Mindful

Stress is everywhere. You wake up in the morning to the sound of your phone’s alarm blaring, sending a hit of adrenaline through your system. Then, you might get another hit as you scroll through your news feed and learn about the latest global or local disaster. At times, it feels as if there are threats everywhere, real or imagined, and the body and mind react accordingly in any number of ways. Your heart may speed up or you may feel sweaty, hyper-focused, or simply avoid whatever happens to be unpleasant in the moment.

We all thought that technology would make our lives easier. But instead we are inundated with packets of data, much of it irrelevant. Facebook tells us what our long-lost friends are doing on vacation. Google reminds us of a holiday potluck we are supposed to attend. We can endorse professionals on LinkedIn so they will endorse us. Twitter truncates the day’s news into tidy sentences, and a device on our wrist reports that last night, we had 45 minutes of “restless sleep.” Email has become, in the words of a friend of mine, “a To-Do list that you didn’t create.” And the plethora of apps at your fingertips that help you, say, navigate IKEA more effectively, provide minimal payoff.

Our inability to step out of the information flow — such as at work where we may be required to stay plugged in or can’t seem to get away physically or psychologically from our phones at any time — has a direct effect on our health and well-being. Namely, and not surprisingly to many of us, an increase in stress reactivity.

The Three Stages of Stress

There are many definitions of stress and one is from the original father of stress research, Hans Selye: the non-specific adaptation response of the body to any demand or problem. He described a process of how we respond to stress called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) consisting of three stages: Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion.

  • Alarm involves a number of physiological reactions — hormonal, neurological, cardiovascular, etc. — and psychological reactions, as we move into a fight, flight, or freeze response for survival.
  • Resistance may be viewed as the physiological and psychological attempt to adapt to and overcome the effects of the stressor. This is all well and good if the stressor resolves — if not, the stress hormone cortisol will continue to be produced, resulting in poor sleep, increased illness, anxiety, weight gain, and poor cognitive functioning.
  • Exhaustion may follow when a stressor becomes chronic either from ongoing exposure or ineffectual and repeated attempts to deal with it. We become overwhelmed.

The Warning Signs of Burnout

Fortunately, most of us now live without the threat of sabre tooth tigers — but we instead face long commutes, harsh emails, striving for the almighty dollar and enhanced self-esteem. These stressors result in the same internal reactions as when we are confronted with something life threatening.

Stress itself may not be the issue but rather its chronicity and severity, our relationship to it, as well as what we do when stress shows up.

When we are faced with a stressor, regardless of whether it is positive or negative, it involves a change to which we must adjust: the new baby, job, relationship, death, and sickness, to name a few. Stress itself may not be the issue but rather its chronicity and severity, our relationship to it, as well as what we do when stress shows up. Humans must necessarily adapt psychologically, socially, biologically, and environmentally. And we are nothing if we are not problem solvers. But even too much problem solving can result in burnout.

Symptoms of burnout, according to The Maslach Burnout Inventory Manual, used by researchers as a measure for long-term occupational stress, include:

  • Emotional exhaustion – Emotionally overextended and exhausted by work or life. This is common for people in the helping professions when they reach a point where they feel no longer able to give of themselves.
  • Depersonalization – Negative, cynical attitude, or treating others 
as objects. We can begin to see others as deserving of their problems. This view is particularly tied to emotional exhaustion.
  • Sense of low personal accomplishment – Feelings of incompetence, inefficiency, and inadequacy. People feel unhappy and dissatisfied with themselves and their performance. This can lead to “learned helplessness” and “chronic bitterness.”

The Mayo Clinic provides key warning signs that you may be heading toward burnout.

  • You feel disenchanted and cynical.
  • It’s difficult to get out of bed — and it’s equally as difficult to get started once you’re at work.
  • You have a short fuse with colleagues and clients.
  • You feel sapped of energy — to follow through on projects, to concentrate on one task.
  • Sleep and appetite may be affected.
  • You may be using substances to avoid feelings.
  • You may experience physical symptoms including headaches and back aches.

