The Montfort Group

How to Manage Stress and Avoid Burnout

I was hoping to share this information for Stress Awareness Month, but life, as it typically does, happened, and I experienced a little burnout in April. The reality is we do not experience stress only one month per year, and an essential part of managing stress it is the ability to prioritize, adjust expectations, and redirect energy and efforts. So, we’ll talk about burnout now.

Life looks pretty stressful for so many people for so many reasons. I’ve noticed that more clients, friends, and family have been overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and lost. It feels like a great time to discuss how to effectively manage stress to create a sense of safety and well-being in our lives.

What is stress? Do you feel burnout? It’s OK.

Stress is an every day (and quite normal) human experience. It’s how we respond to environmental events we perceive as harmful. It is the body’s internal alarm system. When the brain identifies a threat, cortisol and adrenaline levels spike, signaling to the nervous system that we need to take self-preserving action. That typically means we run away, stay and fight, or disconnect and become numb. Stress is an evolutionary adaptive process, which is why cortisol levels usually follow the human circadian rhythm: higher in the first 30-50min of being awake to help the body prepare to face the day’s challenges and perform; then decline as the day progresses.

Stress Response Cycle & Burnout

Stress is a physiological process with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In their book “Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle” (2021), Dr. Emilia Nagoski and Dr. Amelia Nagoski make the case that we need to complete the stress cycle to maintain physical and mental health.

Let’s put this into context. When predators were pursuing our prehistoric ancestors, they either slew them or ran away to their caves for safety. At that moment, the danger was over; the stress cycle was closed. Modern stressors are more complicated, constant, less tangible, and challenging to resolve. You really cannot walk away from your child screaming for candy in the middle of the grocery store, perhaps you likely can’t afford to quit the job where you feel undervalued, and it’s not appropriate to punch the jerk who offended you. It is not always possible or safe to do what our bodies tell us, which could leave us stuck in stress.

When we cannot reconnect the mind and body to realize we are no longer in a life-threatening situation, our stress response system is in chronic activation. Our bodies are continuously flooded with cortisol and cortisol-based hormones. The perpetual exposure to stress weakens the immune system, impacts digestion, heart function, and insulin production, and could lead to cognitive impairments and brain fog.

The longer we move through life “white-knuckling” adverse circumstances and try to ignore and suppress stress, the more likely we will experience burnout. In addition to chronic pain and illness, burnout feels like overwhelm, emotional exhaustion, and decreased sense of accomplishment. There’s even a cynical aspect to the experience of burnout: we may find ourselves unattached from certain parts of our lives and feeling like whatever we do would make no difference, and thus we lose interest and motivation.

The good news is that there are particular strategies we can utilize to manage stress and avoid burnout.

Seven ways for managing stress

  1. Move your body – anything goes: dancing, walking, running, swimming, etc. The Nagoskis suggest incorporating 20-60 min of movement daily.
  2. Positive social interactions – talk to people, greet them, thank them, acknowledge them in some way. This one is super easy to implement.
  3. Breathe – slow deep breaths have been proven to slow down the heart rate and help activate the rest and digest response of the nervous system. I like to set a reminder on my phone to take three rounds of diaphragmatic breath 3 x each day.
  4. Laugh – research shows that good old genuine belly laughs help maintain social bonds and regulate emotions. For me, it’s usually watching reruns of “Friends,” “The Office,” or “Parks and Rec” with my husband at the end of a stressful day.
  5. Physical affection – The Nagoskis suggest a 6-second kiss or a 20-second hug. This could feel like a long time but be intentional, give it a try and see if you can feel the benefits. An honest, loving conversation might do the trick if this is not for you.
  6. Do something creative – whatever that might look like for you. I’ve been experimenting with planting succulent mini “gardens” lately. I’m not always successful, but I enjoy the process, and the ones that are thriving give me so much joy😊
  7. Cry – trust me, crying is good for you. There is scientific evidence to support crying as an effective strategy to release tension and move through the stress cycle. So next time your eyes start to well up, please do not stifle the tears. Let them flow. You will be better for it.

As always, I encourage you to try the different strategies and choose the ones that work for you.

Stress vs. Stressors

There is a difference between the event that triggered the stress response (stressor) and our body’s reaction to it (stress response). While it is not always possible to control or change external circumstances, we can learn how to effectively navigate stressors and mitigate the harmful effects of stress by always completing the cycle. Managing stress to avoid burnout is essential for a long healthy life.

I want to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“To be well is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you. You can be well even when you don’t feel good”

Picture of Gergana Markov, MBA, MS, LPC

Gergana Markov, MBA, MS, LPC

I am a National Certified Counselor and Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Texas. I received my Masters of Science in Counseling from Southern Methodist University and also hold a Masters in Business Administration from Georgia State University. I had a successful career in real estate acquisitions, corporate marketing, and advertising prior to becoming a counselor. My clinical training and experiences include counseling individuals, couples, and groups in various treatment settings, including private practice, community clinics, and hospitals. I am an EMDR trained therapist and utilize trauma-informed interventions in my practice. Additionally, I have specialized training in parent-child dynamics, gender and sexuality issues, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and Safe Conversations for couples and communities. I am also a passionate LGBTQ+ ally.

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