You know those times when someone said something and it just got under your skin? That comment a loved one made that you don’t even know where to begin to deal with it. Or, when something at work didn’t go according to plan because the office is a shitshow? How did you deal with it? Did you stew on it? Did you block it out and kept it moving only to think about it later that night as you were trying to sleep? Having dreams about it? Are you still thinking about it a few days later? Or, you haven’t thought about it once and it’s it in the pile of stuff that already irritates you and you have this sinking feeling that there is no way out of this hamster wheel?
Now, if you are anything like me, in 2014 before my life fell apart from burnout, I would have told you that I handle stress just fine. I am actually the person you want around in times of crisis because I am really great under pressure and high stress. I have laser focus and I can see clearly what needs to be done to take chaos and make it into order. More importantly, I am able to get into an eerily calm state and know how to diffuse any situation by finding a solution. I don’t rattle easily. I’ll explain more below as to why we are able to do this. For now, I want you to think about how you respond to situations at home and in your private life. Does it seem like the little things can just irritate you? The point is I don’t want you to just think about work scenarios.
Now that you are in this space, maybe feeling guilty, shitty (yes, that’s my clinical terminology), and frustrated, I need you to know that you are not alone – there’s a whole bunch of us – especially now with the COVID and the heightened tensions in our country. And two, there is hope and a way to deal. Before we get to that, I want to go over some important stuff to give you context before giving those actionable steps that will bring some peaceful moments.
Self-regulation is the foundation of us being able to have a healthy mind, body, and spirit. So, it’s safe to say that being able to get our bodies into a calm state is one of, if not THE, most important life skill to have as a human. To make sure we are all clear on the definition, self-regulation – in essence – means to be able to get our minds and bodies in a calm state so that we can use our words, think logically, and have our bodies operate optimally.
Being calm allows our bodies to function the way we were designed to. When we are not calm, parts of our brains shut down, along with some of our bodily functions. The only remaining bodily functions that are left working are the ones that are needed for survival. This is why we lose our appetite or eat everything in sight, become clueless and flighty, can’t seem to lose weight or gain weight, our chest feels tight (we are taking shallow breaths) and we can’t seem to get out of the funk because all we see is the bad.
To have our bodily functions shut down for survival is great when we are being hunted in the woods and are trying to get out of alive. Not so much when our bodies are feeling that every single day when we are in our offices and homes. The constant being in this stressed state is what transitions us to toxic stress which then leads to burnout.
Let’s take a moment and go down memory lane. I want you to go back to when you were a kid and got into trouble. When we get into trouble it’s because we were most likely overstimulated and stopped acting civilized. Think about how it was handled. Did you get sent to your room, let you figure it out on your own, yelled at or spanked? This truly matters with how you self-regulate today when faced with a stressful situation today.
Being spanked snapped you out of it in the moment but shocked the hell out of your system. It didn’t help you learn how to calm down and integrate the emotions into your body. Being yelled at just adds further chaos to our already whacked out nervous system. All the while still not helping us self-regulate. It solved the immediate problem but didn’t teach that important life skill.
Timeouts are supposed to help kiddos learn how to self-regulate. Timeouts are NOT meant to be for punishment. They are designed to say to the kiddo, “Hey. I am noticing your emotions are running the show right now. Let’s go sit down in a calm space so you can focus on being still and getting quiet on the inside without any distractions. Once you are able to run your emotions – we can talk and figure out what to do next time so that you don’t get overstimulated.” This becomes a teachable moment on how to self-regulate and then how to be a kinder human being to yourself and others.
The next step is to have the kiddo tell you when they are ready to come out of the time-out and talk. I recommend using a timer – I let them dictate when their bodies are ready – for the goal is them to learn the life skill – not listen for the timer. If they start talking and crying at the same time, I calmly say – take a deep breath. I can’t understand why you are crying. Do you need more calm time? That either helps remind them to gather themselves and start talking calmly or they decide to go back to their time out spot and try again.
Ok, fast forward to today. How those “teachable moments” were handled for you as a kiddo is directly correlated to how you handle yourself in times of stress. Do you beat yourself up? Do you shut down, push through, and allow little reflection on your actions – just others? Or, do you realize it’s time to take a moment, get quiet, and collect your thoughts so that you can learn from this situation? I am going to guess that if you are burnt out at this point – you are not doing the latter. You are like how I used to be – a mix of someone who pushed through, beat myself up if I screwed up, and focused on what others did wrong instead of paying attention to my body.
I’m here to tell you that nothing has changed from when we were kiddos except our age and what our “time out corners” look like. We all need a timeout at some point – even as adults. Burnout is when our emotions are running us because we are fried. Our bodies and minds are stressed out to the max. We are back to that time when we were kiddos and overstimulated. There are two kinds of timeouts in the world of burnout.
- In the moment
- An extended break
A clue for knowing just how bad your burnout level is: notice the amount of time you need to get back to center. Now, I know you are sitting there saying – oh, I’m going to need more than a moment after dealing with this – I am going to need a two-week vacation on a beach somewhere with endless margaritas coming my way. Or, I need a week just to sleep – no one bothering me, no one asking for a damn thing from me. This right here is the classic sign that you are dunzo, a.k.a. burnt out.
However, implementing these tricks in the moment does help to take the edge off and empowers us. In-the-moment breaks are meant for those types of situations where we just need to collect ourselves. Take a pause before responding to someone, walking into a meeting, getting on a phone call, working on a project we have no desire to do, or walking into our house at the end of the day. It can also be right after any of these situations. If this doesn’t work – then it might be time to take some space – some solid space.
I will caution and say – this doesn’t always mean end things, quit, or walk away. I do mean to take some physical space – putting a hold on things. For instance, leave the house and go somewhere quiet, take a long weekend or take a “Mental health day”. I am putting the breaks on “just up and leaving” because when we are fried – we aren’t thinking straight. We make irrational decisions and are impulsive – this is because our brains have shut down and are only acting out of the survival part. All critical thinking and executive functioning go out the window. Taking a time out is an essential part of getting out of burnout.
With my clients, they all have implemented a variation of some time-out. The first thing they focused on was the in-the-moment timeouts. Start small so that you set yourself up for success – even if it’s in the bathroom for an extra 5 minutes just so you have space all to yourself. Just like the Nike slogan, the main point is that you JUST DO IT.