All of this of course may affect both your work and personal life, making you miserable, affecting  relationships, and decreasing productivity.

Mindfully Manage Your Stress in Six Steps

Regardless of the cause of your stress, there are a number of steps you can take to manage it. These include:

1. Make a list of your personal stressors. Susan Woods, a well-known mindfulness teacher, suggests we think of them in terms of those that are acute and chronic or internal and external. Realize that these categories may overlap. One can have an acute on chronic problem (e.g. an exacerbation of ongoing back pain due to an injury, or a stressor that may be both external and internal such as stomach pain due to a conflict you’re having with a spouse). Writing them down can help you deconstruct them, making them less overwhelming and more manageable by externalizing them. We don’t have to be them; we can simply have them. And remember: stressors are finite.

2. Determine which stressors you can change and which ones you can’t. Once you identify a stressor that can’t be changed, ask yourself, how you might bring a change in attitude or perspective to it. Can you see it differently? Can a problem become a learning opportunity or a challenge to overcome? Can a task become something that gives you a sense of accomplishment?

3. Do one small thing. Can you come up with a small, manageable way of beginning to address the stressor? Make sure the action you are going to take is stated in positive and concrete terms — Think about what you are going to do rather than what you won’t do. Set a time to start and to finish. Don’t try to do too much. Remember, small steps are key.

4. Build a support network. Can you identify your inner and outer resources for getting support and managing?  For example, if you are feeling burned out from work, consider making a list of your internal resources. What are your strengths? Make a list of people, places, activities, or things that could be external supports. Maybe you need an exercise buddy, a friend to vent to regularly, or do an online search for a “meet up” that might fill a need. Monitor and write down those times when you feel even a little bit better. Monitoring whatever you do brings some kind of change. Maybe there are small activities you find nourishing that you’ve stopped doing like that cappuccino and podcast you used to listen to first thing in the morning or simply  taking a few deep breaths when feeling overwhelmed. Remember: The breath is always with you! Above all, start small and schedule! Trying to do too much will likely result in you not doing anything except wanting to pull the covers over your head in a state of overwhelm.

Trying to do too much will likely result in you not doing anything except wanting to pull the covers over your head in a state of overwhelm.

5. Identify your triggers. Can you become mindful of your automatic and habitual reactions to the stressor? What shows up in your experience in terms of your thoughts, emotions, body sensations, behaviors, and impulses to act? Can you write these down using the web of reactivity? After you make a list, ask yourself where and how you might bring mindfulness to these reactions. Perhaps  stopping and taking a breath, bringing attention to body sensations, or bringing curiosity to the experience may disrupt the tendency to cascade into a stress spiral.

6. Finally, don’t forget that everything changes. Nothing lasts. And since change is inevitable, we can remind ourselves of this and get a little breathing room if nothing else until the stress storm passes.

Created by Mary Elliot and Evan Collins
  • Describe the situation (where, when, who, what)
  • List your initial “automatic” thoughts
  • List your emotions/moods (in one word: using your vocabulary of emotions if you wish)
  • List where you felt these emotions in your body
  • List your actions/impulse to act (using the vocabulary of behavioural response if you wish)

Being with Stressful Moments Rather Than Avoiding Them

How to Recover from Burnout

Patricia Rockman

Patricia Rockman, MD, CCFP, FCFP is a family physician with a focused practice in mental health. She is the Senior Director of Education and Clinical Services at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies, Toronto. She is an associate professor at the University of Toronto, Department of Family Medicine, cross appointed to Psychiatry. She has extensive experience practicing individual psychotherapy, leading therapy groups, and training healthcare providers in mindfulness based interventions, cognitive behaviour therapy, and change management for stress reduction. She is a freelance writer, yoga teacher, and meditation practitioner.

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