I wonder how much do you juggle everyday? Think about the many hats you put on each day – Mother/Father, Partner, Agent/Buyer, Business Owner, Teacher/Student, Employee/Employer. Life is busy and full.
Now add in all of your personal expectations, perfectionistic ideals, and criticisms, perhaps these are some of the hardest demands to juggle or manage … our inner critic. You ‘must’, you ‘should’, it’s not good enough. Or perhaps: do more – be more and then you will be happy. This is the cognitive filter we place over everything that we do or perhaps don’t do. This layer is a tricky layer to acknowledge, it stems from our deeper beliefs and influences our perceptions. This is the subconscious filter through which we view the world. In my practice one of the most common limiting belief is that nasty insidious, “I’m not good enough” and it’s cousin the, “what do other people think of me”.
The aim of this paper is to share some neuroscience about balancing and preventing burnout. Hopefully you will take away with you these three simple principles:
1. Listen to your body
2. Stay in balance
3. Appreciate your life
So stress then, is it a friend or a foe? Here, we need to come back to balance. Our biology is designed to handle some stress and some stress motivates us to perform. However any system will show signs of wear and tear if it is not maintained properly. It needs to be identified and have something done about it before it is beyond repair. Or even better keep it well-maintained – regular oil and grease changes please.
The Stress Performance Curve demonstrates that there is an optimal level of stress or arousal that we need for peak performance. This is ‘eustress’ – Greek for good stress. Perhaps here is where Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) might say ‘flow’ occurs. This is when our skills meet the challenge at hand and we lose self-consciousness. On the curve we can also see that no stress and also too much stress (distress) inhibits performance.
Perhaps to illustrate this, consider that your nervous system is similar to an electrical system in your house. You need to have the lights on when it gets dark but if you turn everything on, you might activate the safety switch and then lose power. This is similar to what happens in your brain. Once your protective system recognises a threat it triggers the flight/flight response and puts you into survival mode. Which is good if you are about to electrocute yourself and not so good if you are about to do a presentation at the revive conference.
Let’s look at some definitions:
Wellbeing is: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (World Health Organisation).
Stress is: “any circumstance that threaten or are perceived to threaten one’s well-being and thereby tax one’s coping abilities” (Weiten, Lloyd, Dunn & Hammer, 2009).
Burnout “involves physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and a lowered sense of self-efficacy that is attributable to work-related stress” (Weiten, Lloyd, Dunn & Hammer, 2009).
History of Stress
Hans Selye (1907 – 1982), a Hungarian Endocrinologist was inspired by an experiment he was conducting on mice. He was injecting different hormones into mice, but all the mice were exhibiting the same response, at first he surmised that he had discovered a new hormone, but in fact he was observing the impact of stress on mice. The General Adaptation Syndrome was born, the stages he proposed being the initial ‘alarm stage’ secondly the ‘resistance stage’ and lastly if we don’t listen to our bodies telling us something is wrong – the ‘exhaustion stage’. Curiously he found that whether one received bad news or good news the body responded in the same way. He called negative stress ‘distress’ and positive stress ‘eustress’.
One of his mates, Walter Cannon (1871 -1945) an American physiologist, then came up with the concept of ‘homeostasis’. This is the concept that the body will naturally create balance. In 1932 he wrote a book called the ‘Wisdom of the Body’. We are still learning more and more about the wonders of how our body regulates different states to bring about homeostasis. You would have heard of the term ‘fight-flight’ this was another one of his discoveries and he coined the term in 1915. With a century of research we are still struggling to figure out, how best to do the juggle of life.
So what I am saying is … well we are normal.
Automatic Nervous System
Let’s go into more detail about the fight/flight – the protective response. The Automatic Nervous System (ANS) regulates the important survival functions of your body (breathing, digesting, heart beating, blood flow). The ANS processes are in charge so you can concentrate on bigger things: like ordering Tai and perusing the new listings on Netflix. We can override the system, with lots of conscious effort but when we sleep they go back to the default. Sometimes this is actually why people feint, because the body want to be back in charge, you drop to the floor, making it easier for the heart to pump the blood back up to your brain and your breathing goes back to a steady even pace, stabilising your blood pressure. This is a great example of homeostasis – listen to your body!
Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is also fondly known as the fight-flight response. It is normal and natural and every living thing with a brain has this survival response in their system.
