Finding Balance: Managing Stress When Burnout StrikesDec 01, 2023
Finding Balance: Managing Stress When Burnout Strikes
12 Strategies to Rebalance Your Nervous System & Stress Response
I literally couldn't take anymore.
I observed the little 4x4 quadrant I had just drawn up. This was it.
I had written out the pros and cons of staying in my current role and the consequences on my soul. There in black and white I saw it. My soul was dying.
That's what it felt like at least.
I didn't feel like myself at all. I was angry all the time and the littlest things would set me off. I felt exhausted. Worn thin. Desperate.
I called my therapist that I hadn't seen in a few years and made the soonest appointment.
A month later, I had the thought.
I questioned whether life was worth living... whether I should be living it.
I knew immediately I had crossed a line that I didn't even know I was approaching.
Over coffee with a friend the next day, I broke down crying. I told her I felt like I was on the edge of cliff and I didn't know how long I could stand to be there.
I share my story now because I am running into more and more women who in silence have been bearing the similar pain.
I've come a long way since then.
I've learned how to support my body on a physiologic level for greater resilience. I've learned how to integrate my mind so that I am living in alignment, bringing about greater ease and helping me access my fullest purpose for greater fulfillment.
Through the natural cycles of life, I have found myself going through some of the same stress inducing, blood pressure raising experiences that have caused me to spin out in the past and now, they barely affect me.
The steps I've taken have connected me with my resourcefulness, agency, and voice which I believe are some of the best antidotes to burnout.
In this blog, I will share a few of those things with you.
Did you know laughter and smiling have been shown to reduce levels of circulating cortisol (Check it out for yourself PMID: 2556917)? Watching a comedy show or calling a friend who makes you laugh can be a great way to soothe some of the responses that get over-activated by chronic stress. I personally amplify levity in my life by following funny accounts on Instagram, have regular game nights with friends, and choose to laugh out loud when I notice myself stressed about something. It really works.
Speaking of calling a friend, one of the systems that may become imbalanced in a stress response is called the Social Engagement System, coordinated internally by cranial nerves that innervate the face, neck, and torso. Connecting with others with whom you feel safe, naturally engages this system for balance. Pets and animals are another possible means of safe connection with others- activities like petting a dog lowers markers of stress (like blood pressure and cortisol) and elevate makers of joy (such as circulating endorphins).
Gentle movements such a stretching, yin or restorative yoga are another great modality to balance the stress response. Some activities can be so activating and engaging that they actually hype up your body's stress response (for example- HIIT). For some, it can be helpful to incorporate lower intensity exercises and grounding movements that are less activating and can help with re-familiarizing yourself with the sensations of your body. I personally chose an activity for a workout that matches how I want to regulate my nervous system. If I want to feel more alert and activated, I'll do a higher intensity workout like running or cycling. If I want to feel calmer and more grounded, I'll chose a yoga practice or some light zone 2 training on the bike.
This activity can be helpful for a number of reasons. It can help provide clarity about a situation that is causing mental stress. It can act as a mental escape. Or it can serve as a pressure release valve to vent negative emotions or experiences by acknowledging them and letting them go. I personally love to journal using an app called Day One that offers daily prompts that can be insightful. I also like to regularly ask myself some of the same questions such as: "What's a recent win?", "What can I do to advance my goals?" or "What's holding me back?" This type of reflection helps me stay oriented on what's going well, what's working or not working, and what my goals are. I also love to use journaling for inquiry work (a little more on this lower down).
This is a personal favorite of mine. When I wasn't able to sleep in college (because nursing school is crazy stressful and I had suddenly lost a family member), this was a game changer. It's a practice where you lie in a comfortable position and slowly move up or down your body, consciously tensing and relaxing each segment and the muscles associated with it. If you struggle with falling asleep, this can be great to do when you get into bed. Give it a try by listening to this YouTube Video.
Consciously breathing with your diaphragm may help activate your ventral vagus nerve, which plays a crucial role in helping your body shift to a state of social engagement, connection, peace, and wellbeing. You can try placing your hands gently on your lower ribs and upper abdomen. You should feel a gentle expansion of your lower ribs when you inhale using your diaphragm. Give it a try now. I invite you to take 5 slow, comfortable breaths while feeling the gentle expansion and contraction of your lower ribs and upper abdomen.
