Avoiding Burnout During Chronic Stress: 5 Things You Need to Know

What is chronic stress anyway?

So we are all suffering with chronic stress to some extent at the moment and many may be burning out. Chronic means ‘persisting for a long time or constantly recurring’ i.e. Covid and parenting. Those who are parenting, managing jobs, worrying about money, caring for a parent and navigating Covid all at the same time – consider yourself under chronic chronic stress and at risk of burnout!

5 things you should know about stress and self-care to prevent burnout during this stressful period:

  1. Stress that is outside of our control and chronic takes a much a greater toll on us psychologically, biologically and physically. In psychology this is known as ‘learned helplessness’ – studies in the 1960’s showed that mice who had no control over when they were shocked became depressed and did not escape when given the opportunity whilst mice that were only shocked when they pressed a lever for food stayed psychologically healthy and did escape. In the face of an inescapable and long-term stressor like Covid we need to find ways of taking back a sense of control over our own lives.
  2. Stressors can be external or internal. External things are outside of us and include things like our job, Covid, financial difficulties, expectations of others, social norms and family issues. Internal stressors include an early trauma, negative thoughts, perceptions and expectations of ourselves. Sometimes we have limited control over our external stressors but have a lot more control over internal ones. I know I would be a lot less stressed if I stopped expecting so much of myself and showed myself a little more compassion for example.
  3. Our stress response is automatic/involuntary. We tend to think we have much more control over our thoughts and feelings than we actually do. Stress, or any emotion for that matter, is a neurological, physical and biological reaction that happens before we are even consciously aware that something is going on! Emotions are an evolutionary system designed to move our bodies into action to ensure our motivation and survival. So don’t be hard on yourself when you get that adrenaline rush, it is just your body doing its thing to survive.
  4. Flexibility is everything. We need to have a full range of emotions including stress. There is nothing wrong with having that initial stress reaction. What matters is that we are able to calm down again easily without getting stuck in the stress. Thinking flexibly and ensuring your body can move in and out of emotional states easily is a skill that can be learnt (see our FB and Insta posts on Polyvagal Theory for more on this).
  5. Your body needs to work through the emotion – once you have had your biological, neurological and physical response your body needs to work that through. If you just stay stuck at your desk or shove the feeling away/down it will wreak havoc with your psychological and physical health. This is an issue we see all the time with people who have endured chronic trauma in childhood (cutting off from emotions is sometimes the only way to survive, especially in childhood). We love the explanation and tips offered by Nagoski sisters in their book Burn Out and discussed in a great podcast episode with Brene Brown. They suggest strategies such as: physical movement, controlling your breath (big long exhales are magic), positive social interaction, genuine belly laughter, a proper hug, a big old cry and doing something creative with the feeling. These are all strategies we use regularly in our therapy work at Pocket Family Psychologist.

Worried about your child’s anxiety and stress? We have some great tips in our free guide to Understanding Child Anxiety, grab your copy here.

We are also currently working on a 6 week interactive programme for children struggling with big emotions – take a look Taming Your Lion (due for release early 2021).

Dr Andrea Shortland is a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist at Pocket Family Psychologist and Shortland Psychology Associates.

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