When your amygdala senses threat, whether that be a real or an imaginary threat, your body will go into the fight-flight mode. The alarm goes off, your body sends adrenalin and other stress hormones through out your body. Your body creates glucose in your system by breaking down what ever it can (fat, muscle) this is why we can lose lots of weight quickly when we are stressed. Your pupils dilate to improve your peripheral vision so you can see the treat if it comes at you from behind. Your body will also increase your heart rate, breathing rate and tense up your muscles in preparation of dealing with the threat. This body response is very similar to anxiety symptoms; in fact it is what happens in your body when you feel anxious.
What also happens when the fight-flight systems has been activated, it changes the blood flow of the brain. More blood goes to activating the sympathetic system, which is reflexive, and less blood flow goes to the thinking part of the brain (prefrontal cortext) because it is too slow.
This is why, imagine you are walking on the footpath, you hear a screech of tyres near you, you jump back, so quick you don’t even remember making a decision to jump back, it’s all reflexes baby! Survival of the fitness! This is what would have happened if the thinking brain were in charge.
“Oh my that car is going fast, I wonder if the driver is a P plater, although I do like that model of Mazda, and the sun picks up the metallic glinnnnnntttttttt….” CRASH
Of course heading into an exam or a corporate meeting is not the best place to go into the fight-flight because you need the thinking part of the brain. So take a deep breath, calm yourself and your brain will come back on line.
What is important to know about this protective system is that it doesn’t know what is actually real, it will respond even you are just thinking of the threat, or a past threat. So be careful of what you let run around your mind, because your body will always create the chemical state to match. You need to be in charge.
So the sympathetic nervous system may put you into ‘fight’ off the threat, ‘flight’ run away, avoid or even ‘freeze’ (playing dead is actually a survival strategy in the animal kingdom, have a look at a frightened frilly lizard). The blood flow changes, so some parts of the brain switch off, sometimes even to the point you may feel dissociated from your body. In extreme trauma situations this is where some one could potentially develop Multiple Personality Disorders.
Now the fight-flight is the protective mechanism, but what happens when there is no tangible threat to fight or flight or freeze from. Your system is still wired up (hyper-aroused) by all that excess adrenalin and glucose in your muscles, which is why your muscles may shake or even cramp up later (you have used up your magnesium). The best thing to do is something active that day to burn up the extra adrenalin in your system. Sleeping may be tricky too if the stress hormones are running around your system keeping you alert. This is why exercise is so good for stress management; yes there is the science for you.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
So what goes up will come down, that’s the nature of homeostasis. You body can’t sustain the fight-flight mode; it uses too much energy and nutrition, so it’s time to repair. This is what the parasympathetic nervous system does and it is called the rest-digest response. It is your body’s healing response. When we sleep our body repairs itself.
I always have images of Lego men running around rebuilding and repairing, using amino acids (protein) as the Lego. Pretty much every structure in your body is made using amino acids. Your neurons, your neurotransmitters, your hormones, your skin and nails, muscle fibres etc. all need protein and other essential nutrients to be strong and efficient. This is why I talk with my clients about the importance of healthy eating, eat a little protein in every meal even if it’s a few nuts in your salad. I also tell clients on antidepressants don’t just rely on the medicine; you still need to feed your body protein in order to make the serotonin and dopamine (happy neurotransmitters).
The rest-digest response will slow you down (hypo-arousal), your muscles will relax, your heart beat and breathing slows down, your pupils constrict, digestion slows right down and you are set to ‘defrag’ the system. Your body wants you to rest, to sleep to take it easy so your body can heal.
It’s like the time you had a really bad flu, all you wanted to do was go into the cave where it’s nice and dark and quite (no more stimulation), your appetite is gone and all you want to do is just sleep. This is how I know when my little boy is actually ‘really’ sick he’s not hungry and happy to go to bed. When he’s starting to get better, after dinner he wants the apple, the sandwich and yes the glass of milk. He has enough energy to push the bedtime limits.
Some of the parasympathetic symptoms may sound like depression symptoms and certainly we can get ‘stuck’ in this system because of negative thinking, or our body is ‘burnt out’. The yacht is pulled out of the water so serious repairs can be done. Some people with big swings of the sympathetic and parasympathetic may talk about feeling anxious and then crashing into depression. This is the body over swinging to try to find a balance. Where we want to be most of the time is in homeostasis right in the middle, where our brain is totally functioning and we can think about what is happening.
Within this system there is an important nerve called the Vagus Nerve, which has created some excitement in the neuroscience world. Understanding how this nerve works, explains why deep breathing, having a good chat, even a laugh is so calming to our nervous system (Porges, 2007).
Let’s look at this system from another perspective.
