, Hansen JH (2015). “Physical task stress and speaker variability in voice quality”. EURASIP J. Audio Speech Music Process. 29
5. Nagoski, E (2015). Come As You Are. p. 122
6. Corbett, Martin (2015-08-10). "From law to folklore: work stress and the Yerkes-Dodson Law". Journal of Managerial Psychology. 30 (6): 741–752.