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
Disconnected

Disconnected

Sustain the messy, transformative work of real connection.

One day last week, like many of you, I spent fifteen hours on a computer. This included four group webinars (one of which was a hundred faceless people), six Zoom meetings, and the normal transactional activity of small business. Closing my screen at 7pm, I felt strangely discombobulated. It felt tired (mental fatigue), listless, unsatisfied and dissociated. I call it “LIMBO”. I think you have experienced it.

This is a symptom of disrupted connection. 

Most of us have been locked down for six weeks. While a few lucky families and businesses share common space, the rest have to make do with digital communication. These virtual platforms are nothing short of miraculous. They have improved dramatically. We now expect a seamless flow of voice, face and digital gimmicks.

The efficiency gain is stunning. One can deliver a half day intervention with a group at 10% of the cost. Taxis, airports, hotels and endless downtime vaporised for multiple participants. Evaluations can match face-to-face. Three hours delivers the same net revenue as a two-day journey.

Organisations are just beginning to realise how effective and efficient virtual meetings have become. It is almost certain that many of us will continue to work from home and that much of our future communication will be digital and transactional. Training, sales, negotiation, planning and coaching will become predominantly virtual.

Face-to-face connection will reduce dramatically.

For millions of years, primates have evolved as social species. We could only survive the harsh ecosystems in small family groups and tribes with periodic inter-group exchange. We communicated in a physical cocoon of smells, touch, eye contact, grooming, posturing, grunting, seducing and dominating/submitting.

In suits, we follow formal protocols to book a time, place, dress-code and still we are close. We shake hands, gesticulate, and dance with our eyes, expressions, vocal tones and postures. Smell and grooming have dropped into the background but still play out.

Together in space and matter, we connect and transform each other.

On screen, it is very different. If lucky, we have an image large enough to detect eye movement and facial expressions. The concentration required to track this instinctive flow of information is huge. Delays in voice and image create interruptions in flow that trigger doubt, irritation and dismissive judgements. Feedback loops and trust fail.

Digitised on screen we transact deprived of meaning.

From a biological perspective, we are ripping apart the very fabric of what makes us human. We must be cautious, wise and deliberate in mastering this inevitable transition that Covid-19 has thrust into warp speed.

Take special care of intimate relationships.

In family and homes:

  1. Create shared daily rituals – meals, walks, games and conversations
  2. Share your daily work plan and respect each other’s workspace
  3. Make time for close, physical and intimate greetings – hug, listen, play
  4. Be tolerant, generous and quick to apologise when boundaries are crossed

In close friendship and work circles:

  1. Maintain your regular digital connections
  2. Meet fortnightly for a walk, ‘distance-compliant’ coffee or park-side chat

In digital transactions:

  1. Take at least 10 minutes to prepare for a call – rest, plan, anticipate
  2. Dress well and present yourself with good posture and comfortable surrounds
  3. Make sure your camera catches your face at eye height
  4. Check your appearance and surroundings before each call
  5. Keep your eyes steady and focused close to the camera
  6. Maintain good posture and breathe slowly through the nose
  7. Instead of interruption raise your hand for a speaking opportunity
  8. Train yourself in facial expression recognition (www.paulekman.com)
  9. Speak clearly and get to the point. Use stories.

Digital business is in the ascendant. We must adapt if we are to take advantage of this incredible opportunity. Remember that it is primarily transactional communication.

Do not forget the critical – albeit messy – connections required to give meaning, context and fulfilment to our lives.

Ride the Black Swan: Part 3

Ride the Black Swan: Part 3

Bounce Deliberately

The stark reality of Covid-19 and its economic consequences are sinking in. This week, most opinions predict, will be hard. The health and life impact flashes red on our screens daily. Little evidence of containment is detectable. The world economy has slowed. Unemployment is soaring. Our lives have lost rhythm. Uncertainty and fear will rise. Anger and depression will surface. Rapid, skilled bounce is required.

