News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Recovering from burnout

When I feel utterly exhausted and every obligation seems overwhelming, I know I’m burned out.

According to the Unease Modulation Model formulated by Joseph Apaia, M.D. and others, burnout occurs when we have exhausted our long-term energy reserves and we face substantial barriers to replenishing them.

One way long-term reserves can be exhausted is through persistent unease, “that may be due to abuse, deprivation, distress in a primary relationship, or having to violate core values in order to maintain a work or living situation.”

Our long-term reserves may also be drained by family and work obligations that make excessive demands on us.

The pandemic, as a case in point, substantially increased demands in several areas at once:

•?Financial demands — you may have been laid off, trying to make ends meet;

•?Cognitive demands — searching for accurate information about the coronavirus to keep yourself and family safe;

• Social demands — trying to preserve relationships and systems of support without the benefit of direct contact with friends, family, and colleagues;

•?Time demands — parents supervising and supporting their children’s education, while working from home or seeking new employment.

Not surprisingly, around four in 10 people who struggled to meet increased demands due to the pandemic have reported trouble sleeping — with sleep experts calling the surge in sleep problems “coronasomnia.” The pandemic’s disruption of our daily routines and the resulting increase in our media (and alcohol) consumption has also contributed to a spike in coronasomnia cases, according to http://www.sleep

One of the functions of sleep is to restore our energy and vitality; chronic sleep problems will hinder our recovery from burnout. (See

Once we have exhausted long-term reserves, the only means we have to meet daily demands is to send our sympathetic nervous system into overdrive with activation of our “fight or flight” response, producing a growing sense of unease that prevents us from refueling our reserves.

The road back from burnout

To replenish our long-term reserves we must engage in activities that restore our energy and vitality, which must include weeks of restful sleep. Rest and relaxation activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which shuts off the fight-or-flight response, quelling our sense of unease.

You can learn to increase parasympathetic arousal with a simple breathing technique: Close your eyes and take a slow, deep breath; gradually releasing the air from your lungs. Find a rhythm that relaxes you.

The next step in your recovery from burnout is to select a routine — working out at the gym, meditating, hiking, etc. — to systematically raise your parasympathetic arousal.

Beginning a new routine introduces an unfamiliar demand into your life that may initially increase unease, making you resistant to practicing the healthy behavior you selected.

You can learn to tolerate the uptick in unease using a visualization technique:

• Use your breathing technique to enter a relaxed state.

• Visualize the steps involved in mastering your new routine.

• When you experience unease, return to your breath until the unease subsides.

• Practice until you can visualize your new routine without unease.

Once your program has become a “healthy habit” it will effectively modulate your level of unease.

You will want to address the factors that contributed to burnout so that you don’t repeat the same cycle:

Identify excessive family and work obligations that drain your reserves. Create a plan to limit obligations so that resources remain adequate to meet demands. Invite others to share these obligations to make them more manageable.

Not all unease is bad. A moderate increase in unease can enable you to draw energy from short-term reserves, increasing your effective use of your resources, which decreases the difficulty of a task.

When we complete a difficult task and reduce our unease, we experience a pleasurable feeling that motivates us to tackle new challenges.

Modulate unease by focusing attention on the resources you have available to meet current demands, the outcome you want to achieve, and your past successes at meeting similar demands and obligations.

When dealing with a stressful confrontation — at work or in your personal life — modulate your unease with your breathing technique so that you remain calm, and are able to harness your social skills to deescalate the situation, and cognitive resources to achieve a constructive resolution to the conflict.

Should the confrontation pose a physical threat to your safety, retain sufficient sympathetic arousal so that you can accurately appraise potential danger and quickly respond.


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