Avoiding Burnout

 

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Author: Christian Maino Vieytes, B.S. Nutritional Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park, M.S. Candidate, Division of Nutritional Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

 

The Wellness Equation

Wellbeing and self-care are multifaceted1. The dimensions of health and wellness include physical, social, emotional, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual2. Nevertheless, the pillar that tends to dominate our attention is that of the physical domain3. We constantly hear about how we need to be exercising more and eating better. But the equation and path to wellness remain subject to the effects imparted by the other variables. Our health is not complete unless all dimensions of wellness achieve equilibrium.

In the context of our modern lifestyles, we fall prey to the increasingly difficult task of achieving this balance. Work, school, personal life matters, among other concerns, dominate our consciousness and demand constant consideration. Left unchecked, continuous accretion of these stressors results in a perpetual state of exhaustion, which is termed burnout. Burnout leads to decreased job performance, loss of confidence, and can even spiral into a depression4. If left unchecked, it can potentially culminate in physical manifestations, such as illness5.

A key principle stands out when attempting to address burnout. First is that of self-awareness. The first step in addressing a problem is to acknowledge the existence of one. Are you restless and easily irritated? Have the things you enjoy in your life lost their sense of fun? These are questions that help us comprehend the level of exhaustion our minds and bodies have reached.

Strategies for Minimizing Burnout

Feeling overwhelmed? Implementing the three “R’s” (Relax, Reflect, and Regroup) can be helpful. Relaxing involves what we think about when we wind-down. This can look very different across individuals. Spending time with family/friends, sitting on a park bench, or even exercising are all viable examples of how relaxation can be achieved. The next “R” corresponds to reflection. The goal here is to delineate the events or sources of tension that have contributed to the present state of exhaustion or anguish that has resulted. In many instances, reflection is not possible if we cannot attain a relaxed state. Otherwise, the mind runs rampant, and introspection is not achievable. Self-awareness is the gateway to minimizing burnout. Two specific approaches for self-awareness will be described below. The last “R” refers to regrouping. This component emphasizes the strategizing of new approaches to prevent burnout from occurring again in the future.

It is generally understood that changing your habits is a difficult undertaking6. Large scale changes are difficult to sustain, which is why it is usually recommended that you start with small, feasible changes in your routine. Moreover, habits occur without our explicit awareness, which highlights the importance of what was mentioned earlier with respect to maintaining a high degree of self-awareness and monitoring7. The steps of habit change can be succinctly summarized as follows. First, a decision to make a change must be made8. Second, a corresponding behavior must be adopted. Third, the behavior needs to be repeated. The last criterion in that stepwise progression is perhaps the most important. Habits are reinforced with repetition.

Often, self-awareness can be promoted and rectified by using a simple acronym: HALT, which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired9. When one acknowledges that burnout has taken hold, using the acronym is useful to evaluate whether anyone of these contributing elements is out of balance. This is a simple approach that highlights the importance of satisfying our most basic needs as human beings, first.

Yoga and meditation are increasingly garnering attention as practical options for combatting stress and emotional overload. For many, these practices also tap into the spiritual domain of wellness that was discussed above. A 2013 study conducted on highly-stressed medical students found that levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that circulates in the blood and tends to be higher in those with higher levels of burnout and stress, were significantly reduced after practicing a mindfulness meditation10. Another, often overlooked, technique is to seek social interaction. We look to others for guidance; social support has long been recognized as an effective means of addressing stress11. Loneliness is another factor to be considered as a cause of burnout that can affect our social wellness negatively1.

Summary

The self-care equation is not geared toward any one particular domain of wellness. Instead, we strive for balance in our lives in order to reduce the occurrence of burnout. Many of the themes discussed herein, follow the traditions of Buddhism, a philosophy that emphasizes balance of the mind and life12. Our lives may seem chaotic at times, but the focus should be on cultivating a sense of self-awareness so that we can distribute energy and resources towards addressing our most elementary needs as human beings. We then, through practice and repetition, foster new habits that allow us to introduce peace and calmness into our lives.

References

  1. Adams T, Bezner J, Steinhardt M. The Conceptualization and Measurement of Perceived Wellness: Integrating Balance across and within Dimensions. American Journal of Health Promotion. 1997;11(3):208-218. doi:10.4278/0890-1171-11.3.208
  2. Adams TB, Bezner JR, Drabbs ME, Zambarano RJ, Steinhardt MA. Conceptualization and Measurement of the Spiritual and Psychological Dimensions of Wellness in a College Population. Journal of American College Health. 2000;48(4):165-173. doi:10.1080/07448480009595692
  3. Stoewen DL. Dimensions of wellness: Change your habits, change your life. Can Vet J. 2017;58(8):861-862.
  4. Maslach C, Leiter MP. New insights into burnout and health care: Strategies for improving civility and alleviating burnout. Medical Teacher. 2017;39(2):160-163. doi:10.1080/0142159X.2016.1248918
  5. Salleh MR. Life event, stress and illness. Malays J Med Sci. 2008;15(4):9-18.
  6. Heatherton TF, Nichols PA. Personal Accounts of Successful Versus Failed Attempts at Life Change. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 1994;20(6):664-675. doi:10.1177/0146167294206005
  7. Wood W, Quinn JM, Kashy DA. Habits in everyday life: thought, emotion, and action. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2002;83(6):1281-1297.
  8. Lally P, Gardner B. Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review. 2013;7(sup1):S137-S158. doi:10.1080/17437199.2011.603640
  9. Melemis SM. Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. Yale J Biol Med. 2015;88(3):325-332.
  10. Turakitwanakan W, Mekseepralard C, Busarakumtragul P. Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. J Med Assoc Thai. 2013;96 Suppl 1:S90-95.
  11. Thoits PA. Social support as coping assistance. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 1986;54(4):416-423. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.54.4.416
  12. Wallace BA, Shapiro SL. Mental balance and well-being: Building bridges between Buddhism and Western psychology. American Psychologist. 2006;61(7):690-701. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.61.7.690

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