Burnout and Your Nervous System

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When I ask a room full of people if they’ve experienced burnout, about half raise their hands.

You’re Not Alone

Herbert Freudenberger coined the term burnout in the 1970s.(1) Funny, in 2018, I didn’t know that term until I felt so bad; it was the only word I had for it. The book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle wasn’t published. We hadn’t collectively experienced a global pandemic that created a significant stressor for everyone, forcing an evaluation of careers and lives.

Not until the day that a meeting with my supervisor and superior left me in tears, and I left work, crawling into bed, willing it all to go away, did I begin to recognize what was happening. A few weeks later, I hit the wall, felt shattered, and entered into an existential crisis that altered my life.

It took a dramatic turn of events, a cracking within myself, to admit where I was. But what if there was a way to recognize the symptoms of burnout and take steps to heal while also navigating the ickiness of the crisis that comes with feeling burned out? I wouldn’t have crashed so hard, I would have felt more in control of my emotions, and I wouldn’t have beaten myself up so much over what felt like a career failure.

Being burned out turns into tunnel vision. The situation can feel so horrible that you can only focus on what went wrong. When you’re a high-achieving perfectionist, the analysis of what went wrong can end up with you turning on yourself.

Let’s break out of the tunnel vision and recognize what you have control over so that you can get a bigger picture.

Burnout As a Continuum

The thing with burnout is that it takes a while to build to the point where it affects your life. First, you have a stressor, then you react to the stress, may or may not recover from the stress, and then another stressor comes along. This cycle can snowball to the point that all you are doing is reacting to all the stressors around you, and the more reacting you do, the more you feel anxious, frustrated, or overwhelmed. You may even start to hold more tightly to control, thinking that if you can control the situation, it will be better, leading to more stressors and more reactions. That doesn’t sound great, does it?

The stress cycle (1)

Resetting the stress cycle, activating the rest, and digesting the nervous system allows you to slow down and assess the bigger picture. (1)

So, how do you do this when many stressors come at you every day? 

  • Maybe you want to leave your job, but you’re so drained that you lack the energy to search.
  • Maybe you notice some aspects of your job you like, but others completely drain your energy.
  • Maybe you’re trying to figure out how to juggle being a parent with a full-time career.
  • Maybe you’re discovering that the “you can have it all” trope is bullsh*t.

These can all lead to stress that must be released from your system. While you can’t fix everything all at once, you can take steps to improve your ability to release tension and reset the stress cycle.

Three Ways to Complete the Stress Cycle and Regain Calm

Shake it off

Seriously! Shaking can help move the adrenaline and other stress hormones through your system and release it. Animals shake after stressful situations, and the most dramatic example I’ve seen is in this video:

You may not be able to shake it off in an open cube farm, but try it in your home office. Shake your arms and hands for a few seconds, move on to shaking your legs one at a time for a few seconds, and gradually move into shaking your whole body for about 60 seconds. Then stop and feel the difference. Do you feel more grounded? Calmer? Silly? The silliness of shaking my entire body helps bring some much-needed comic relief.

Work it out

Regular movement can also help you complete the stress cycle. You don’t necessarily have to catch the cycle right away; sometimes, we don’t have the space to do that. But moving regularly, taking a walk, lifting weights, yoga, running, biking—anything that can help move the energy—can help.

Try incorporating a short walk into the middle of your day. Instead of spending 10 minutes scrolling on your phone, go outside for a lap around the block or building. I know it’s easier said than done, but it’s worth trying, especially if you find your shoulders up by your ears and you’re getting jumpy by the middle of the day.

Get your eyes involved

One of the easiest ways to help reset your nervous system is to make specific eye movements. This video shows one that works in seconds. It’s easy, can be done sitting up, and can be incorporated pretty much anywhere.



I hope these three techniques help you to reset and create more calm in your life. Let me know if you try any of these and what you find!



(1) Emily Nagoski, Amelia Nagoski, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Ballantine Books, 2019


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