How to Optimize Stress and Avoid Burnout - overwhelmed woman covering face

7 Ways to Optimize Stress and Avoid Burnout

On your journey to optimal health, it’s important to optimize stress and avoid burnout.

How do you handle breakdowns? Stress is a part of life and chronic stress can lead to poor health outcomes and burnout. Read on to discover research based strategies that you can use to optimize stress and avoid burnout.

The Flow Model

According to research conducted by psychologist Csikszentmihalyi, people were most happy (and least stressed) when they are in a mental state he called flow.

Flow is the “state in which people are so involved in an activity that they are completely absorbed and nothing else seems to matter.” Flow can occur during many types of activity including learning, playing sports, or having a conversation. When do you typically experience flow?

According to the flow model, if people aren’t experiencing flow then they’re experiencing some degree of anxiety or boredom. That’s where stress comes into play.

flow diagramAs indicated in the diagram, if the person has low skill and high challenge, then the person will tend to feel some degree of anxiety. On the other hand, if the person his high skill and low challenge, then the person will tend to feel bored.

So, flow occurs when you balance the level of skill with the level of challenge. To maintain flow overtime, challenge levels should exceed skill levels by some measure. This dynamic balance is depicted by the wavy line in the flow channel, which is akin to mini-learning curves.

How can I reduce mental stress?

According to the flow model by Csikszentmihalyi, you can optimize stress and avoid burnout by seeking flow.

If you’re engaged in an activity and you observe that you’re anxious or bored, then ask yourself if the challenge is too hard or too easy for your skill level. If it is, then try to adjust the skill or the challenge level accordingly.

For example, if your feeling anxious, perhaps you have too much on your plate, what can you remove? If your feeling bored, perhaps you’re too masterful, how can you increase your level of play?

What is Stress?

Stress is another way to talk about the emotional experience explained by the flow model.

Stress can be defined as anything that causes tension in life. Typically, we feel stressed when we have too much to do, when other people seem to be making unreasonable demands, or when we are dealing with situations that we don’t have control over. Or, according to the flow model, when our challenges outpace our skills and resources.

Researchers have identified two kinds of stress:

  • Like flow states, eustress (positive) can be associated with life challenges, which are typically controlled or selected by the individual, such as getting married, becoming a parent, or a job promotion. This type of stress can alert the nervous system and raise the body’s adrenaline levels in order to enhance focus and provide additional energy to meet the challenge.
  • Like anxious states, distress (negative) can be associated with life changes that are beyond the person’s control, which they didn’t choose such as personal illness, COVID-19, or job loss. If distress becomes chronic and isn’t managed properly, then distress can result in burnout.

What is Burnout?

Are you burned out? Take the burnout inventory

Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion that can be accompanied by disillusionment. Burnout can occur when you’ve experienced long-term stress in your job, when you’ve worked in a physically or emotionally draining role for a long time, or when your efforts at work have failed to produce the results that you expected.

Symptoms of burnout are very common in professionals of all types, but often remain masked because of the culture of silence and stigma associated with appearing weak or incapable. Burnout typically develops gradually, more like erosion of well-being rather than a sudden change.

Burnout affects physical, psychological, and professional outcomes

  • physical correlates include type 2 diabetes, heart disease, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and the breakdown of healthy immune function
  • psychological associations include insomnia, depressive symptoms, and hospitalization for mental disorders
  • professional correlates include job dissatisfaction, absenteeism, and loss of productivity

Why is it important to manage stress?

It’s important to optimize stress and avoid burnout because stress has been associated with negative health outcomes including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and the breakdown of healthy immune function. Unchecked stress can also lead to burnout.

optimize stress - Diagram of Yerkes-Dodson LawAlso, according to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, akin to the flow model, optimal levels of stress support performance, whereas suboptimal levels of stress (whether too little or too much) undermine performance.

Again, the challenge is to strike a dynamic balance. Not easily done and, certainly, not easily maintained. But it helps if we know what we’re targeting.

Optimize Your Response to Stress and Avoid Burnout

To discover more, click through on the subheadings below.

1. SLEEP

Sleep is very important to health, and sleep problems, such as insomnia, are a common sign of stress. Lying awake worrying about things can make everything seem a lot worse. If you find you can’t stop worrying it may help to write a list of the things that are bothering you, or write yourself a letter about them. Once they are recorded, you may be able to switch off and relax more easily.

