Burnout is the experience of being fatigued and exhausted for an extended period based on repeated exposure to stress and demand.
Burnout is compared with and can be composed of a collective result of experiencing stress (a temporary demand from one or more stressors), exhaustion (a physical or emotional experience of being fatigued and worn down), and depression (an emotional state of sadness, impaired sleep, lower self-worth, and general dissatisfaction with life and relationships in general).
In the past two years, I have seen a higher incidence of burnout in my patients and in my colleagues. Having to experience increased demands, sudden changes in work demands, changes in work locations, lost income, and bleeding roles between home and work identities, coupled with the reduction in time for self-care or relief, many have been filled with levels of stress and anxiety that they had never experienced in their lives prior. Therapists are facing increased demand and need, while also having the same experiences as their clients, and now with the necessity or adaptation of online modalities, being increasingly withdrawn and isolated from peer support. The recipe is a collective shared experience of healers needing support and rejuvenation at a time when patients need support and increased care, some reaching out for the very first time and others being pushed to the extremes.
Personally, I have experienced burnout on multiple occasions in my professional career. Working on Skid Row, we had few resources, cramped space to work, little sense of personal security or safety, and few opportunities to support one another as professionals. Combine these elements with increased work hours, often uncomfortable working conditions, and a feeling of futility in assisting clients with housing and compounding health and economic stressors, and the situation was ripe for burnout. COVID added stressors that were not present before for therapists. Moving to the online space, adjusting to impromptu offices without suitable ergonomics in many cases, and zoom school just a room or two away, added increased role diffusion and responsibilities. For many, these changing hats, accompanied by a persistent threat of the virus, spikes and waves in California over the last two years, and conflicts surrounding the vaccine, have paired personal conflicts therapists have within themselves, within their own families, and now experience within their clients. Ethical and moral questions can impact the integrity of the therapeutic bond in itself and place the question of due no harm and staying within professional competencies to the test.
In fact, the first step toward feeling better as a healing professional is an opposite action to rushing out into the world for action. The first step is learning how to slow down.
Slowing down may not seem that powerful, but it requires surprising discipline to achieve. When clients come to me for a therapeutic session, we start by learning how to slow down. Though it sounds easy to slow down, we discover that learning to really listen to your body requires deep patience and curiosity. We need to inquire about the different types of messages our bodies send, whether they come in the form of sensations, tension, or movements.
We are learning to pay attention to small experiences such as our stomach growling, our mind racing, or our jaw tightening. Learning how to slow down and reflect on these movements and sensations is fundamental to mastering our journey. Often, these sensations are expressions of our emotional state—which may be painful or toxic. Noticing them helps us to target and release these emotions. When we can address what is weighing us down, we open a path toward more enjoyable emotional experiences.
When We Don’t Slow Down
A car cuts you off in traffic, how do you react? The immediate reaction is often fear and anger. In an instant, you target your anger at the person who triggered the feeling. If we don’t take the time to slow down, we allow these negative reactions to take hold. We’ve all seen what happens then.
A friend does not return a text or call. Without pausing, our immediate reaction is one of feeling hurt, confused, or sad as we imagine the reasons our friend may be ignoring us. These feelings can cloud the mind, causing us to lash out or shut down emotionally.
You were passed over for a promotion at work or see an assignment given to someone with less experience than you. You’re flooded with feelings of anxiety, doubt, and confusion. Our first impulse might be to fire off midnight resumes or shoot glares at our new coworkers, the target of our jealousy.
The Power of Pausing
The problem with allowing our immediate reactions to control us is not just that those reactions often hurt our relationships and often make a challenging situation worse. But by not slowing down, we miss crucial messages that our body is trying to send to us.
Still, we’ve all heard the catch-all terms mindfulness and meditation. You might think the idea of slowing down sounds nice but is not really that important. However, this is not an optional feel-good suggestion. Applying conscious effort towards slowing down allows us to break from repetitive stress and activity, and ultimately leads to long-term well-being and health. On the other hand, trying to bypass this step can have serious consequences for our mental and physical health. Without slowing down, we may end up with a rude wake-up call in the form of chaotic life events, addictions, depression, or threats to physical health.
