Royal Canin

Burnout and the Stress Response Cycle

Rachel Wright, MSW, LICSW, VSW-CP (Veterinary Social Work)

When we hear the word “burnout” we visualize high caseloads, long hours, overwhelm, exhaustion, and nonexistent work-life balance. All those stressors are certainly endemic to the field and significantly play into burnout. But they’re not always the root cause as to why we are experiencing burnout in the first place. These stressors lead to long-term stress which results in chronic stress cycles. We can easily get “stuck” in these cycles. What if we could unlock these patterns effectively and efficiently, and free ourselves from chronic stress cycles?

What is Burnout?

I recently read the book “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” written by twin sisters Dr’s. Amelia and Emily Nagoski. I was immediately struck by its relevance to the veterinary field and inspired by their fresh take on the intersection of burnout and stress.

To best understand the intersection of stressors, stress, and burnout, it’s necessary to recognize burnout in ourselves.

Burnout can be defined in a variety of ways. It can be exacerbated by compassion fatigue, moral injury, vicarious trauma, and toxic workplace culture. In “Burnout”, Dr’s. Nagoski describe it as: a combination of “emotional exhaustion”, “depersonalization”, and “decreased sense of accomplishment”, coupled with “Human Giver Syndrome”.

Let’s explore this:

  • “Emotional exhaustion”
    • fatigue that comes with caring too much and for too long.
  • “Depersonalization”
    • depletion of empathy, caring, compassion.
  • “Decreased sense of accomplishment
    • feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.
  • “Human Giver Syndrome
    • giving whole self to others; messages include that you are not allowed to need or demand anything, and self-care is selfish.

Stressors vs Stress

To combat burnout, we need to first understand the relationship between stressors, stress, and the stress response cycle.

Stressors:

  • What causes your stress reaction
  • External (long hours, high caseload, challenging client conversations, lack of breaks during shift).
  • Internal (perfectionism, rumination, boundary struggles).

Stress:

  • Physiological reaction that happens in our bodies as a response to perceived threat. These reactions are intended to help us survive.

Stress Reactions:

  • Fight (aggressive), flight (run away/avoid), freeze (stall/passive), appease (people-pleasing)
  • Mostly the same no matter what the “threat” is (e.g., being chased by a lion, or stuck in traffic!)

The Cost of Stress

When stressors are ever present, it can feel like we’re constantly in reactive mode. We’re in a state of chronic stress, and it stays activated. Chronic stress is serious and damaging. The stress itself will catch up to us much faster than the stressor will. Our bodies will tell us and up the ante, until we do something about it!

This includes:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Shame and toxic perfectionism
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Weakened immune system
  • Metabolic and immune disorders
  • GI disorders/digestive problems
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke
  • Sleep problems/sleep disorders
  • Substance abuse/other addictions
  • Weight gain/eating disorders/body image issues
stress

The Stress Response Cycle is a Biological Response

Just like any biological response in our bodies, the stress response cycle is automatic and instantaneous. It follows similar patterns. What we do at each stage and at the end of the cycle is key to moving us through the “chronic stress tunnel”.

Here’s the pattern:

  • Beginning: You perceive the threat
    • What’s your “story” about the stressor/the threat?
  • Middle: How are you reacting to the stressor?
    • Every system in the body is fully activated to escape threat, using all energy.
  • End: Body receives signal you’ve escaped; now you’re safe
    • This is the key time to complete the stress response cycle.

Complete the Stress Response Cycle

When faced with any type of stress, we must actively change our physiological state to a place of safety. This is the first step in completing the stress response cycle. In “Burnout”, the authors share that we can do this in the following simple, evidence-based ways:

  • Move (single most efficient strategy!)
  • Breathe
  • Physical Touch
  • Rest
  • Laugh
  • Find Joy  
  • Practice Gratitude
  • Cry
  • Connection (healthy connection is good for us!)
  • Do something creative!

In addition, we must deal with stressors while managing our stress. To help us manage stressors, the authors discuss utilizing “The Monitor”, and the following adaptive coping strategies.

“The Monitor” tells us:

  • When to keep going (stay the course)
  • When to re-set/re-define realistic expectations (for both winning and failing)
  • What is attainable/isn’t attainable
  • When to let go and/or leave

Adaptive coping strategies to employ:

  • “Planful problem-solving”
    • direct, risk-taking efforts to alter situations to deal with controllable stressors.
  • “Positive reappraisal”
    • finding personal positive meaning-making from negative situations to deal with uncontrollable stressors.

Take Your Stress Seriously

It is vital to take our stress seriously and the toll it takes on our bodies. Learning how to effectively manage all stressors, understanding stress reactions, and completing the stress response cycle, are imperative to mitigating burnout. If we can mitigate or even prevent burnout, we can more actively focus on our wellbeing and sustainability in the field. I encourage you to take the action necessary to care for yourself in these important ways. You are worth it and deserve it!