As 2023 starts to pick up pace (unless you’re lucky enough to still be relaxing somewhere!), it’s a good time to think about ways to make it a satisfying and productive year, rather than an overwhelming blur of exhaustion, stress and burnout.
Prevention is always better than a cure, so let’s have a look at some of the factors in our busy lives that contribute to stress and burnout. And then we’ll look at 2 simple approaches to stop burnout, using self-care strategies and mindfulness.
Your wellbeing and performance are negatively affected by constant mental distraction and cognitive overload. Whether that’s ‘enjoyable distractions’ like checking your phone every time you get an alert, or annoying distractions from a colleague or child when you’re trying to finish a task at home or work, or having your mind pulled in too many different directions by all the jobs on your To Do list, they all boil down to the same thing – your focus keeps getting interrupted.
American psychiatrist, Dr. Edward Hallowell has done extensive research on attention. He writes about the ‘dangers’ of modern office life where people are continually distracted. In his Harvard Business Review article, “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform” he warns that ‘modern office life and an increasingly common condition called ‘Attention Deficit Trait’ are turning steady workers into frenzied underachievers.’
It’s not so different in our personal lives either. There are so many competing demands – places to be, things to do, people to see – that it can feel out of control. Being distracted or worried makes you less engaged with what you’re doing – you find you’ve eaten your lunch but barely noticed what you ate or talked to someone but can’t remember much about it. Stress and distraction robs some experiences of their pleasure or point. Also, the state of constantly racing from one thing to another and feeling like you’re always behind, activates the stress response. The stress response is the body’s natural reaction in these situations but being in a state of fight or flight or freeze is exhausting because you’re so wired that even though you’re really tired, it’s often very hard to fall asleep. If the stress cycle goes on too long, it becomes the start of a burnout spiral.
Modern life is full of distractions and interruptions. That’s not likely to change any time soon. You can’t always control the circumstances but you can do something about how you respond to them. So, here are some practical and doable strategies for taking care of your own mental, emotional and physical health so that you don’t burn out.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool for preventing burnout, by knowing how to handle distractions and not lose focus. Sometimes the distractions are unavoidable, for example a small child needing you while you’re in the middle of doing something important. Or a noisy, busy work environment with phones ringing and conversations nearby.
Mindfulness means you can refocus and quickly get back on track when you’ve been interrupted. It trains your mind and attention to pick up the thread again instead of wasting time. Mindfulness trains the attention to stay focused and clear, despite all the competing demands at work and at home. – yes, being mindful takes practice but it’s a skill worth developing because it reduces frustration, confusion, loss of time, and therefore reduces stress. When stress levels are managed or reduced, then mental and physical health improve as well.
Being mindful means being able to pay attention – it’s noticing when your attention wanders and you get distracted, and gently bringing the attention back to the task or person you want to focus on. That could be listening to a lecture, paying attention to what someone is saying or ordering your thoughts as you write or organise a job. Your attentions wanders … you notice … you bring it back and refocus … again and again as often as you need to. The more you practice being mindful, the easier it gets – you’re building the muscle of attention just as you build physical muscle by doing a movement again and again. Mindful meditation is the most effective ‘tool’ to practice strengthening the mind, and it also turns down the stress response so you feel more relaxed and clear. But it’s also got to be useful in the rest of your life – the whole idea is to be able to take that calm focus into the real world and use it there, in your relationships, your work, your hobbies and your life.
Self-care is something that can be done in small doses but still be incredibly effective. You might think you don’t have time in your day to add more things to take care of, but self-care is vital to preventing burnout, and simple self-care doesn’t need to take up much time at all. It can be as short or long as you like or have time for, or even be included while you’re doing something else. Even small amounts will support your mind and body so that you notice the difference.
The basic elements that the mind and body need to support wellbeing are rest, exercise, good nutrition and positive connections (with yourself and with others). You could cook and eat with a friend – that covers nutrition and connection. You could do squats while you wait for the kettle to boil or while talking on the phone and those few minutes exercise will make you feel refreshed and stronger. Once you start thinking about ways to weave these elements into the other things you do, it becomes much easier.
Each of these elements reduces stress levels as well as having other health benefits, and they’re easy to weave into your daily life. You can get by without them for short periods but if you neglect any of them for too long, then health indicators go down and stress levels go up. Different people have different capacities for handling stress and also for how much food, exercise or sleep their bodies need. At different times in your life, what you need will change too. Knowing what you need and when you need it is the key – tune in and listen to what would ease the overwhelm or tiredness … do you need to take a break, or eat something or get up and stretch?
The World Health Organisation WHO recommends some simple self-help techniques to help people dealing with adverse situations and cope with stress:
Over to you …
So what do you need this year to support your physical and mental health? Work out what works for you in order to feel happy and healthy and (mostly) in control, then prioritise those things … prioritise you. That’s the first step!
Check out the quiz to find out your Burnout Personality Type
Then if you need support to deal with limiting beliefs and implement positive changes into your life, contact me at Vibrant Wellbeing to learn about practical pathways to help you flourish.