- Forty-two percent of women say they’ve been "often" or "almost always" burned out in 2021.
- When the stress response is activated, a whole series of neurological and hormonal activity occurs.
- The way a person manages the stress cycle will either lead to wellbeing or burnout.
This week, we’re continuing with our series of posts on burnout because we know it’s something that’s resonating deeply with so many women right now. In fact, according to the latest research from Lean In, 42% of women say they’ve been "often" or "almost always" burned out in 2021. So you’re definitely not alone if you’re feeling this way. And if you need some support with this, we’ve brought together the most practical information you need to know in our brand new (and free!) Burnout Guide: How to Identify, Prevent and Recover From Burnout.
The physiology of stress
One of the most important things to understand when it comes to treating and reversing burnout is the physiology of stress and how you can complete the stress response cycle.
As researchers and authors Emily and Amelia Nagoski explain in their book Burnout, in order to deal with burnout you have to differentiate between your stress (the physical response that occurs in the body) and your stressors (the factors causing your stress) and implement strategies for managing both.
Your stressors are the things in your life that activate the stress response in your body. There are external stressors such as work, money, family, relationships, parenting, time, cultural expectations, discrimination, traumatic experiences, COVID, etc. And there are also internal stressors such as self-criticism, perfectionism, body image, memories, and the future. All of these things have the potential to be perceived as threats and activate the stress response in your body.
Your stress response is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when it encounters one of these stressors and perceives a threat. You may have heard your stress response referred to as the fight-flight-freeze response, as these are the options that the body turns to when it thinks that you’re in danger.
When the stress response is activated, a whole series of neurological and hormonal activity occurs, which initiates physiological changes to help you survive. Your heart beats faster, your blood pumps harder, your blood pressure increases, and you breathe more quickly.
Adrenaline pumps through your system, your muscles tense, your sensitivity to pain reduces, your attention is alert, your senses are heightened and you’re hyper-focused on the here and now. Because the body thinks you’re under threat and it wants to maximise your ability to survive, your other organ systems are deprioritised.
This means your digestion slows down, your immune function reduces, and growth and tissue repair stop, as does your reproductive functioning. To put it simply, your entire body and mind change in response to the perceived threat.
This system is incredibly important and vital for your survival and functioning as a human being. The problem is, the stress response was designed to be activated for acute periods of time and then turned off, which is what would have happened in your cavewoman past when your life was under threat from the local ravenous bear.
But in the modern world, the same stress response system is being activated by all kinds of things—too many emails, a frustrating commute, a heavy workload, an argument with your partner, social media, a toxic boss—the list is truly endless. And even though none of these things are actually life-threatening, they lead to a chronic build-up of incomplete stress cycles, which is what causes burnout.
Stress is not the problem
It’s really important to know that stress is not the problem. Getting stuck in the middle of that stress, not completing the cycle, and then having these incomplete stress cycles accumulate, is the issue. In other words, it’s not the stress itself but the way you manage it which will either lead to wellbeing or burnout.
There are very valid reasons why you might get stuck in a stress cycle. If you have a chronic stressor in your life, even if you complete the stress cycle one day, the stress will be reactivated the following day if the stressor is still present. So you might get stuck in the stress response because you’re stuck in a stress-activating situation (think parenting demands, caring for a loved one, that relentlessly demanding workload or boss).
You might also get stuck in a stress cycle because it’s not socially appropriate to process the stress at the time when you’re experiencing it. For example, your brain might be sending you signals to "run," when you’re in the middle of an important meeting and you get challenged by a colleague. As much as you might want to, you can’t very well run out of the room.
Whatever the reason, most days (if not every day), you’ll have stress that’s been activated in your body that you need to process and release, which is why it’s essential to learn simple strategies to complete the stress cycle and make time to do so every day.