Part 1 laid out the basics of caring for yourself and your loved ones. Part 2 urged for calm engagement and decisiveness. We must acknowledge and master freeze (sad/withdrawal), anger (fight) and fear (flight) reactions.

Here, I want to focus on bounce. McKinsey & Co (2020) advocate five leadership phases: resolve, resilience, return, reimagination and reform. It is the first two that are in focus here. In summary:

  • It is normal and natural for resilience to fail
  • Mental health challenges have already tested society
  • Crises can accelerate and compound resilience failure
  • Bounce is normal and natural – it will happen
  • Shock, denial, bargaining and anger slow the bounce response
  • Bounce accelerates when we confront reality with honesty and humility
  • Bounce can be a deliberate and disciplined process of action

Bounce Practice 1: Know how resilience fails

Confront reality, acknowledge concerns and feelings. Recovery starts with you. If you are calm and engaged, you will be able to support others.

Bounce Practice 2: Enforce routine/daily disciplines

Working virtually with leaders through last week, one common experience presented. Testing their daily routines, it became abundantly clear that their routines were chaotic. Working from home, you might expect we have more control. Not true.

Sleep timing was disrupted. Exercise routines were dropped. Meditation and prayer (not all) had stopped. Meal times were irregular. Webinars and team calls had become continuous. Many hunched over calls in the early morning and night. There was scant rejuvenation time between calls.

If you have not already redesigned your daily routines, do it now. This is the perfect time to reflect deeply on what you need to do each day to be the best version of yourself.

  1. Sleep well: at least 7 hours, regular wake up and sleep time, good quality
  2. Exercise every day: secure at least 20 minutes aerobic activity out in nature if possible
  3. Stretch, practice yoga and breathe deliberately every morning
  4. Agree regular meal times; eat well and connect with loved ones
  5. Lock in recovery after every call/webinar; minimum 10 minutes
  6. Make time to relax, read and enjoy a movie

Bounce Practice 3: Maintain your presence

Reality check your physical presence. Notice the stubble, the grey (or dark) roots emerging, neglected hair, dirty t-shirt or slumped shoulders. Without the daily trek into social circuits, you may neglect yourself. At very least, do what you can to present yourself to your mirror each morning. Your family will notice. Your colleagues will see it on webinars. Sit upright and alert or stand through calls and webinars. Most importantly, you will feel better.

Bounce Practice 4: Establish connection rhythms

Prepare well for each connection. Be calm, respectful and gently optimistic. If you are part of a team, try to connect daily by phone or visually. Remember your friends. We have started a regular evening connection with close friends on various platforms. Consider a daily walk with a loved one. Take time to treasure the rebound of nature. Our bird-bath has become a daily joy.

Bounce Practice 5: Work structure and discipline

While many are stretched, others are searching for things to do. Take a good, hard look at your work structure. Use your diary and schedule carefully. Discipline mindless media surfing. Be firm with meeting times. Diarise preparation and recovery time around calls. When you engage in a call, proposal or communication do it with 100% focus for a defined period. Drive for finished product or outcomes. Acknowledge and celebrate them.

Over the next two weeks, your Bounce must be your primary concern. Economic reality will sink in and we will all be impacted. The slowdown will continue and the challenges of restarting businesses, services, jobs and income will come into focus.

Remember there is no ‘bounce back’, only ‘bounce forward’. Post traumatic growth is more common than post traumatic stress (77% of cases). Bounce draws on creativity, resolve and new meaning. Expect and prepare for a new reality. It might be a significant improvement.

Use the Bounce framework to assess yourself daily. Commit to deliberate daily practices as above.

Resources you may find helpful:

Seek and Savour Joy

Seek and Savour Joy

Make time to discover and savour joy. Every day. Especially now.

We wallow in testing times. It is not easy to be locked down at home feasting on fear and gloom. As the world and all of us find ourselves disrupted, make time for joy.

This morning, on the Waitemata Harbour, I rediscover the power of joy.

