I’m a yogi and a very heart centered person at my best. I live by the seat of my emotions. I am a giver. I over-think, I do a lot for others, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be all the things. I have previously been stuck in burnout for years and this led to a plethora of ill effects. The following is my take on burnout after reading “Burnout” by Amelia Nagoski.
We are encouraged as a culture to get in touch with our emotions but sometimes we get stuck there. We get stuck in emotions that are maladaptive for days, weeks and years sometimes. It wreaks havoc on our relationships and our physical bodies. It leads to burnout. Burnout from our jobs, parenting, our many roles, this pandemic.
Burnout causes emotions like irritability, anxiety and depression. I no longer see these experiences as a big existential crisis, but simply a physical sensation in the body. Our emotions are a part of this system. Our emotions are important, we should have them, but they certainly don’t have to run the show.
Let’s explain the biochemical relationship of emotions.
Let’s start with stress. What is stress?
Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain caused by adverse circumstances, fear or danger.
What are emotions?
Emotions are chemical reactions in the body in response to stressors and positive experiences. They can be judgements to scenarios and can be called upon at will for various purposes with practice. They come with their own set of bio feedback from the body like heart rates and chemicals. We know they involve chemical reactions because drugs can induce certain emotions.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a backlog of stress. Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. Though it’s most often caused by problems at work, it can also appear in other areas of life, such as parenting, caretaking, or relationships. Many people (especially women) stay in this state for long periods of time; hours, days, years, decades.
What happens when someone is in burnout?
Well, first let’s look at how the body deals with stress. The body has several systems to deal with danger or perceived threats. All systems are morally neutral, they are just physical, chemical responses to threats.
Our sympathetic nervous system is our fight or flight. This system triggers anxiety, anger, irritation, increased heart rate, rage…..anything that you might need to spring away, or stay and fight the danger. The body will shut down all unnecessary organs and systems like digestion so all energy can be used to run away or fight.
Our parasympathetic is a gentler way of coping with stress but requires more fine tuning and practice. Our parasympathetic system saves our energy instead of using it for flight. Our heart rate decreases, our breath slows down. It controls many systems and nerves including the vagus nerve which is responsible for many systems but of most importance to stress our mental health.
The last method is freeze. In nature when an animal is caught in the teeth of another, it will freeze, no longer feeling the effects of stress and syncing into almost an out of body experience where pain is lessened. This state is common in victims of trauma and abuse.
“The issues are in our tissues”
An emotion is not inherently good or bad, they are also morally neutral. We are meant to experience the full range of emotions. Fear, joy, elation, grief, anger, irritation, shame, excitement. When we complete the full cycle of the emotion; letting the tears out, laughing til we’re shaking, yelling out our anger…then move on….we have completed the cycle of the emotion. When we suppress the emotion, we get stuck in that emotional state (that biochemical state), which is then stored in our tissues.
Completing the stress cycle, completing the emotion
Ignoring our emotions, our traumas, our past experiences and shoving them down, pretending that they don’t exist or just dealing with them daily, believing that it’s culturally appropriate to feel exhaustion, irritability, anxiety or depression (common yes, a life sentence no) will lead to a plethora of mental and physical problems.
Your body is a well functioning unit. It can handle disease, stress, trauma if we allow the systems to do their job. We get in the way when we ignore the signs (and screams) from our body that it is tired of sitting in this emotional state. Our ignorance is the main issue. We think it’s ok, it’s normal, or maybe impossible to move forward….so we stay stuck.
Here’s the kicker, taking the stressor away (the abuser, the shitty job, the assignment that you need to finish), DOES NOT remove the stress response. We have to consciously do that. Our body speaks body language and we have to learn how to speak body language back. We have to feed the body back what it’s looking for in order to heal. The other side of this is, you can be in the stressor, or the stressful experience and not feel the detrimental effects of the stressor.
“Stress is not bad for you….being stuck in stress is” – Amelia Nagoski
Being stuck in stress causes nervous system damage. Left untreated will lead to serious long term illness. Being stuck in stress is a choice. It’s recognizing that our body is talking to us. The body talks to us by interrupting our sleep patterns, upsetting our digestive system, rashes, illness, anxiety, depression. Some would go so far as to say almost all illnesses are a direct cause of stress itself. Eating a 100% plant based organic vegan diet and running marathons means nothing if you’re ignoring the body and chronically living in a stress state.
Rest and self care is not enough to recoup from this and sorry everyone that drink that you have at the end of the day only makes things worse by adding more physical stress to the body. Rest and self care will not erase burnout symptoms.
We have to a) create circumstances for the original emotions to work themselves out through to the end of the cycle (look up somatics) and b) we need to create the opposing sensations and internal environments that the body is looking for to recover from the time spent in the sympathetic stress response.
So how do we heal from burnout?
One, recognizing that a plethora of unpleasant emotions and physical ailments from the body is not normal and is in fact your body speaking to you (loudly) that you need to dramatically change your circumstances. This will also require your entire household, relationship or circle to get on board with your healing too as they may play a role in your exhaustion.
Many of our stressors and busyness we choose. No matter how you want to swing that narrative, our lifestyle, our friend group, our jobs, we have a chosen and it’s time to reevaluate what’s working, and what’s not.
We don’t choose to have trauma happen to us but self sovereignty and the ability to choose how we respond and heal ourselves from it is our responsibility and the only way out of the cycle.
Natural ways of healing:
Movement of any kind. Walking, running, workouts, dancing, shaking, yoga
Laughter, the real kind. The kind you do with your best friends when you’re laughing til you’re crying and you can’t stop
Human nurturance like hugs and embraces that last at least 20 seconds.
Breathwork. Yogis and the military do and teach this more than anyone else. Your breath will change you on a biochemical and emotional level more than any other practice. Never take this tool for granted. It could be long 30-60 minute yogic pranayama practices (very transformative) or as simple as a few long slow and controlled deep breaths in, and very long deep breaths out.
Therapists are amazing and will provide you with many tools as well if you need but know that there are many things that you can do right now, all on your own.
I believe in self sovereignty. I believe in taking responsibility for ourselves through introspection. We need to be still to heal. Yoga, meditation and breath work are tools that we can use daily to become more cognizant of our actions, our internal and external states. Emotions are important, it’s our body’s language. It’s biochemical. It’s never a narrative that you have to be stuck in. Getting to know our bodies, and what it feels like to have a high functioning form will help us know when we’re out of sync and when it’s time to shift gears. If this writing resonates with you, and you’re feeling the effects of burnout, know that you never have to stay stuck there and there are many ways out.
Get to know your body’s language, it’s waiting for you to let it feel better.
With grace and grit,
P.S. for more great literature on this topic read BURNOUT by Amelia Nagoski and BREATH by James Nestor