The classic definition of stress is the response our bodies and minds have to the demands placed upon them and the interpretations we assign to those demands. Stress can actually force us to prioritize our tasks in a way that allows us to begin to tackle the most important work first, triggering adrenaline as a way to compensate for the perception that there’s just too much on our plate and we do not have time to accomplish all our tasks. And when we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we feel better when we know our situation was only temporary. Imagine planning a surprise birthday party for your spouse. You think about the phone calls you have to make, scheduling the event, inviting the guests, buying and preparing the food or booking a reservation at a favorite restaurant, working hard to keep it a secret, and the countless other parts of planning a successful event. This can all produce stress. But once the party begins, you start to relax a little as you look around to see friends and family enjoying themselves. At the end of the party, you can finally sit down, put your feet up, and relish in the fun everyone had. Stress and anxiety built up to the time of the actual event, but in the end, everyone agreed that a great memory was made. Short-term pressure and mild anxiety, a task completed, and having a sense of satisfaction are the good parts of stress. But there is a not-so-good side that can cause great harm.
Stress and Burnout
When we experience stress for an extended period of time without being able to alter, change, or ameliorate it, we can begin to feel empty, numb, devoid of motivation, hopeless, and beyond caring. Burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
The definition of burnout was first coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, when he described it as “a depletion or exhaustion of a person’s physical or mental resources attributed to his or her prolonged, yet unsuccessful striving toward unrealistic expectations, internally or externally derived.” Burnout is about not having enough energy, motivation, or passion. The thought is usually “I know it will never get better.”
As you can see, there is a major distinction between stress and burnout—stress involves too much and burnout not enough. Everyone experiences stress in one form or another—in raising a child, in schoolwork, at our job, in having an ill family member, with financial pressures, in marital problems, with addiction, and with being homeless. Using the example of a homeless person, constant and prolonged stressors may include not having shelter in inclement weather, inadequate food, poor hygiene and medical problems, untreated mental illness, the risk of addiction, and encountering a bad element on the streets. In the face of the day-to-day, constant stressors of anxiety, depression, and in many cases post-traumatic stress disorder, with no end in sight, we can see how someone can turn from thinking that their situation is temporary and resolvable to the helpless and hopeless thoughts that being burned out can bring. Without some form of intervention, it’s easy to see how someone can remain stuck, apathetic, and lack any physical or mental energy to change their situation.
However, not everyone’s situation is as dire as someone who is homeless. Stress and burnout can also affect someone who is employed and appears, at least from the outside, to be doing well. Many jobs, including both blue- and white-collar jobs, come with a great deal of stress. Among other things, the stress can stem from the requirements of high-level performance, having to step up when a problem emerges, responsibility for staff productivity, and working in difficult environments, sometimes with difficult people. Those in the helping professions, especially doctors, social workers, nurses, and techs, are all prone to stress, burnout, and what is often called “caregiver fatigue.” Those who work with complicated medical cases, with children and adolescents, with the elderly, with acute psychiatric patients, and with addicts, prisoners, and the abused and neglected are at high risk for burnout. Who else is most vulnerable to burnout? Those who
No matter the situation, burnout can occur if you are lacking the awareness as to what all that stress is doing to you. Where most of these are familiar stressors, we don’t often talk about the last—experiencing vicarious trauma. Let’s take a look at that now.
Absorbing Others’ Trauma
Vicarious trauma (VT) is a condition particular to those who work in close contact with trauma survivors. In some cases, these people will empathically take on aspects of the trauma the survivor has experienced. This can result in symptoms similar to those of trauma survivors themselves. Making sure to prioritize self-care, maintenance of healthy boundaries with clients, and early detection of symptoms can all help to minimize or eliminate the onset of VT. Some questions to ask yourself when working with trauma survivors:
One way to avoid vicarious trauma is to not personalize the work. It takes a lot of training and experience to work in a caregiving setting like a hospital or nursing home every day, but for some, being thrust into a new role they are not prepared for can lead to burnout. Many adults find themselves in the role of being caregivers to their parents. Some have the help of others or the resources to provide the necessary care, but others do not have that luxury and must do it alone. Too much stress without relief can lead to burnout, and if the caregiver becomes ill, who is going to take care of the two of them?
*A person can get so burned out they become apathetic about everything, including self-care, which could lead to hospitalization. A person may get to the point where they not only become physically ill but emotionally ill as well. It is much easier to learn how to prioritize tasks, live one day at a time (sometimes one hour at a time), and discuss stress-reduction techniques than try to recover from burnout. If you find yourself headed for burnout from the constant barrage of stress, call a therapist now!
When we talk about self-care, what thoughts come to mind? Eating right, getting enough sleep, and going to the gym? That’s a great start, but it may not fix everything. Let’s take a look at several areas of self-care that can help prevent burnout.
The above list is certainly not exhaustive, but it will give you an idea of ways to cope with stress to avoid burnout. There are many areas of self-care where you can unwind and get the rest your body and mind needs to recharge. Burnout is a matter of recovery from a debilitating state of emptiness and exhaustion from which it takes time recover. A strategy I often recommend to my clients is to take life one day at a time or, even better, one hour at a time, breaking up the pressures we face into manageable chunks. It works for me! Give yourself the time you need to “detox” from the day-to-day “addiction” you experience every day. And remember to call a therapist as soon as you begin to feel overly stressed with everyday life.
*Excerpt from When to Call a Therapist by Robert C. Ciampi, LCSW, June, 2019, Scrivener Books, with permission from the author and publisher.
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