For many years, I thought stress was a byproduct of adult responsibility–something we all had to “tough out.” Like a lot of people, I believed needing a break and asking for help were signs of weakness– attitudes that are unfortunately also widely reinforced in the workplace culture.
Young parents and single mothers typically live life “on the run,” doing and achieving more for the betterment “of the kids.” I was among them and consequently became a master juggler of competing priorities.
In time though, the pressures mounted and I was too strung out on stress to enjoy even the small vacation time allotted each year. Although I was “there” for my kids, my mind was continually focused on keeping the myriad spinning plates in the motion. In the name of efficiency, I was curt, even snappy. I’m ashamed to admit that I sometimes yelled too.
Oblivious to the symptoms of stress-induced anxiety, I eventually started exhibiting panic attacks. I later became physically ill from exhaustion and chronic stress.
I never knew I was stressed beyond my limit. I thought I was just doing my job as a “good” professional and parent. Unfortunately my story is all too common.
As humans, we’re wired for surviving short bursts of stress. Adrenaline and cortisol are the body’s tools for getting us out of immediate danger–a mechanism designed to release chemicals into the body for minutes, not years.
John Medina, author of New York Times Bestseller, Brain Rules, says each of us has a unique reaction to stress. We all have a different tipping point, which makes it is difficult to quantify stress. Medina suggests the body alone is an inaccurate measure of stress because physiological arousal is “characteristic of both stress and pleasure.” One man’s burnout is another man’s adrenaline rush, so to speak.
How Do You Know When You’ve Reached Your Stress Threshold?
According to Medina, the research team of Jeansok Kim and David Diamond recently developed a more accurate means of monitoring stress using three observable
1. You have a strong desire to avoid the source of stress.
Do you drag yourself to work? Whether it’s work or a bad relationship, wanting to avoid the major stressor is a key indicator of stress. Statistics show that 40% of absenteeism is related workplace tension. According to the American Stress Institute, stress costs American business $300 billion dollars in health related expenses, such as worker’s compensation, absenteeism and employee turnover. The American Bureau of Statistics asserts the average stress leave in America is 20 days.
Do you get to work early and leave late? People who appear to be “workaholics” often use work to escape a stressful home life.
Children who consistently complain they don’t want to go to school are avoiding extreme pressure to achieve, bullying or interpersonal conflicts at school. Challenging school environments can be as stressful to children as toxic workplaces.
2. You feel helpless.
Feelings of powerlessness arouse the greatest stress. When the expectations placed on you in your environment exceed your ability to control the outcome, you end up with a symptom called “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness is the perception of being unable to escape or change your circumstances, which generates a stress overload and a deterioration of will. Legendary psychologist Martin Seligman identified this as a “cognitive collapse” in which the stress related feelings of helplessness create a decline in mental health.
3. The stress response is observable to others.
Whereas we often have a tendency to deny our own symptoms, the people around us experience our symptoms as moody, distant, distracted, depressed, overwhelmed, over-reactive or emotional. Disrupted sleeping and eating patterns and frequent illness are also signs of stress. Left diagnosed, chronic stress can lead to depression. Other lesser known signs of stress include immune deficiency, skin issues such as hives or rashes, and a reduced self control, ability to concentrate, reason, solve problems, retain information and learn.
All the skills necessary to excel in life are compromised by prolonged stress, which can also lead to stroke and heart disease.
Prolonged stress affects physical and mental health. It’s unsurprising that stressed out people don’t function as well as those with lower levels of stress.
What You Can Do To Prevent Burnout
1. Empower Yourself
There are many great sources of information on managing stress and regaining control over your life. Reducing stress may mean leaving a toxic work environment, abusive relationship or changing schools. Although such decisions are not easy, you will experience long term mental and physical health benefits and be happier in the long run.
2. Engage in Mindfulness
Through mindfulness practices you learn to become aware of you’re your environment and to control your emotional state. Research shows that people who take mindfulness training experience improved sleep and reduced feelings of stress. Mindfulness is also reported effective in treating depression.
3. Exercise Regularly
Even moderate aerobic exercise 30 minutes a day three or more times per week can significantly reduce the signs of stress.
4. Take Extended Vacations
Often reducing stress means leaving toxic relationships or workplaces. Major life change can be frightening and isolating. I’m running workshops in Milan, Italy in June 2015 where I’ll be sharing inspiring strategies to motivate, empower and support you. More details here.