This one will knock your socks off... (sorry, I just had to lol a little). Grounding (also known as earthing) has been shown to correct diurnal cortisol patterns, and improve sleep and subjective reports of pain (PMID: 15650465). Pretty impressive for something that seems so small.
You can keep your socks on for this one if you want. Getting outside and having your body exposed to the full spectrum of light that sunshine offers, has hugely beneficial impacts on your body's stress hormone, cortisol. Sunlight naturally improves your cortisol awakening response (CAR) which is often lowered in association with diagnoses such as chronic fatigue syndrome, premenstrual symptoms (PMS) or seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
A Good Night's Rest
We can't talk about balancing the body's stress response and NOT talk about sleep. Restorative sleep is ESSENTIAL. Ideally, this will be around 8 hours each night (but I encourage you to not get hung up on the number because each person is different). The goal is to wake up feeling refreshed without the use of sedatives or hypnotics to get you to fall asleep or stay asleep. Many physicians simply prescribe pills if you voice concerns about your sleep. Unfortunately, the most common pills prescribed for sleep, disrupt your brain's sleep architecture (the electrical waves your brain bathes in while you sleep). These brain waves are what defines restorative sleep. Sleep without these brain waves isn't restorative for your body and you may as well not be "sleeping". Sleep hygiene habits have a much better track record for helping people have true, restorative sleep that helps their body heal.
Every part of your body, including your gut, contributes to your stress response. Inflammation in your gut can keep a stress response activated. Additionally, stress depletes the body of essential nutrients such as Magnesium, so its essential to be getting enough of this through food sources (and possibly supplementation). We could go down a rabbit hole here, but the simplest way to approach this is through a phytonutrient rich diet. Phytonutrients are teeny tiny chemical compounds that support the body and do many functions. They are also what provides the color to fresh vegetables. I invite you to aim to get at least one serving of fresh food from every color of the rainbow every day. Doing this will get you a wide variety of foods that are also high in magnesium and other nutrients needed to support your body's stress response.
Inquiry is a simple process that helps us get more familiar with our thoughts, the impacts of those thoughts, and changing those thoughts. I personally love, love, love The Work by Byron Katie. You can look it up, she puts it out there for free and there are lots of videos on it as well. The process is simple. First, identify a thought. Second, ask yourself if it's true. Be willing to be curious here. The more that we identify with our thoughts and are unable to question them, the more power they hold over us. Third, observe without judgment how these thoughts make you feel. Fourth, turn the thought around- identify its opposite- and challenge yourself to see how the opposite could actually be true.
Forgiveness and Self-Compassion
I find inquiry to be especially powerful when I combine it with forgiveness and self compassion. I focus the forgiveness on myself and the innocent misunderstandings (the thoughts in question above) that I have drawn because of messy, chaotic life. For example, I had a client recently who we went through the process of inquiry with. She could see, and had seen long before working with me, that her thoughts would spiral and go out of control. A lot of these thoughts centered on how she needed to get everything done otherwise no one would need her and she would be useless. If something on her to-do list didn't get accomplished that day, she would spiral in self shame and judgment. She already knew that these thoughts weren't true. Using inquiry, we brought greater awareness to the impact that they had. This was helpful for her. But the real transformation happened when I offered her some self forgiveness statements. Tears started streaming down her face. She said it felt so good to say it out loud to herself. To forgive her innocent misunderstanding. And since then, she has made big strides in dealing with her stress and burnout that she had never been able to do before with just mindset work.
Another invaluable tool I put in my toolkit for burnout was specialty testing. Without it, I was just taking a shot in the dark. With specialty testing, I knew exactly what was burning out my body and draining my batteries on the physiologic level. I got saliva hormone testing and could see that my hormones were low and I would benefit from DHEA supplementation. I got comprehensive stool testing and could see that I had pathogens and dysbiosis and knew exactly how to treat it. I found out that I had food sensitivities and put together a strategy to temporarily remove them and do a gut healing protocol. I could go on. The point is, though it wasn't covered by insurance and my typical doctor couldn't (or wouldn't) order them, they were an invaluable asset on my journey to breaking free from burnout for good and that's why I support my clients in accessing them too.
These tools helped me embrace my deepest wellbeing and fullest potential and I trust they may help you too.
Start working with me today!
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