How to beat burnout with a growth mindset

How to beat burnout with a growth mindset

Originally published on www.resiliencei.com and reproduced with permission.
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A search of “burn-out” delivers 485 million results. How strange to be so attached to a word that has no clinical or biological substance. A year ago, the World Health Organisation included “burn-out” as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress. This is an error second only to their mishandling of Covid-19.

First, humans do not burn out. Second, there is a better way to understand the experience of overwhelm so that you can recover, bounce and reconnect with life. Third, the term burnout hurts the person labelled and misleads the experts trying to help you.

Surprised? Bear with me and I think you will drop the term.

Why you can’t burn out

A light bulb, an engine and a fire can burn out. Entropy wins and the system has no further use. It must be replaced. That is a poor analogy for human life.

Humans are self-healing and regenerating systems (negentropy). In fact, under pressure we respond with learning, growth and greater resilience. A recent meta-analysis showed that about half of people (77.3% in one study) experience post traumatic growth after severe traumatic events.

What actually happens when overwhelmed?

Our desire is to be calm, connected, playful and effective in one’s life. In this state, the ventral Vagus nerve is active. We feel safe, trusting, intimate and energised to engage. To have this experience through childhood is a key factor for a good life. We can learn to have more of it.

Sudden or prolonged experiences of threat or pressure cause us to lose this adaptive state. The sympathetic system activates and shuts down the ventral vagus system. This is not a decision you take but rather a reaction deep in your autonomic nervous system. It can be sudden, erupting as a panic attack (flight) or rage (fight). It may also activate slowly as a feeling of anxiety or anger.

These unconscious autonomic reactions are selected when the body feels unsafe or threatened. The old sympathetic system will select cues that your mind may not notice. For example: “are those footsteps of a thief in a dark alley?” or “is he looking at my daughter…?”

The sympathetic system can become unstable and overactive. This is what happens in anxiety and hostility disorders. The first questions asked is if I can run away and avoid the situation (flight, fear or anxiety). If I cannot escape, the system switches to attack (fight, anger or hostility).

These reactions do serve a snake or a mouse in in the jaws of a cat. In humans, it is a huge waste of energy, disables thinking and rarely has any positive effects. In any demanding situation – combat, sport, keynotes, performance – the effect is debilitating.

It can get worse. We call it the freeze reaction. If the threat is so severe that neither flight nor fight are options, we simply immobilise. The old, dorsal vagus activates and we collapse. In extreme situations we may void bladder and bowels, faint or burst into tears. This is common in natural disasters, war and abuse. Blood pressure drops and the human brain is deprived of oxygen.

In a more chronic situation, hope fades, we lose energy, give up and surrender our responsibility. Yes, it feels like being “burned out”. It is hard to distinguish from depression if sustained over weeks. Remember, you did not consciously choose it. Your body activated an ancient reaction to protect you.

Polyvagal theory is being successfully used by hundreds of therapists to show you how to reconnect with and master your autonomic system. Deb Dana’s book (see below) is an excellent start.

Even after severe trauma, in autism, anxiety, depression and hostility, this methodology is changing lives. There are some clear learning steps:

  1. Accurately perceive what is happening in your body
  2. Label and observe the freeze, flight, fight and engage signals
  3. Develop skilful state shifts to move in the right direction
  4. Activate calm, connection, trust, and playfulness
  5. Myelinate your ventral vagus nerve fibres (swim or meditate)

When you feel overwhelmed, remind yourself that your body selected protective immobilisation to keep you safe. Relax, notice, exhale, reconnect and reengage. As your ventral vagus response strengthens, you can leave burnout behind you.

Getting past burnout and fixed mindsets

As we become more familiar with how physiology, body, emotion and mind operate, the concept of burnout becomes redundant. When you say it to yourself you reinforce hopelessness. When experts label you with burnout, you feel broken and permanently damaged. 

All too often, burnout leads to grievance and blame. This is absolutely the last thing you need for your recovery.

Burnout is a term that no longer serves us. It locks us into the fixed mindset. With patience, understanding, learning and practice the immobilisation reaction can be mastered with many safe and proven techniques. Therapists, consultants, resilience experts, business and you really can do much better with a growth mindset.

  • Polyvagal Theory Exercises for Safety and Connection, Deb Dana, 2020
  • Lost Connections, Johan Hari, 2018
  • Perform Under Pressure, Ceri Evans, 2019
  • Polyvagal Theory, Stephen Porges, 2012
How do you feel when your face is relaxed?

