Clinical psychologist and hospital administrator Jeff Jernigan enjoyed a 35-year career in the healthcare industry. Reflecting on his career at a recent Welcoa event in San Diego, Jernigan talked about the burnout he observed among his colleagues – health professionals so busy taking care of others, they neglected taking care of themselves.
Burnout is a form of moral injury which Jernigan says is the damage done to one’s conscience from stress mismanagement. When moral injury happens, it is a difficult and time-consuming process to rebuild because stress is accumulative and sheds slowly.
There are cumulative signs of stress that are observed beginning with sleep distress, withdrawing from people or events and displaying unusual behaviors. We can be so engrossed in our lives, trying to keep our heads above water and not notice as the unmanaged stress spiral gradually sneaks up on us. Jernigan says it happens in four stages:
1. Poor adaptation to an environment or relationship produces stress fatigue and the beginning of a burnout. If left unmanaged, one will then experience #2.
2. Altered perspective is a predominantly negative mindset which degrades motivation.
3. Diminished motivation displays itself with little energy to direct toward self-care. The neurology of burnout has a visible effect on the frontal lobe and limbic system producing cognitive impairments such as anxiety or depression.
4. Crisis is the complete physiological and psychological collapse where one will turn to drugs, suicide, or other means to cope.
Not actively managing stress paints a grim picture indeed, but the good news is that any of these stages can prevented and reversed at any point. We need to pay attention to our mindset and actively shift from a comfortable negative mindset to a claimable positive one.
When our mindset is negative, we experience decreased motivation, a sense of withdrawal and isolation, avoidance in life and relationships, little hope or imagination, and we cope by pursuing pleasure or avoiding pain. Conversely, a positive mindset delivers increased motivation, a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, engagement with life and relationships, striving for our potential, constantly risking and learning, little anxiety or depression, copes by pursuing meaningful work and relationships.
Immediate intervention is required to free oneself from the unmanaged stress spiral before healthier strategies can be effective. Jernigan recommends any of these four approaches to shed stress.
1. Balance stretching experiences with nourishing ones – talk freely with others, get control over your schedule, use available support options, reduce personal conflicts
2. Process through journaling and reading it back out loud – at the end of each day, write what happened and how you felt about it. Writing and reading aloud exercises both sides of your brain, helping you see patterns and become self-aware.
3. Engaging with friends and sharing your experiences – having meaningful and vulnerable exchanges where you can encourage and learn together.
4. Breathing exercises – if you feel like you are spiraling down or drowning in a rushing stream of rapid thoughts, then employ a breathing exercise. There are many exercises to relax and stimulate your nervous system to calm down your brain to a more rational state (glitter jar, 4-7-8 exercise).
The key to managing stress is building resilience – the ability to recover from difficulties and spring back into shape. Resilience is built when actively nurture and adopt these aspects into our lifestyle.
1. Nutrition. To be in a positive mindset, our brain needs food. Fruits, veggies and whole grains are great for energy. Eggs, fish, meat, milk, yogurt help with cell connection. Fats help insulate the brain from short circuiting while vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants strengthen our organs.
2. Exercise. Being physically active for 20 minutes a day will improve learning, cognition, memory, self-control and mental flexibility. You don’t have to run marathons, you just need to move!
3. Sleep. After a day’s work, sleep is the body’s clean-up cycle. Our brains interpret ‘blue light’ from screens as if it were still day so be sure to shut screens off an hour before bed.
4. Relationships. Having meaningful relationships with others builds resilience. They allow us to identify with others and as they identify with us, we learn together. Having quality friends that you regularly engage with produces authentic peace, joy, love for what we do and the world we live in.
Choosing positivity and adopting resilience to manage stress is a lifestyle and possible for everyone. Every great journey begins with the first step, take it.