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Burnout to Brilliance: Polyvagal 101

Nov 03, 2023

Burnout can look like a lot of things. It's assumed that it may take a lot of time to reach burnout, but for me, I first felt it smoldering in my twenties.

It first crept up in nursing school while under lots of stress and later in a toxic relationship and workplace. A conglomerate of afflictions set in. From fatigue to trouble falling asleep, gut issues to painful acne, severe neck pain to recurrent nightmares, irritability to panic attacks. Each of these things was treated as if they were totally separate by the medical system.

Can you relate? Take a 1 minute quiz to see if you're in burnout here.

In modern medicine, mood is about your brain, constipation is about your gut, high blood pressure is about your heart and so on... You'll see a cardiologist for your heart issues, a gastroenterologist for your gut issues, a psychologist for your mood. I've worked with a lot of people over the years who have felt that they've seen all the "ologists" out there and didn't feel much better for it.

Burnout falls through these cracks. 

It's treated like a "you" problem. If you're struggling with it, you've probably gotten the advice to take better care of yourself. Take more breaks. Go for walks.  Practice saying no and setting better boundaries.  

These are good things, don't get me wrong.  I did practice them myself.  

AND I still wound up in two separate circumstances where I felt like I had hit rock bottom.

What had I done wrong?

When I look back on my own experience, I can see now that my experience of embodied stress and trauma was compartmentalized by body system instead of being recognized as a part of a whole. Which is why I'm here pointing out this flaw to you. I don't want you to be compartmentalized too and miss the big picture that your body is trying to communicate.

Burnout is an embodied experience.  Stress and trauma are embodied experiences.

What I had done wrong the whole time was to take a top down approach.  I finally broke free from burnout when I started getting the whole picture of what was happening within my body.  

It wasn't about work, needing to set better boundaries, or an unhealthy relationship as it appeared on the outside.  

Burnout was about what was happening on the inside of me.  In my cells and connective tissues. It was about my hormones and microbiome.  It was about my unquestioned thoughts and stories.

And I didn't truly break free from burnout until I addressed all of those things.  It's no longer at a slow simmer in my body because I've eradicated its roots.

Addressing the roots in the body will help you break free of burnout and live the life of brilliance and thriving that you crave.

But before you start addressing these roots, it can be helpful to understand the physiological mechanisms that underpin them.

How it works

Stress or trauma are particular levers that can create a cascade of functional changes in a network of cranial (from the brain) nerves coined the "social engagement system." When working properly, these nerves work together to keep you in a state of harmony, social engagement, joy, and wellbeing (known as the ventral vagal state). As implied by the name, these same nerves are what connects you socially. We are moored to each other through the healthy function of each other. 

When stressors or trauma disrupt any one (or most often multiple) of these nerves, they signal the body to move from a ventral vagal state to one of sympathetic activation or dorsal vagal activation and also cut our bodies off from healthy connection with one another.

No wonder one of the signs of burnout is self-isolation and self doubt.  We can no longer find our way or know who we are within the context of our community when this system gets dragged into a perpetual state of altered function (please notice that I avoided the term dys-function here as dysfunction implies that its not working and in reality it IS working and altering its state of function for a good reason).

The key to unlocking and effectively treating the symptoms that show up in these different body systems is to identify the common underlying thread, the root, and address it.  Hence, the vagus nerve.

Here are some symptoms to identify if your vagus nerve switched gears into one of these other states.

Dorsal Vagal Symptoms

One shift that the nervous system may make is into a dorsal vagal state. This is probably one of the most under-appreciated stress responses. It serves a very important, life saving purpose. Ideally, when danger has passed, the body will easily come back out of a dorsal vagal response back to a ventral vagal state. For some, stress or trauma may cause us to get locked into a dorsal state.

Signs or symptoms of a dorsal vagal state may include:

  • Muscle weakness or poor muscle tone
  • Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or apathy
  • Slow heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Cold or clammy hands or feet
  • Muscle pains
  • Reduced facial expressiveness
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Dissociative feelings
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Isolation
  • Difficulty setting goals or taking actions to achieve goals
  • Constipation
  • Poor digestion
  • Bloating

Sound like burnout to you?

Sympathetic Activation Symptoms

This is the type of stress response that gets the most fanfare. Part of its action is through the HPA axis and release of cortisol (which by the way influences ALL other hormones and can lead to significant hormonal imbalances). Part of its action is through the activation of the sympathetic chain of nerves in the spinal cord.

Signs or symptoms of a sympathetic state may include:

  • Tense, tight muscles
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Changes in blood sugar
  • Irritability, anger
  • Verbal aggression or passive aggressiveness
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Slow digestion, constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Susceptibility to infections

If you're consistently staying in these states and you're being compartmentalized by traditional medicine you could end up seeing a cardiologist, a therapist or psychologist, a gastroenterologist, and infectious disease expert, or more depending on the severity of the symptoms caused by the disruption of the vagus nerve and social engagement system.

The Solution

The solution to addressing both of these states if someone has gotten stuck in them is to address the roots of the disruption of the system itself.  Long term disruption can lead to hormonal imbalances (such as low estrogen), nutritional insufficiencies (of Magnesium for instance), intestinal damage and permeability, chronic infections (for instance colonization of mold or Lyme).  

With my clients, I use a comprehensive assessment, specialty functional medicine testing, and aligned action to support my clients to break free. These strategies put the puzzle together for them and allow them to recover with a sense of ease that burnout had stolen. 

Activities that you can start doing to help activate the ventral vagus nerve include:

  • Singing
  • Gargling
  • Laughing
  • Healthy connection (with ourselves and others)
  • Compassion
  • Mindful breathing
  • Eating slowly
  • Chanting with meditation
  • Cold water
  • Light movement

You can find more tools in my Radiance Revival Toolkit here.

Are you ready to break free from burnout for good?

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