The Basics of Slowing Down
A basic experience of slowing down involves four key steps:
- Breathe. Breathing allows you to release tension and avoid acting out of stress. An ideal breath is a powerful exhale at least twice the length of an inhale.
- Leave. When possible, remove yourself from the triggering stimulus or any over-stimulating environment. Removing yourself allows you to “check-in” with yourself and become aware of what you are feeling mentally and physically.
- Self-Talk. Now that you’ve settled down, you have a chance to talk to yourself about what’s going on and how you want to react. In this space, we can exercise self-control in how we react to others while being more attentive to our own needs in the situation as well.
- Rise Above. Settling down and processing our feelings, thoughts, and emotions evokes clarity. This leads to the fourth step, where we can create entirely new responses and mindfully separate from our current emotions.
Overall, the process of slowing down helps you get more connected to what you need so you can act based on these needs rather than succumbing to the demands of others.
Being able to slow down is also the first step to coping with stress in our lives. And coping with stress is essential for being a hero. Most heroes I know face tremendous pressure and conquer challenges that most of us never dare to face. Learning how to optimize our response to life’s daily ups and downs, prepares us, educates us, and helps us restore and recover for the next challenge.
How To Slow Down Deeply
For a deeper experience of slowing down, there are a plethora of practices available. These exercises allow us to release stress, revitalize our energy, and reconnect with ourselves.
Following are a few practices to achieve a deeper level of slowing down:
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
- Start by taking 30-40 fast breaths, breathing in through your nose and exhaling out your mouth. Try to make these powerful bursts of air.
- After you exhale the last burst, breathe in slowly, filling the lungs as deeply as you can. Exhale the air out and hold your breath until you have to breathe in again.
- Breathe in deeply, but this time, hold it for 10-15 seconds before you exhale. This last breath is called the recovery breath.
- You can do the whole cycle, from fast breaths to the recovery breath, three to four times.
During this process, you may feel tingling sensations or lightheadedness as your blood chemistry changes. Breathing exercises can raise energy levels and help control anxiety.
Stress reduction expert and author of one of my favorite books, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends the body scan mindfulness exercise as the best form of mindfulness meditation for pain conditions. He advises practicing it every day for 45 minutes, even if it seems boring or doesn’t seem to be helping.
- Lie on your back or in any comfortable, outstretched position.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breathing, feeling your belly expand gently when you inhale and recede when you exhale.
- Focus on your left foot. Feel all sensations in this area, including pain. Try to recede a little more into the floor every time you exhale.
- When your mind wanders, observe where it has gone and gently return your focus to the foot without judging yourself.
- If you notice pain, acknowledge it and any thoughts or emotions that accompany it and gently breathe through it. See if by carefully observing the discomfort, you can help your body to relax. Don’t expect the pain to abate; just watch it with a mindful but non-judging mind.
- Gradually, let go of the focus on your left foot completely—even if any pain there hasn’t gone away or has intensified—and move on to the left ankle and repeat the process. Slowly and patiently, proceed this way throughout the body.
I hope these exercises offer a sample of practices you can build into your day or your routine for caring for and connecting to yourselves. If you are experiencing burnout or are concerned about the amount of stress you are experiencing or how you might be reacting after prolonged exposure to stress, lack of energy, reduced sleep, and struggling to cope, please reach out for help. Help can look like a lot of different things; call a friend, pick up a hobby, take frequent breaks to move, adjust the work setting with living plants or pleasurable reminders or art, acquire a therapist, listen to a podcast, or join a professional consultation group.
Remember you are not alone, and you have CPA and other organizations to join and to give your input. Your voice and experience are needed and our profession will change based on the experience of COVID and the added responsibilities that therapists have taken on through this intense time in our shared history, one whose toll we have only started to see the surface on our collective emotional lives. Therapists need the care and can not provide the needed care to the world without the love, nurture, and guidance they so dutifully offer.
About the Author: Dr. Richard Oelberger is a Sports Psychologist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner currently practicing in California and available for speaking and consultation worldwide. You can find his new book The Zero Method wherever books are sold (and currently free for download to Kindle users) and can get in touch with him at www.richardlistens.com.