How do you feel when your face is relaxed?

When days are long and busy, your face reflects the internal tensions you may feel – whether physical or emotional. When intentionally softening the facial muscles, especially around the eyes, you apply a brief but effective self-relaxation practice.

So here is a resilience practice we invite you to cultivate this week:
I take a moment every day to relax my facial muscles.

Ride the Black Swan

Ride the Black Swan

Take care of yourself, your family and your teams

Nassim Taleb wrote about Black Swan events in 2010. A Black Swan is an improbable event with massive consequences. We are in one right now. Every one of us is facing unknown unknowns. Our savings are impacted. We are concerned about family, friends and business as borders start to close. Many can no longer go to work. Am I well enough to survive an infection?

Leaders walk a blurry, dangerous edge between under and over reacting. The consequences of closing a border, a store or a business are huge. We are facing decisions under an overload of information and unclear guidance. There is little certainty.

Activate Centripetal Forces

There are disruptive centrifugal forces at play. Centrifugal forces pull things away from the centre. It feels uncertain, scary and threatening. Centripetal forces hold things together. They keep calm, control and connection. Now is a time to focus on the key centripetal forces that you can apply to guide yourself, your family and your team.

10 Centripetal Forces

These recommendations are aimed to maintain your physical health and immunity first, and second to support your mental and emotional wellbeing. 

  1. Discipline your attention: sip cautiously and sparingly on information
  2. Maintain or reinforce your daily disciplines of self-care and growth
  3. Exercise every day and make sure you get out in fresh air and sunshine
  4. Lock down your sleep discipline: consider stretching it to 8 hours
  5. Eat fresh foods & eat sparingly: lose unwanted weight if you can
  6. Stay calm and relaxed: a daily relaxation practice has multiple benefits
  7. Be present and savour the moment: catch worry, focus on breath and body
  8. Stay connected to your family: consider co-locating while you can
  9. Be positive and seek out optimistic positions: don’t catastrophise
  10. Keep cash on hand and set yourself up for remote work

No one can predict how this will turn out. Focus on what you can control and change. Fretting over provocative media hype is futile. Stay informed but focus on respected authorities like the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.

Focus on Physical Health

Reduce inflammation, fatigue and poor health. Experts warn that that age, obesity, diabetes, smoking and chronic conditions increase risk of infection and consequences. Now is the ideal time to put in place a good daily discipline that nurtures fitness, sleep, relaxation and wellbeing. A fresh-food diet and relaxation will keep your gut bacteria healthy.

Master Anxiety (and worry)

Anxiety is a key risk. Uncertainty and risk trigger the emotion of fear. Fear will stir and stimulate futile loops of worry. It is essential to discipline your thinking. When you notice the discomfort of anxiety or loops of worry, breath out long and slow. Bring your attention forcefully to your breath, your body, and the feeling of being alive right now. As your attention learns to stay present on the unfolding moment, anxiety will dissipate.

Build Hope, Optimism and Joy

Hopelessness and depression must be countered. We may lose money, jobs and opportunities. Isolation can fragment the connections we need for emotional wellbeing. Humanity is brilliant at rapid bounce. We will find a way. Be active and practical. Do useful things like keeping your home tidy and lovely, cleaning your car, or reading a good novel. Be alert to rumination on losses and what could have been. Create a positive story with your situation. Spend time with loved ones and help each other build optimism and hope.

Know that things will eventually get better. Humanity will learn. We will come out wiser and stronger. When things are shaken up like this, it is a great time to reflect on what really matters to you. Perhaps let go of some things that no longer matter quite as much. It may be an opportunity to make a much needed change.

Bounce, grow, connect and seek flow.

How about adjusting your sitting posture right now?

How about adjusting your sitting posture right now?

Sitting at a desk for a long period, we tend to crane the neck, hunch forward the shoulders and round the back. Studies indicate that sitting up straight increases self-confidence and alertness. It also supports proper breathing and a healthy spine.

So here is a resilience practice we invite you to cultivate this week:
I pay special attention to my sitting posture keeping my spine long and straight.

How about closing your eyes…right now?

How about closing your eyes…right now?

Most jobs are now performed in front of a computer screen and it is very easy to get tired. For an immediate refresh, close your eyes for a few seconds, then let go of all the muscles around the eyes. The University of Surrey scientists even say that shutting eyes frees up brainpower!

So here is a resilience practice we invite you to cultivate this week:
I practice instant relaxation, closing my eyes a few seconds, several times per day.