I don’t have good dreams. Almost all of my dreams consist of one main element: I am trying to do something mundane like get to class, or leave a building, but I cannot seem to do it no matter how hard I try. I spend the whole dream (nightmare) walking through some invisible force that hinders movement, being unable to recall what I was supposed to be doing, or some other tedious frustration occurs that inhibits the relief of completing this simple task. The tension and stress of not being able to do this task is infuriating. Now, I don’t consider myself a dream interpreter, but I think the meaning of this continued theme is pretty obvious: my fear of being ineffective. Of failing at an important task given to me. Of letting myself and others down. Of not finding relief and completion.
I can feel the stress in my body. I feel it as a tightness in my throat and chest. My heart is beating too quickly and I can’t seem to take a deep breath. I am overwhelmed and exhausted. I am angry. This will eventually move down to my stomach and the feeling is similar to what happens before I speak to a crowd. The problem is that I’m not about to give a presentation right now. There wasn’t one specific stressor to cause this. It’s a buildup. I am experiencing burnout on all fronts: work, parenting, and community.
Parenting a special needs child with significant emotional and behavioral problems that never seem to improve despite all my efforts feels like walking for hours and arriving to class sweaty and on the wrong day. It is like living with a grenade, we don’t know exactly when it’ll explode. We only know it will explode. I’m just trying to minimize the inevitable damage, and trying to hope there’s a way to get the grenade to explode less often. The mental load of this feels to exhausting to try and explain in detail so I’ll summarize: guilt, endless appointments with counselors, psychiatrists, doctors, and teachers, medication, rage, fear, hurt, marital strain, books, articles, tears, doubt, planning, prepping, loss and grief.
Being a counselor and supervisor means I’m holding and carrying stories that you have only read about in books, or can’t even imagine. I am the person they’ve trusted and come to for help. And it’s not just my clients because they pay me, and that’s an important boundary that eases burden. I am constantly bombarded with requests and questions. It often feels like I’m only remembered when someone needs something from me. When I’m not burnt out, I am happy to help. When I’m burnt out, I feel used and unappreciated. Add in 2 years of COVID, the war in Ukraine, years of nasty political division, and the battle to take away women’s rights…I have cared too much for too long. I know I’m far from alone in feeling this. I think we’re probably all experiencing burnout on some level.
So, what is burnout exactly? I think we intuitively have some understanding of what it means, but here’s one definition I liked: burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. The term “burnout” was first defined by Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s. It includes three components:
- Emotional exhaustion- the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long;
- Depersonalization- the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion, and
- Decreased sense of accomplishment- an unconquerable sense of futility: feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.
Nearly all the research on burnout is on professional burnout, specifically in the helping professions, but a growing area of research is on parental burnout. What research is finding is that the first element of burnout, emotional exhaustion, is the one most strongly correlated with negative impacts on our health (Nagoski & Nagoski, 2019).
I’ll summarize some of the extensive research done by the Nagoski sisters and compiled in their incredible book, “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle”:
Burnout is most often caused by a buildup of unresolved and continuous stress. Even when the stressor is gone, our bodies are stuck in that fight, flight, freeze state, or “stress response.” A stress response is the neurological and hormonal activation that pushes blood in your muscles, glucocorticoids to keep you going, and endorphins to help you ignore how uncomfortable all this is. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, muscles tense, senses heighten, digestion slows, immune functioning shifts. Let’s say the stressor was a presentation at work, your child having a meltdown, a fight with your partner…once those things are over, you’re good right? Not exactly. The intensity will lessen perhaps, but removal of the stressor alone doesn’t resolve the stress in our bodies. We have to do something to complete the stress cycle.
The secret to unlocking the stress cycle is finding ways to complete the cycle, otherwise our bodies never fully come down from the heightened physiological effects of fight, flight, freeze. The most efficient way to complete the cycle is any kind of physical movement; if that’s not an option, other effective strategies include deep slow breathing, positive social interaction, laughter, affection, cathartic crying, and creative self-expression. EMDR is a great therapy for resolving the physiological effects of trauma or repeated stressors. Yesterday, I tried a 20 second hug with my child after a meltdown. The rule is you both have to be in your center of gravity. One person can’t be leaning, you are both equally supporting each other. As we hugged, I felt his body relax and he said, “you know I love you right?” I do bud. I love you, too.
I think the question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not our irritability, anxiety, anger, or depression-like symptoms are actually a result of burnout. If they are, then we can work to find ways to complete the stress cycle in our bodies. Since there is no end to stressors, just don’t forget to keep doing it.
Wishing you many happy completions,