Imagine you’re working two jobs. Currently, both of them are at a point where everything is a fire, and everything is needed now. Not only is everything very fast-paced, but you’re new at one of the jobs, and so you’re also learning their methods and processes. At the other job, you have a new boss imposing new requirements that seem impossible to meet. The first week was tough, but now things have been very difficult and taxing for several weeks. You’re tired. You’re getting burnt out.
Opposite of Fun
Burn out is a funny thing. Typically, we use it to describe when we’re working too hard but very rarely, if ever, to describe when we play too hard. There’s something about the situations involved that make the difference between burnout and just another day. If we binge-watch our favorite series for hours on end, filling up an entire weekend, we won’t typically feel stressed out (unless we’re avoiding something). If we binge-play video games for days straight, all day and all night, similarly, we won’t typically feel stressed. Yet, some of us have just one job and can feel burnt out like it’s just too much.
What if instead of our favorite series, what if we were forced to binge-watch all the things we hate for hours at a time. Clearly, it would be difficult, and not only would it be not fun, it would start to get stressful if there was *no end in sight*.
Leading up to burn out, we are anxious and worrying about many things constantly. The problems, tasks, or situations are eating at us day in and day out. Our personal lives may even make things worse. This constant anxiety gets to a point where we burn out. We just can’t take it anymore, and we shut down.
Anxiety over extended periods is essentially chronic stress. Neuroscientists typically attribute burnout to chronic stress. The idea is that the body generates certain hormones when under stress, and those hormones are ok for short bursts but are not meant to be the constant state. When under stress for long periods of time, the body starts to break down. For example, blood pressure increases, the immune system is weakened, muscle atrophies, digestion and metabolism change, and we have difficulty getting good rest (which then causes even more problems).
Clearly, a large number of negative effects are associated with chronic stress. In fact, studies show that if chronic stress is encountered as a child, it can be correlated with ‘childhood adversity’ and have life-long impacts on mental health and cognitive development. This is a silent killer, and we should all be aware to help ourselves, our friends, and families steer clear when possible.
But how do we steer clear of chronic stress if we have to work two jobs to pay the bills? How do we steer clear it if we want to do big things that will take lots of time and energy?
There’s an old book called “Flow” by M. Csikszentmihalyi that explains that optimal experiences depend on having the right balance of ‘challenge’ and our abilities or ‘skills.’ When we have that balance, we can get into a state of ‘flow,’ and everything seems to work together without a lot of rumination about problems or anxiety about the task, and we aren’t bored to tears.
Finding the right balance that propels us forward without being chronically stressful can have a massive impact on our lives. We need to be self-aware to understand ourselves, what type of environment we thrive in, and what type of environment we wither in.
Take a personality test. Find out about what makes us stressed to learn how to both manage the stress and target tasks and jobs that bring out flow. Bring out the best instead of bringing out the chronic stress.
Change the Changeable Goals and Beliefs
For some, politics, religion, and other difficult areas are a massive source of chronic stress. In many cases, these areas require a change in mindset. Political beliefs in the US, for example, are almost divided in half. Anxiety over the half that doesn’t agree is a recipe for chronic stress that will never get resolved.
As we’ve alluded to in other posts, such as “Can’t find Passion,” emotions tell us about our situation as it relates to our goals and beliefs. Studies have shown, for example, that random shocks give more anxiety than random shocks that we can stop with a press of a button, even though the shock is no longer than it would take us to respond and press the button. It’s a form of negative anticipation and rumination (beliefs) that causes anxiety.
To relieve stress in long-term, chronically stressful situations, we have a few options (assuming getting out of the situation is not an option):
1. Learn more about the stressors, about the details of why they make us feel this way. Often times, learning about all aspects of a subject and our anxieties can alleviate them because we find our assessments were not fully correct.
2. Increase our skills and abilities to handle the situation differently or better in some way. Along with learning about the subject, increasing our skills and abilities will increase our confidence with respect to the issue at hand and ideally get us closer to ‘flow.’
3. Find our own ‘button’ to release the pressure. If we’ve done our research, increased skills, and find that our anxiety is still valid, then we should create our own button – something that can give us a sense of control over the situation. For example, for some, buying a weapon for protection makes them feel better and less anxious about increasing crime rates. Know, however, that this may or may not be a placebo and should be used sparingly; the better we understand, the better we can handle the stress (or better yet, have it not turn into stress in the first place).
4. Learn to love it. This may feel like an exaggeration, but the point remains if we have to be in a situation. We have to find solace in some aspect of the task, work, or situation. This is shown in the worst of scenarios (Stockdale, Frankl, etc.).
5. Always have a realistic end in sight. If none of the above aspects work, the last remaining option is we must have an end in sight. But it is imperative that the end be realistic. If we are unsure because it’s so long, make the end many, many years from now on a horizon that we know is there but cannot see. As James Stockdale said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Price of Success
Some say that to achieve great things, we have to work hard, and hard work is going to be stressful, regardless, and that is the price of success. While this may be partially true, the real point that we all should come to understand is that chronic stress is in the mind; it’s how we perceive our situation.
While it may be true that ‘working hard’ is typically a prerequisite for financial success, that doesn’t mean ‘chronic stress’ is also a prerequisite. Just like binge-watching that favorite series, hard work can be like play if we have the right perspective and align our goals and our lives.
Remember, success doesn’t necessarily mean we have to make a lot of money. It doesn’t even mean we follow some grand passion. Success just means we have found a bit of flow in our lives; we found a path that is taking us toward wherever we ultimately want to go.