From burnout to resilience: How to reduce stress, regain mastery over personal mental health
A morning presentation at the Yampa Valley Wellness Conference in late April about how to go from burnout to resilience, or how to reduce stress and regain mastery over personal mental health, was packed with attendees.
Engaging presenter Marisol Solarte-Erlacher, a licensed professional counselor and trauma expert, aimed to teach the group how to understand the signs of burnout and develop strategies that will help decrease factors that lead to ongoing stress cycles. The trauma therapist from Denver took the temperature of the room by asking some stress-testing questions.
On a scale of one to 10, how emotionally exhausted do you feel after work?
How often do you feel detached or cynical toward your work or colleagues?
How often do you struggle with physical symptoms such as headache, fatigue or sleep disturbances?
How much of a challenge do you find it to complete tasks at work or home due to a lack of energy or motivation?
Have you noticed any changes in your appetite, weight or mood that could be related to work-related stress?
Lots of hands raised and heads nodded to the questions.
Solarte-Erlacher, despite being a very positive and active person as an endurance event runner, shared with the group her own struggles to cope when trying to help the increased number of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic when she counseled some 28 clients per week.
Unfortunately, she too fell prey to negative coping habits such as too many after-work cocktails. She joked that her husband would start the margarita shaker as soon as he heard her enter their home in the evenings.
“It became a pattern for maladapted coping skills,” she said. “The need exceeded what was actually available, and I was working all the time during the pandemic.”
To an attentive audience, the therapist explained that job burnout means a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity. The stressors of the pandemic added to burnout by increasing depression, anxiety and poor sleep quality.
People need to understand what triggers their personal stress levels ranging from traffic to social media to an argument with a loved one, she said. The body reacts to stress in unhealthy ways, either hyperarousal by being overly active or hypoarousal where the body shuts down.
“When we don’t have the ability to resolve it, we move through those two states chronically,” Solarte-Erlacher said. “If you push yourself too much in hyper, you can drop to hypo. Below our window of tolerance, we shut down and don’t want to do anything.”
Hyperarousal from stress might mean dropping everything for cleaning binges, grinding teeth, making to-do lists at 2 a.m. or not wanting to be touched or talked to by anyone. While hypoarousal may mean shutting down, not wanting to partake in activities and perhaps binge-watching television in a zombie-like state.
The key is to keep the body in the window of tolerance where a person has the ability to think and feel at the same time. On a coping scale of one to 10, that window of tolerance is three to eight. Above eight is hyperarousal, and below three is hypoarousal.
“Below three you are shut down, and above eight you can’t do anything,” Solarte-Erlacher said. Hyperarousal is a time of anxiousness and wanting to disconnect from yourself and be distracted. On the other hand, hypoarousal can mean starting multiple things that do not get finished, driving home from work and not remembering the drive, overeating and over drinking alcohol.
Staying in the healthy stress range of three to eight requires intentional effort.
“We have to find ways to get ourselves in that window more often, to actively learn how to stay in the window,” the therapist said.
If someone is in hypoarousal, they can try playing music, enjoying fresh air and opening up shades to let in sunshine. If someone is in hyperarousal, try taking a lunch break, playing pickleball with friends or spending time with a pet instead of marching through the stress and tasks, which keeps a person in hyperarousal.
The audience learned some skills to mitigate burnout, develop new patterns of behavior to increase resilience, understand their own needs and stay within the stress tolerance level. A key step is for people to take mini breaks during their busy day to check their stress level. For example, after driving to work, turn off the car and ask yourself, “What’s happening for me right now?” Or do that same step before opening a laptop to start work.
“Stress can cause terrible damage to the body, so always try to close the stress cycle. It doesn’t have to be physical activity. It can be reconnecting with nature sitting outside, creative expression, positive social connection or time with a pet,” the therapist said. “Rest and sleep are crucial to health, productivity and avoiding burnout.”
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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