Over a 10-year period, I traveled the country helping counselors and mental health practitioners alike learn skills on how to treat anxiety problems. During the course of these 8-hour seminars, I end up having a conversation every now and then with a provider who is dealing with personal burnout and emotional overload. Most often, it’s the provider admitting their own “burnout.”
What is “Burnout?”
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.
According to Help Guide Org International, Burnout is a gradual process that doesn’t happen overnight and can creep up on you. Being burned out means feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and lacking empathy. It’s helpful to consider the differences between stress and burnout. Stress can lead to anxiety while burnout can lead to detachment and depression. Stress can produce urgency and hyperactivity. Burnout can produce helplessness and hopelessness. The primary damage of stress is physical whereas the primary damage of burnout is emotional.
There are three phases to overcoming burnout and feeling healthy, happy, and positive again.
The first phase in dealing with burnout requires the “Four R” approach:
Recognize. Take the time to self-screen for warning signs of burnout. This is where we need to be honest with our own stress levels.
Responsibility. Personally announce that you are 100% responsible for your life. No matter what work adversity you have faced (i.e. a surgeon always dealing with emergencies), you are 100% responsible for how you respond to the adversity.
Reverse. Begin to reverse the physical and emotional damage by building a support system. This starts by reversing the perceived helplessness. Instead, empower yourself by reaching out to friends.
Resilience. Build your resilience by establishing a fitness plan and taking care of your physical and emotional health.
The second phase is a continuation of the reversing of helplessness by dealing with burnout head on. This requires the “Great Eight” of stress management:
- Managing Media Exposure
I have to admit that I didn’t know I struggled with burnout symptoms. I was deeply involved in my kids’ lives. I was showing compassion in my work. One of my clients heard me talk about burnout in one of my parenting podcasts and graciously, he reached out to share with me that I showed empathy when we worked together. It took me a long time to realize the emotional toll my work life had on my inner being outside of work. Over the years, a client committed suicide and a psychotic patient physically attacked me. I heard the details of 1000+ trauma stories including combat events, children burned in fires, sex slavery, child abduction, gang rapes, explosive devices taped to children’s chests, a mother forced to watch her daughter be raped and the worst of horror from Ukrainian and Somalian refugees. In my situation, I hit a wall in life and realized that I hadn’t dealt with my professional trauma fatigue. For years, I suppressed parts of my own emotional life. I go into detail about my trauma fatigue journey in my new book; click here for this resource at Amazon: 40 Day Devotional for Parents: A Parenting Doctor’s Call to Fill Your Children’s Lamp with Oil through Prayer and Action.
The common theme with burnout whether you are an oncology nurse practitioner or an ER surgeon is that we become master compartmentalizers. Take a look at the above list. In my life, #2 was completely ignored; I went years without exercising. #3 was minimal. I never reached out and found ways to connect and had become emotionally isolated except cheering with other sports parents at our kids’ events. #4 and #5 were ignored. I had zero hobbies and interests. #6 was extremely poor; I ate ice cream every night. #7, my sleep was lousy. Finally, #8, my management of media exposure was poor. I was addicted to my phone, social media, and had way too much TV time. In retrospect, I simply used screens to numb my feelings rather than face them. The answer to compartmentalization is living the healed emotionally integrated life with all of these areas.
What is the answer to burn out?
The first phase in dealing with burnout requires the “Four R” approach. Recognize stress before it leads to burnout, take Responsibility for our lives, Reverse feelings of helplessness, and begin to build Resilience with ongoing self-care. The second phase is actively attending to the aforementioned list – “The Great Eight” of stress management. For the purposes of keeping this article somewhat short, I will not detail my story. Let me just say that for two years (and ongoing as of this morning), I am going hard after each of these eight areas like my life depended on it. I realized that with burnout, the kind of change that was needed was radical change.
The third phase is capturing fearlessness in your life. This is where you pursue defining moments in your life. During the fall of 2020, during the peak of the pandemic, I was in the gym one morning and realized that I had done nothing my entire life to address my fear of heights. I then spent the next four months applying the best anxiety management techniques I knew to go after this fear. I am a published author on anxiety, both in research and my book (click here for this resource at Amazon) on evidence based treatments, and I’ve trained counselors in over 100 cities over 10 years, yet I never applied these techniques to my own greatest fear. I made a decision that this was going to change. On December 4th, 2020, I made it happen and jumped out of a plane at 13,500 feet. I then started a sky diving therapy and resilience group in my practice and brought a handful of brave guys on February 28, 2021.
What Are You Going to Leave Behind When You Jump Off the Plane?
This was a question I asked my group as they prepared to jump off the plane. This is now a question I ask regularly in conversations. And you don’t have to sky dive to leave the crap of life behind. A client of mine, a retired physician, sent me a picture of him in his race car outfit next to his race car. He texted, “I’m leaving all of this crap on the track.”
You don’t have to become hooked on adrenalin to welcome fearlessness into your life. It’s not just a thrilling moment, it is about a defining moment. Taking on fearlessness is about a commitment to leave your comfort zone. It is about living a fearless life. Have you ever gone after God like your life depended on it, outside of what you were used to? Have you ever gone after CHANGE in your own life like it was your last day on Earth?
What am you afraid of? How can you leave your comfort zone? What can you do that will bring about radical change in my life?
This is very personal. How will you live a fearless life? It is time. It’s time to be fearless!