2. NUTRITION

When things get too hectic or difficult, it’s often easy to forget about eating well. But what you eat, and when you eat, can make a big difference to how you feel and how well you cope.

3. MOVEMENT

Countless studies have shown that regular exercise helps to reduce stress, to boost moods, and to improve overall health and well-being.

The restorative benefits of sleep, nutrition, and movement might sound obvious, but busy professionals often ignore their most basic needs. Instead, they take care of others and their responsibilities far more than they take care of themselves. This can contribute to burnout. Does this sound like you?

4. RELATIONSHIPS

We are social beings. So, relationships are an essential source of support.

  • Make time for your friends. Talking to them about your day and the things you find difficult can help keep things in perspective – and you can do the same for them. Smiling and laughing with them will also help you relax.
  • Practice being straightforward and assertive in communicating with others. If you sense that others making unreasonable demands on you, be prepared to tell them how you feel and to say “no” politely. Using communication practices such as non-violent communication, which was developed by psychologist Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, can be effective.
  • Resolve conflicts. If you find yourself in conflict with another person, try to find the root cause of the problem and try to find win-win solutions.

5. SPIRITUALITY

Burnout can occur when your work is out of alignment with your values, when it’s not contributing to your long-term goals, or when you have no idea what your goals are. Taking time to reconnect with your higher purpose and reassess your goals can prove beneficial.

6. RESILIENCE

When researchers talk about stress management, they often talk in terms of resilience. According to Bonanno, resilience is “the ability of an individual to recover quickly from the psychological effects of an adverse event.” When stressed, people typically constrict or tense up physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Hence, relaxation techniques can help you return to your baseline.

Discover 10 resilience strategies you can use to recover from setbacks.

7. ENVIRONMENT

Achieve flow and optimize stress by spending time in nature or decluttering your home and office.

If all else fails… Seek professional help

While the stress management techniques I’ve described have been shown to have a positive effect on optimizing stress, they are for guidance only. If you have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness, please consider talking things through with a suitable health professional.

So, in conclusion, you can optimize stress and avoid burnout by applying research based strategies including getting a good night’s sleep, eating nutritious food, exercising regularly, spending time with good friends, pursuing your values, building resilience, and spending time in nature.

Pick one strategy and start today! Remember, a little progress each day adds up to big results over time!

Stress Management Resources

Take the burnout inventory

Download FREE “Beat Burnout” eBook and companion workbook

Hire a Integrative Stress Relief Coach to Accelerate Your Success

Leslie Bosch, PhD - Integrative Wellness CoachIf you’d like help adopting any of these stress optimizing strategies, give me a call or send me an email. I’ll work with you to clarify your vision and plan for a successful outcome. Along the way, I’ll be there to encourage your efforts, to celebrate your progress, and to troubleshoot your breakdowns. Read testimonials from satisfied clients.

Be well and enjoy!

Discover more about an integrative approach to optimal health.

Disclaimer: The information provided through this Website is for educational and informational purposes only and solely as a self-help tool for your own use. If stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness, please consult with a suitable health professional.

References:

  • Bonanno, G. A., Brewin, C. R., Kaniasty, K., & La Greca, A. M. (2010). Weighing the costs of disaster: Consequences, risks, and resilience in individuals, families, and communities. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 11, 1–49. doi:10.1177/1529100610387086
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
  • Emmons, R. A. (2008). Thanks!: How practicing gratitude can make you happier. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company
  • Kristensen, T. S., Borritz, M., Villadsen, E., & Christensen, K. B. (2005). The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory: A new tool for the assessment of burnout. Work & Stress, 19(3), 192–207. https://doi.org/10.1080/02678370500297720
  • Tan, S. Y., & Yip, A. (2018). Hans Selye (1907-1982): Founder of the stress theory. Singapore Medical Journal, 59(4), 170–171. https://doi.org/10.11622/smedj.2018043
  • Yerkes, R.M., & Dodson, J.D. (1908). The Relation of Strength of Stimulus to Rapidity of Habit Formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology & Psychology, 18, 459–482. https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.920180503

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