Chronic stress, exhaustion, and burnout
In the previous section we talked about how acute stress feels. Acute stress response is a reaction in our brain and body that helps us mobilize energy to meet external challenges. It may or may not help us in a particular situation. Regardless, it is important to remember that the state of acute stress is taxing, both physically and mentally. When experienced briefly, followed by a period of calm, stress reactions are harmless and in fact, may be one important mechanism for learning and improving our performance. However, if fight-or-flight becomes our lifestyle, we might sooner or later reach exhaustion and burnout. Think of living in a state of chronic stress as using your family car to compete in Formula 1. You’d ruin the car pretty quickly, wouldn’t you? Picture those car tires and what happens to them during the race. This is what happens to your body and mind when you live under high stress 24/7. They wear down.
Our stress response system is quite delicate. If we activate it too often and for too long, if we don’t turn it off in time, it might stop doing what it is supposed to do. it will stop reacting. As if saying, "You know what, buddy, enough is enough, I give up!!" Next time there is a situation where we usually get alert and hyperactive, we don’t get alert and hyperactive. Not because we are calm and confident, but because we couldn’t care less. We simply don’t have the capacity to react any longer. What is more, we stop reacting to anything, not only bad things, but also good things. There is just fatigue, weariness, disengagement. We can’t experience joy or empathy any longer. In fact, cynicism is one of burnout symptoms (and not necessarily a personality trait). Life just feels like a swamp, flat and grey. All of this develops slowly and sometimes we are not aware of it until the symptoms become severe.
We live in a society that is performance and success oriented. We work hard to achieve goals (even though often, it’s someone else’s goals, not our own). Many of us have been raised to believe that our worth should be measured by our productivity. That giving up is a weakness. Giving up can be painful, but when you give up because you respect your own limits, it's a strength and an incredibly brave thing to do. If your life feels grey and flat, can you find enough compassion towards yourself today to ask: Have I been facing too many demands? Are those my goals? Have I been overdoing it? Have I been trying too hard for too long? Can I give myself the permission to stop trying?