The Road of Stress leads to Burnout

Stress is good for us. In little doses, that is. Too much is harmful. Living with constant stress piled onto more stress can culminate in burnout.

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Stress is good for us. In little doses, that is. It gives us energy, stimulates our creativity, connects us to our strength and motivation so that we may deliver our best at exactly the right moment and cope with life’s demands. Moreover, a stress-free life where we experience unceasing gratification will soon bore us. We need some trial and challenge to find meaning in our lives.

Too much stress is harmful and living with the spectre of constant stress will soon have the opposite effect. It creates a vicious circle of piling stress onto stress, diminishing our effectiveness and reducing our productivity, which can culminate in burnout.

Are you one of these people who keeps going regardless of how you feel? Do you ignore that inner voice that begs you to stop? Do you laugh off the concerns of others with “I am fine”? You may be tired but you are still turning up at work on time, dealing with that difficult client and carrying the workload of an absent colleague. So why worry? You just carry on, believing you have no other choice and hoping that this too will pass.

Many people who work hard tell others that they are ok and yet, they are often struggling. Functioning well on the surface to the outside world does not invalidate the existence of turmoil below the surface. Stressed-out people often appear busy and productive. However, inside they feel they are drowning in work, buried under obligations, and lack any control over their deadlines or travel schedules. Stressed individuals tend towards the hyperactive and yet they have no energy and often suffer sleepless nights.

If you feel beleaguered by stress, you could experiment with the following suggestions as festering stress can lead to burnout, which unlike some virus is usually not be resolved with a bit of rest.

  • Start by being honest with yourself and admit that you are not coping very well.
  • You could consider your eating, drinking, and sleeping patterns. Are they reflective of your stress? Could you find an extra hour of sleep, a bit of time to get that healthy lunch and perhaps cut down on a drink, or two? What about your relationship with your tech gadgets? Do they rule your day, and night?
  • Could you make a bit more time for yourself, find a new hobby perhaps or go for that run on the weekends? Functioning at work or caring for others requires that we feel and cope well.
  • Could you actually say ‘no’ once in a while? Saying yes to everything may tell the other that you are a heroic worker, but can you keep this up? Could you do less and do it better instead of punishing yourself for all that you are not doing perfectly?
  • Could you even begin to consider that perfection does not exist? All you can give is your best—could you take credit for that?
  • Could you try to (re-) connect to your friends and family? Stop avoiding them and begin to talk. Tell them how you feel. They might surprise you in how understanding they may be about your sense of being overwhelmed and feeling inadequate.
  • You could also seek out a support group or talk to a counsellor to help you cope with the stress and prevent that burnout.

Burnout does not happen abruptly. There are warning signs (stress + more stress) but if you choose to ignore these, burnout will gradually take a hold of you. Many hardworking and “I-can-do-it-all” people in any profession can crash into the wall of burnout when their physical and emotional engines grind to a halt. They are exhausted and yet they cannot sleep. Their sense of self is hollowed out and they become detached from themselves and those they love. Cynicism may take hold as they lose interest in their daily life. Their emotions flatten out and they become numb, they no longer recognise how they feel. They may find themselves becoming helpless, sometimes even hopeless and they lose all motivation to carry on. Over time, they become unable to meet the demands of work, life.

If this rings a bell, perhaps now is the time for you to see an existential psychotherapist? 

They can offer you a space where you can sit down and take stock away from the treadmill of work without being judged. They will listen attentively as you describe your experience, so that they can understand you and make sense of your world. They will stay open to any possibility while avoiding set expectations.

They will not judge you. It does not matter whether you talk about the guilt you feel when your work done was late, the embarrassment that you felt when you were too tired to carry on, or the humiliation of you suffered in an unexpected meeting. Together, you can explore your boundaries—your struggle to say no or perhaps your inability to let go of imperfect work—that may have steered you down the stress-spiral towards burnout.

Out of the chaos and the daily struggle, existential psychotherapy can help you to develop a greater understanding of yourself, and discover a more rewarding and meaningful perspective on life compared to the one you are living now.

Ondine Smulders

Experienced Existential Psychotherapist. I am here for when life becomes overwhelming. Whatever you face, relationships issues, stress at work, low mood, long term illness, a sense of isolation or bereavement, I can offer you a place to pause, be heard and hear yourself. I will support you as you try to make sense of your experiences and create different possibilities for yourself. Following my own spell in therapy and my work as a volunteer at the Samaritans, I retrained as an Existential Psychotherapist. I have a PgDip and ADEP and am accredited with the UKCP. I have worked across a variety of mental health services including the NHS, Mind and the domestic violence charity, the Woman’s Trust. I currently work in private practice in EC1 and W1, and am an associate at Therapy Harley Street. I also work as a counsellor at Breast Cancer Haven. Before retraining, I spent more than a decade in Investment Banking and 13 years in a think-tank where I personally experienced the stressful nature of highly competitive work environments. My on-going role as a member of the supervisory board at an energy-services company allows me to maintain my business interest and involvement.