On the top we have the protective response and on the bottom the healing response and in the middle is generally we sit for most of the time. This is how the body creates balance – homeostasis. To maintain our ‘equapoise’ (Sarah Bell, 2017) we need to listen to our body and know the signs so we can better adjust and bring back the balance.
Otherwise we will look this …
A cognitive model was proposed by Lazarus and Folkman (1984), in order to explain how important our perceptions are in understanding stress. Lazarus proposed that we experience stress when we perceive the demands are greater than our resources. First we make a ‘ Primary Appraisal’ of the stress. Is the stress good, harmful, threatening or just irrelevant? Is being stressed worth it? What might I have to lose? If our appraisal here is that the stress is relevant and potentially threatening, we may then move into more analysis of our situation.
The ‘Secondary Appraisal’ occurs as we consider our resources to meet the demands. Can I do what is being asked of me? Is there too much on my plate? What do I need in order to meet the challenge? If it is our perception that we can’t meet the demands, we will then start to experience stress. According to Selye, if we then continue to feel this amount of stress without doing anything about it, we will reach ‘exhaustion’ and then the body will basically take over and send you to bed. Body wisdom is listening to the messages our body sends us. You can only override the stress signals for a certain amount of time, before something serious happens in your body. Let’s be wise and not test our bodies to the limit.
Prolonged effects of the body
Here is what can happen if you don’t listen to your body and do your best to bring back the balance as soon as you notice.
• Impaired task performance and disruption in cognitive Functioning
• Psychological problems (Depression, Anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Alcohol/Drug Abuse). May trigger genetic Mental Health Disorders (Schizophrenia, Bi Polar).
• Health problems (Headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, ulcers, digestion issues, skin disorder, sexual difficulties, chronic low back pain, weight gain, compromised immune system)
By being wise and optimistic here are positive responses to stress.
• Fill a need for challenge
• Personal growth
• Emotional resilience
• Healthy levels can increase immune functioning
• Post Traumatic Growth (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2013)
o Personal strength, relating to others, new possibilities, appreciation, meaning
So in conclusion, it is about bringing balance for yourself and also being a good role model in the workplace and for your family. Be the change you want to see in your life – it starts with you.
So we have our scientific solution to preventing burnout – balancing our demands and resources. We also have the answers in our body. By listening to our body signals we can bring back the balance. The problem is that we have become too good at overriding our body cues – we have lost connectivity and we are not living authentically
1. Learn to listen to your body. This is different from your thoughts and emotions. Our thoughts have been programmed from our experiences and may not be a true source of where your stress levels are. If you are honest with yourself your body will tell you how to keep the balance. I can see worried looks and thoughts, ‘but I have things to get done’ and yes of course we all do… Swinging the other way is just as much out of balance.
Listen to your stress body cue.
The secret is to keep homeostasis which starts with knowing when you are feeling stressed and then acting on it straight away.
2. Stay in balance.
The power you have is right now.
• Breathe – Deep breathing activates the calming response of the brain through the Vagus Nerve, it also maintains healthy a PH level of your blood.
• Relaxation skills – Progressive relaxation, Cued relaxation
• Mindfulness – Focussed attention on the present by using your senses with out judgement.
• Get enough sleep – Very important for your healing system and also memory system. Do not rely on alcohol or sleeping tablets as this compromises the functioning of your hypocampus in memory formation. The Cycardium rhythm (sleep-wake cyles) is one of the first systems to go out whack in stressful times because of excessive release of stress hormones, particularly adrenalin.
• Nourish your body – Protein in particular as it repairs your nervous system, Essential Fatty Acids as they coat your nerves and Magnesium as you burn though a lot trying to relax your muscles.
• Exercise regularly – releases toxins from stress hormones, helps the blood to circulate through your system- bringing nourishment to your muscles and brain. It also helps maintain healthy PH blood levels by flushing out toxins.
• Share positive moments – This is the best way to boost your dopamine and serotonin.
Some strategies to promote a Psychosocial Safety Climate:
• Worksite physical activity programs
• Coaching and mentoring programs
• Mental health first aid and education
• Resilience training
• Cognitive Behavioural Therapy based return-to-work programs
• Well-being checks or health screenings
• Encouraging employee involvement
(PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2014, p. 4)
3. Appreciate life
Notice what you normally take for granted and ‘savor the moment’. It is so good for your brain and your relationships. It also helps to release beautiful brain chemicals. You are good enough, you are beautiful, you are worthy and you deserve this.
Finally, “when we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves – Viktor Frankl.
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PricewaterhouseCoopers. (2014). Creating a mentally health workplace: Return on investment
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