Whew. Things are heating up out there, aren't they? Temperatures are in full summer swelter, political tempers are sky high, and the hurricane season is only just beginning to swirl. I'm almost afraid to turn on the TV, or see what the latest Huff Po headline is breaking. With the intensity boiling in Washington and on Main Street, something's going to give.
Several of our featured contributors have felt the heat, heard the warning bells, and are offering some sound advice on what to do:
Dr. Judith Rich posted a hilarious blog addressing some of the tensions of the times in her piece: "From Birthers to Death Panels: Blame it on August." I like that one, pointing the finger is always fun. Dr. Cara Barker also has noted the rising tensions in her piece "Town Halls: 7 Tips for Handling Conflict"
Karen Leland offered her: "8 Steps For Cooling Down Your Anger"
Jason Mannino posted a great piece on the "7 Tips to Maintain Energy While Doing the Job of Four People" and wrote: "I am witnessing severe burn-out and heightened levels of exhaustion and frustration."
Clearly the stress barometer in our country, and around the world, is escalating. The reaction to the recession has moved from shock and fear, into anger and rage. The honeymoon of President Obama's 100 days has evaporated into gun carrying dog fights, screaming matches, and the high hopes of "Yes We Can" have deteriorated into, "Is This Ever Going to End?"
Research shows that some stress is important in our lives. It keeps us on our toes, helps to strive toward goals, and makes us feel alive. The hormones related to feeling stressed are designed to get us out of danger - like a fire or enemy attack. Yet the body will also surge adrenaline when driving down the highway and some jerk cuts you off. Stress hormones are not selective - they activate whether the threat is perceived or real. We are not meant to be living with the pedal to the metal 24/7 - and we are pushing our proverbial panic buttons far more than is healthy to maintain.
If stress continues to operate at full scale for an extended period of time, there is an increased risk of burnout. What is burnout? I have taught classes on stress and burnout, with Ceridian development experts who define burnout as: "a constant depletion of mental, physical and emotional energy - without expected or real needs being met."
Burnout is a normal response to putting out too much effort, without taking in what you need to balance and restore yourself. Signs of burnout include feeling overwhelmed with things that used to be exciting, thinking work or personal problems will never end, or having a pit in your stomach of constant dread. When too much of life is draining and not enough is fulfilling, a sense of hopelessness creeps in.
How many of you feel burned out at the end of the day? Studies show well over half of us do- in a steady economy. I have not yet found data for the increase in numbers of disability cases related to burnout and stress. Burnout happens with over commitment, or unrealistic expectations that lead to a feeling of powerlessness or hopelessness. Periods of stress can last for a while without long term affects, but burnout is a more serious and chronic condition. The good news: burnout is preventable - if warning signs are recognized, and actions taken to reverse the cycle.
Some of the physical symptoms of burnout are: low energy, muscle tension, headaches, digestive disorders, frequent colds, or changes in sleep patterns. Mentally, symptoms include feeling inadequate, overwhelmed, loss of meaning, bored, frustrated, sad, irritable, unappreciated or trapped. The outcomes of these symptoms can include withdrawal, increased sick days, accidents, crying or increased used of alcohol or food to self soothe.
Burnout is a cycle of negative emotions, withdrawal and paralysis. Getting out of a crash course with burnout requires putting your hands back on the steering wheel, realigning with your personal vision, surrounding yourself with support, and making time for humor.
Here are a few tips for reducing burnout:
Clear the Clutter- both in your office and in your head: One of the first steps is echoed in the uprising of personal organizers- clear the clutter! There must be a reason that helping people organize their "stuff" has become a recognized and valued profession. The clutter of emails, paperwork, projects and obsessive to do lists, increases stress, and is an easy place to start. There is a great relief to tackling one small project, when the world seems overwhelming.
Stop Eating Crap - Believe me, when I am stressed out, Snickers bars and Starbucks are my best friend. It is hard to cozy up to a chopped salad and lemon water, but your body will thank you for it later.
Walk- How many of us take about 15 minutes to park at the grocery store circling round and round to get a spot right up front? Jeez. Park in the back, walk a bit during lunch, get up a few minutes early and walk around the block. Nothing strenuous, just breathe some fresh air and clear the mental cobwebs.
Take a One Minute Vacation!- This is one of my favorites as a stress management tool that can be done literally anywhere- in your car at the beginning and end of each day, in the elevator before meeting the boss, or at your desk before answering a rousing email.
Here's how it works: close your eyes and think of your absolute most favorite vacation spot - it can be a lovely white sand beach, a gorgeous mountain path by a stream, or rocking on a chair at the family's cabin in the woods. Choose a spot and sharpen it's image in your mind's eye. Check out all the details you may not have remembered. Now turn on the sound: notice what background noises are present in this place. How about the sensation of the temperature on your skin? How does it feel to fully surround yourself with a favorite place?
Once all the "dials" have been set, give yourself a full 60 seconds to enjoy it - literally set a timer on your watch or cell phone! I guarantee if you try this exercise at home, you will be amazed at how LONG one minute actually feels. I have taught this many times, and afterwards, everyone blinks their eyes as if they had a long sleep, yawns, stretches and have a softness to their faces - it works!
Burnout Management for the Girls vs. the Boys: new research in brain development show that men and women react to stress differently. Men usually respond with the classic "fight or flight" response, and can reduce stress by engaging in some sort of activity. Cleaning out the garage, fixing a broken appliance or taking a long bike ride are classic examples of letting off some steam.
For women, finding ways to trigger oxytocin is the fastest way to reduce symptoms of stress, rather than the "fight or flight" tricks, they need more of the "tend and befriend." Women often need to talk, sort, clean, cook, or nurture in some way to feel balanced and calm.
If you have a friend who appears to be on the fast track to burnout- be compassionate. Lend a hand, offer to help. We're all in this together and our country has too much on the line to lose momentum, or hope.