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Burnout and the Pandemic: How to Complete the Stress Cycle

Many of us are emotionally exhausted, suffering from burnout. Our bodies need to complete the stress response cycle. Discover how in this post.

Do you feel emotionally exhausted? Lacking empathy? Like nothing you do makes a difference?

You may be suffering from burnout.

What is burnout?

When burnout first emerged as a concept in the early 1970s, it was defined by Herbert Freudenberger as having three components:

  1. Emotional exhaustion
  2. Depersonalisation
  3. Decreased sense of accomplishment

And, with the COVID-19 pandemic into its second year and the ongoing blending of our work and home lives, many of us are suffering from some or all of those symptoms.

Relentless stressors

It can feel like we’re being attacked on all fronts.

Anxiety over the unseen threat to our health and our lives – for ourselves and our loved ones; the financial challenges; the prolonged periods of intense social isolation.

Trying to navigate sharing a space while coping with new pressures:

  • the forced cohabitation of our work and home lives
  • juggling the demands of homeschooling and work
  • being constantly around our partners/family members/housemates

Never getting a moment to yourself. Or, conversely, spending much of the pandemic alone.

The crippling uncertainty. The yearning for the beforetimes. The fear for our futures and those of our loved ones. And sadly, for many of us, the bereavement and grief.

It’s exhausting.

And many of the things we would usually do to release our stress haven’t been available: going on holiday, playing team sports or simply having the time to process our day at work during the commute home from the office.

At the same time, social-distancing requirements can see you withdraw into yourself and it can feel like nothing you do makes much of an impact – on the external situation or internally.

These pressures are leading to higher levels of stress and, in turn, disrupted sleep – at a time when many of the ways we’d normally discharge stress are denied us.

This is why many people are suffering from lockdown fatigue, compassion fatigue and globally there’s been an exacerbation of burnout in the workplace.

And there’s another problem.

Never getting a moment to yourself. Or, conversely, spending much of the pandemic alone.

The crippling uncertainty. The yearning for the beforetimes. The fear for our futures and those of our loved ones. And sadly, for many of us, the bereavement and grief.

It’s exhausting.

And many of the things we would usually do to release our stress haven’t been available: going on holiday, playing team sports or simply having the time to process our day at work during the commute home from the office.

At the same time, social-distancing requirements can see you withdraw into yourself and it can feel like nothing you do makes much of an impact – on the external situation or internally.

These pressures are leading to higher levels of stress and, in turn, disrupted sleep – at a time when many of the ways we’d normally discharge stress are denied us.

This is why many people are suffering from lockdown fatigue, compassion fatigue and globally there’s been an exacerbation of burnout in the workplace.

And there’s another problem.

Biological imbalance

You’re familiar with the fight-or-flight survival mechanism. But did you know your body has a second defence strategy?

Dr Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory explains what happens when we’re experiencing chronic intense stress and our body senses we’re unable to fight or flee.

We freeze. We go into shutdown mode.

This immobilisation is an adaptive response – stopping us from exposing ourselves to sensory overload or psychological harm.

Normally, it’s kept in balance by our social engagement system. We’re social beings after all and it’s through social contact that we gain a feeling of safety. We co-regulate each other.

But that’s been perilously blunted by the pandemic, rolling lockdowns and social-distancing restrictions.

And we find ourselves in a paradox: needing to both avoid the virus and socially connect to calm ourselves.

Dealing with your stress, not just the stressors

When we think about dealing with stress, we often focus only on what’s caused it.

But even when you can remove the stressors, you still need to deal with the emotion itself.

Because, as sisters Dr Emily Nagoski (health educator and New York Times bestselling author) and Amelia Nagoski (Associate Professor and Coordinator of Music at Western New England University) explain in their book, Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle, emotions exist in your body.

Emotions are an involuntary neurological response to events. Left to their own devices, they’ll come to an end.

But the problem is our bodies are constantly being flooded by neurochemicals.

We’re trapped in the tunnel of an emotion.

We need to complete the stress cycle.

Completing the stress cycle

Thankfully, as the Nagoskis write, there are a number of evidence-based ways to do this:

  1. Physical activity – anything from going for a walk to yoga or simply dancing around your living room. Emotions are felt in our bodies so moving our bodies can help.
  2. Breathing – many of us underestimate the simple power of focusing on our breath but it counteracts the stress response.
  3. Creative self-expression – harnessing the power of the right side of your brain to express and release your emotions through art.
  4. Allowing yourself to cry – turning your attention to the physical experience, rather than feeding your emotion with further thoughts of what sparked your crying.
  5. Affection – not just physical affection, this could be with pets as well as people.
  6. A good belly laugh – this doesn’t have to be face-to-face with someone. It could be in a telephone/Zoom call or laughing at something in a TV programme/film/book/podcast.
  7. Positive social interaction – you perhaps can’t be with the people you want right now but even casual, friendly encounters with strangers can help remind you that in this moment you’re safe. And, in line with the Polyvagal Theory, they can help you move into a regulated, calm and balanced state.

Learning new nonverbal cues

What makes things doubly hard at the moment is we can’t escape the stressors.

And with masks and screens now impeding our learned nonverbal social-engagement cues, we need to retune our nervous system to become more aware of intonation, facial expressions and physical gestures. Both on camera and off.

Separating the stressors from stress

When your stressors have gone away, you still need to deal with the emotions you’re feeling.

But there’s another side to the coin. By separating the stressors from stress, we have the ability to start feeling better before the problem causing our stress has gone away.

And with chronic stressors like the pandemic that are going to be with us for a while to come, it’s vital we find ways to do that.

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