Not all stress is created equal.
When we ride a roller coaster or go on a first date, we experience good stress, or what psychologists call “eustress.” Our pulse quickens and hormones change, but we feel excited, not afraid. And our bodies love it.
On the other hand, when we’re stuck in traffic or have a medical emergency, we experience something known as acute stress. This triggers our body’s stress response, and while it’s less pleasant than eustress, we tend to recover pretty quickly.
But there’s a third type, and it’s the one responsible for that sneaking feeling of exhaustion when you’ve had one too many stress-filled days. It’s called chronic stress, and it comes from repeated stressors like a tough job or an unhappy home life. Our bodies aren’t the best at dealing with chronic stress, so this can cause serious negative health effects if left unchecked.
And when chronic stress reaches a pinnacle, the result can be burnout.
While I’ve been lucky enough never to experience burnout myself, there are many people near and dear to me who have. That’s not to say I’m never stressed out or busier than I’d like to be — I run a company, and that can be both time-consuming and exhausting. But I’m always checking in with myself, taking note of my vitals, and working to manage stress so that it doesn’t culminate in burnout.
If you think you’re experiencing burnout, you should definitely talk to a healthcare practitioner. But there are other ways to prevent burnout before it gets to that point.
1. Recognize the signs of burnout early.
Burnout doesn’t just happen.
Let’s say you start a new job at a hip startup you’ve been dying to work for. You admire your boss and your team, and generally couldn’t be more excited. But from the start, it’s clear the job is going to be a lot of work. The projects keep piling up, and because you don’t want to disappoint the people you admire, you push through it. Long nights start to leave you falling asleep at your desk. A few years in, you’re absolutely worn out.
But here’s the thing: there were clues that let you know you were on the brink of a meltdown all along. To spot these clues before they become warning signs, check in with yourself regularly and ask the following:
- Do you feel like you might be coming down with a cold?
- Is it a challenge to get out of bed in the morning?
- Are you less interested in hanging out with your friends, or working on your hobbies?
- Is it hard for you to pay attention?
- Are you grumpy and irritable?
If any of these ring a bell, this should be a wake-up call. Take some time to assess the amount of stress in your life and find ways to reduce it before it’s too late.
2. Check your vitals.
To avoid burnout, you need to check in regularly with your body. The two key indicators of stress are heart rate variability (HRV) and cortisol levels.
When we experience stress, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode and release cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Our bodies become mobilized and ready for action. When cortisol levels build up in the blood, it wreaks havoc on your mind and body.
HRV measures the variation in time between each heartbeat. When your system is in more of a fight-or-flight mode, the variation between heartbeats is low. When you’re more relaxed, the variation between beats is high.
For those who love data and numbers, monitoring your cortisol and HRV levels can be a great way to track how your nervous system is reacting to your environment, emotions, thoughts, and feelings.
I get my blood work done every six weeks to track my cortisol levels. I also use the Oura Ring, which tracks heart rate, pulse amplitude, respiratory rate, body temperature, and even the slightest hand and finger movements. There are other products out there to measure HRV — like the Fitbit Ionic, the CORE armband, and the Apple Watch Series 3.
The important thing is to regularly assess to ensure burnout isn’t imminent.
3. Get out of your house and connect with friends.
When was the last time you had a deep conversation with someone that wasn’t interrupted by a text or a notification?
In today’s digital age, real connection is often hard to come by. Most of us live in crowded cities where we don’t know our neighbors or our family lives far away.
We know tons of people, maybe more than ever before — but we don’t have deep connections.
And the less we see our friends and family, the more likely we are to hit a wall. Numerous studies show social support is essential for maintaining physical and psychological health. Without a community, you’re more prone to becoming overwhelmed and experience burnout.
So spend time with your friends. Make an effort to go out and engage with the world. If you’re already starting to feel the effects of burnout, make sure you talk to someone immediately. No man is an island.
Outside of friends and family, you should also consider volunteering for a cause you feel connected to. Being of service to other people is usually one of the easiest ways to build community and develop an attitude of gratitude toward your own life as well.
If you have that community you’re much better prepared to handle stress as it arises.
4. Adjust your outlook.
Stress is largely a mental game. And a lot of it has to do with how we view the things that happen to us.
According to the late psychologist Julian Rotter, people with an external “locus of control” hold outside factors like fate or other people responsible for their lives. They’re also more likely to be stressed out since they believe they have no control over what happens to them. People with an internal locus of control, by contrast, hold themselves accountable for their own lives and are better equipped to handle stress.
This holds especially true at work.
People with an internal locus spend most of their work hours on work projects they have control over. They know that 20% of tasks bring 80% of the results, and therefore don’t get bogged down on the small stuff they can’t control. They also take time to experience gratitude for what they have, their abilities, and all they’ve accomplished. Personally, I practice journalling to shift my locus of control and take ownership of my own life.
When you focus on what you can do to make your life easier, instead of what you can’t, it will be.
5. Get some (quality) shut-eye.
Losing sleep is one of the quickest roads to burnout.
Unfortunately, when things get hectic at work, sleep is often the first thing to fall by the wayside. But cutting out sleep to win more time at work is a slippery slope that can also destroy your productivity in the long-run.
The connection between sleep and stress is a two-way street — just as stress interrupts sleep, lack of sleep can cause stress. So when it comes between getting a full eight hours and pulling an all-nighter to finish a project, pick sleep. You’ll be useless the next day without it.
If you have trouble sleeping, keep in mind that all the blue light from laptops and phones is probably keeping you awake at night. Research shows that exposure to blue light suppresses the production of melatonin more than any other type of light. So if you’re playing Candy Crush or scrolling Facebook on your tablet into the wee hours of the night, don’t be surprised when your body has trouble shutting down.
To sleep better, try purging your tech at night.
That means no TV or computer time after 8:00 p.m. — find a new pre-sleep activity that doesn’t involve your phone. Play some soothing music, read a book, or journal. I know it’s hard to take a break from your devices, but it sure beats being tired all the time.
At school, we learn how to tie our shoelaces, but we’re never really taught about sleep hygiene, which basically just means cultivating the right environment for sleep. One of the easiest things to do is adjust your room temperature to 68°F. A slightly cool temperature promotes sleep-inducing circadian rhythms and helps us drift off. And a full night’s sleep is a crucial component of avoiding burnout.
Everyone knows someone who’s experienced burnout. It’s a serious problem and only made worse by our “always on” digital era.
But if you focus on getting your eight hours, checking in with your body, staying connected to your community, and maintaining an attitude of gratitude, you’ll be better able to navigate life’s ups and downs with ease.