I feel so much better. Lighter. Hopeful. Focused. Energised. Calm

Acknowledging Coast Guard advice, I decide to head out on my surfski. It is cold and wet with a brisk nor-wester. Ski on shoulder, I wander across Tamaki Drive without bothering to stop. No traffic. One person on the beach.

Paddling into the wind across to North Head is grim. Cold water sloshes over with each wind swell. It is slow, tough work agains the tide. Am I slowing up with the first signs of corona virus? No boats. No one on the harbour.

Pressing further north across Cheltenham towards Takapuna the sun comes out and I warm up. The wind comes up as I turn at the south end of Takapuna. Brisk tailwind and an incoming tide. My boat speed increases from 8-9 km/h to 14-16km/h. It felt a lot better. Not so much virus fear. Empty sky. Just one cargo plane through the 90 minutes out there.

Downwind paddling requires feeling and surfing the small swells pushed along by the wind. Today was an optimal mix of tide and wind. Just enough wind to raise white-caps. I started to feel the lift in the back of the boat. Digging the paddles in hard and increasing tempo, one could ride long, easy swells. Short burst of pain. Long, cruisey surf at 16km/h.

Birds diving. Surf past a little blue penguin.

I feel a smile slide across my face and jaw. Crow’s feet crinkles signal a true Duchenne smile. Mood lifts. I am having fun. The surfing is playful. My body is alive. There is absolutely no-one out on the harbour. The sky is empty. Tamaki Drive has one fire engine and one bus.

Heading across the abandoned ferry lines, the wind is energised. The surfing is delightful. Easy to catch the wave. Feel the lift. Quick strokes. Paddle into the dip. I am laughing and whooping for joy.

Bizarrely conscious of total isolation, I am giggling with pleasure. I feel so damn well and so happy. All is right with the world.

Where will you seek and savour joy today?

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.

A Resilient 2020

A Resilient 2020

Well done! We made it to 2020.

The beginning of the year is a natural time to set goals, but it doesn’t appear likely that a new year will miraculously bring a new you. Be aware: New Year “Resolutions” can apparently do more harm than good (Amy Cuddy, 2017).

So how about first, a recap of the last 12 months? Celebrate what you achieved in 2019, what you learned, what you wouldn’t do again. What did you do well?

Slow down, recollect, then turn to what you want next.

Be honest. You don’t have to tell anyone your goals. They can range from light-hearted to critical, and be as long or short term as you need.

The key is to make the decision about what you do and don’t want.

Six quick goal setting tips:

  1. Be realistic
  • It is better to make small, achievable changes than pledge to act like a whole different person because it’s January. Try not to let your goals start with “I will never…” or “always”. Cuddy suggests “self-nudging” – setting incremental goals that will bring you closer to large milestones. Consistency is key.

2. Get physical

  • Write out your intentions, get a wall planner or make a vision board – whatever suits. In the digital age, words on paper provide more connection and intimacy with your goals. A word document is just too easy to lose.

3. Give it your best

  • Do you feel a little fear? Good. Entering the flow state is only possible when the challenge engages your skill. Without proper challenge, you’re just relaxing. Sometimes the fear of trying is all that stands in the way. Imagine the worst case scenario. You fail? You try again. No one is judging you as much as you think.

4. Everything has a price

  • Every experience, behaviour, interaction, relationship… can cost. You may or may not be on a financial budget, but no one has limitless time and energy. Five minutes of a destructive behaviour can be energetically expensive. Carefully consider what you can afford to spend time and emotional energy on.

5. Get over last decade

  • A study found participants who wrote down their regrettable decisions and sealed them in an envelope reported “feeling significantly better about their past decisions”. Physically symbolic closure can lead to real emotional closure. Learn from your mistakes, then leave them in 2019. Look forward.

6. Keep it simple.

  • Simply saying no to destructive behaviours and yes to constructive action is often all that is needed to reach your goals. Deep down, you know what is good for you and what isn’t. Strive for delayed gratification. Actioning that is a matter of impulse control: