Burn out is one of those phrases that we have probably heard of but maybe don’t really know enough about to know if we might be experiencing it. Traditionally it has been applied to work (job burn out), but more recently it has been referred to with parenting, lockdown or exercise burn out.
First thing to know: it is a response to stress.
Both physical and psychological stress can lead to burn out. If we look at stress as a physiological reaction to something that threatens us it can be applied to a wide range of circumstances (losing our job, feeling rejected or lonely, ill health, confrontation, bullying).
The emotional underneath these threats is fear. Our response to being frightened is to protect ourselves somehow - fight, flight or freeze.
When we are coping with these situations we use a lot of mental and physical energy simply getting through our day to day lives. It’s why health, financial and relationship worries drain our energy levels and undermine our wellbeing so completely.
Without knowing it we can fall into a pattern of chronic stress. We are still functioning but each day brings an energy deficit. But we are determined to cope and consequently we find strategies that help us keep going.
We boost our energy with caffeine, carbs, high risk activities and sugar. We find ways of shutting it out with Netflix, alcohol, and medication.
But tiredness and exhaustion starts to impact our brain, our thinking style and we become more negative about ourselves and our lives. It’s difficult to keep positive when every day leaves you with a completely flat battery.
We hold tension in our joints and muscles, we get brain fog as our brains get depleted of nutrients (especially the hypothalamus which is the master gland) as it struggles to continually make enough adrenaline and cortisol, our digestion suffers, we store the excess glucose as belly fat, our sleep gets disrupted.
Anxiety and relentless, worrying thoughts become our new normal without us even realising it. And as time goes on our general levels of stress creep up and are permanently close to our coping limit. Small things tip us easily over the edge and see us reacting aggressively (Fight)or defensively (Flight). Or maybe for you, it’s shutting down that helps you to cope (Freeze).
Adrenaline Dominance is when our bodies get stuck in this pattern where we always have high levels of adrenaline flowing through us.
As part of preparing our body for danger, the primary role of adrenaline is to provide sugar for the brain. The brain utilises more sugar per weight than any other area of the body so when the brain runs out of fuel, we experience a sense of sleepiness and the brain automatically sends an alert to release more adrenaline.
As time goes on and our daily stress levels stay at a chronic level with feelings of jitteriness, nervousness, restlessness, insomnia, and exhaustion. We are fearful, uneasy, worry all the time. This can progress when we start to have panic attacks - without even realising that is what is happening. Nausea, dizziness, shallow breathing, heart racing, headaches, pain.
If you then add some acute stress - a trigger point - where you have to struggle to meet a deadline, make a mortgage payment, have an argument or complete a half marathon then we suddenly feel we can’t cope.
How to overcome burn out
It can take until we feel completely overwhelmed and out of control, when we simply can’t function normally in our day to day lives, before we start to be aware. And feel that we just have to STOP
When you get to this point the first and most important thing to do is find a way to press pause. You need to recharge.
- Stop: Interrupt your thoughts with the command “Stop” and pause whatever you’re doing.
- Take a Breath: Notice your breathing for a second. Breathe in slowly through the nose, hold your breath for the count of 4, then exhale slowly and deeply like blowing out the candles on a birthday cake.
- Observe: Become the observer of your thoughts, emotions and physical reactions. What thoughts do you notice? What emotions are present? How does your body feel? Tune in and sit with whatever arises for a few moments.
- Proceed: Mindfully consider how you’d like to respond. What’s one thing you can focus on right now? What’s your most important and urgent priority? Narrow down your focus and take it one small step at a time.
If you’re in a stressful situation, and you’re like, How do I respond, how do I respond? — if you consciously slow down your breathing just for one minute, or even a few seconds, you can put yourself in a calmer state, to be able to think clearly.
Breathing deeply immediately relaxes the body because it stimulates the vagus nerve, which is in charge of turning off the fight/flight/freeze reflex and activates our rest and digest response. This reduces your heart rate and blood pressure and our brains respond by changing from theta brainwaves (stress) to alpha brainwaves (relax) acting as a brake on the stress response.
So here is a new way of thinking, a new way to look at things: the key to overcoming burn out is to reduce fear, know how you feel safe and stimulate your vagus nerve.
This is the symbol of enlightenment. I personally love it because it reminds me that the path of life isn’t always straight, perfect or always in the “right” direction. Life is full of missteps, lessons and detours.
Biohacking the Vagus Nerve
Here are 8 ways you can reduce fear and stimulate your vagus nerve:
- Have a look at what may be underneath the surface of your awareness that might be triggering fear. Could it be being alone, being rejected, death, loss, change? What helps you to feel safe? Spend some time writing in a journal answering these prompts:
- What frightens me?
- When do I feel safe?
- What am I grateful for?
2. Give yourself permission to reassess your life. You choose your own story. There are unexpected opportunities to reduce stress by:
“Growth requires movement. And often the only way forward is through the exit door."
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can hear
- 3 things you can smell
- 2 things you can touch
- 1 thing you can taste
In a study researchers found that both GABA and L-theanine supplements increased alpha brain waves and decreased theta brain waves (which is a sign of a decrease in stress). They found that taking GABA works effectively within 1 hour to diminish stress, worry, anxiety, and may allow the brain to focus and concentrate better and that GABA administration could help immunity too through its anxiety-reducing effects.
The vagus nerve is one of the biggest nerves connecting your gut and brain. It sends signals in both directions which is why we feel butterflies in our tummy if we’re nervous. But it also works the other way around. Your gut microbiome affects your brain - your thoughts, feelings and emotions - and probiotics have been found to help with stress, anxiety and depression.
Two strains, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium longum, especially help psychological distress, depression, anger-hostility, anxiety and improve sleep.
Supplements for burn out
Who knew that nutrients could help with stress?
That’s why I blended all these psychobiotics + GABA producing ingredients all together for you in CALM ME.
The vagus nerve is essentially the queen of the parasympathetic nervous system — our calm place, our “rest and digest” — so the more we do things that activate it, by using the 8 tools above, the more we banish the effects of the sympathetic nervous system — our “fight, flight, freeze” and the effects of our stress, adrenaline + cortisol.