13.10.2020

Stress – motivator or destroyer?

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Stress and burnout are concepts that many goal-oriented people come across. We all have experienced the anxiety and fear that we might not meet the deadlines, manage the project successfully etc. Stress is steadily accompanying most of us and the media talks a lot about the warning signs of burnout. What is the difference between stress and burnout and how do we keep ourselves safe? 

Margus Laurik, a clinical psychologist, says that people tend to confuse the terms, over google-analyze themselves and therefore may not be solving the right problem. „Stress does not automatically mean burnout, nor is the lack of motivation and need for extra sleep for a few weeks necessarily signs of depression,” he adds.

According to the American Psychological Association stress is the physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors. Stress involves changes affecting the whole body, influencing how people feel and behave. For example, it may be experienced by palpitations, sweating, dry mouth, shortness of breath, fidgeting, accelerated speech, negative emotions, and longer duration of stress fatigue. Extreme stress affects mental and physical health, reducing the quality of life.

When the internal or external stressful situation is prolonged, one could be dealing with chronic stress. What is noteworthy about chronic stress is that to have its effects, the stressor itself does not have to be present anymore, the recollections can also initiate the same reaction and sustain chronic stress. Meaning chronic stress will stay with a person as long as it has been dealt with or accepted. 

Laurik says that not all stress is bad, and it could be even motivating. On the occasion of stress, there is also usually a stressor and when the stressor “goes away”, we will feel better and anxiety will leave us. Still, it is essential to deal with chronic stress, because leaving it unattended could lead to burnout and depression. 

Why do we get stressed? 
Workland Vabaduse

Our emotional reactions have a crucial role to play here. If and how much stress we feel, is based on our interpretation of the situation – how good or bad we evaluate the case to be, how easily we could solve the problem we have, and if we have enough resources to complete the task. Stress happens when there is a discord between the demands and resources to solve the issue. On the other hand, stress gets us to focus, gather the resources and motives us to take action. 

“When we are in a truly challenging spot, most of us tend to picture the situation in much darker colours than it actually is. And it makes sense because when we are already in a stressful situation, it is difficult to act and react in an adequate way. So, when you ask why in the same situation, one person would feel stress and another not, the answer lies in the interpretation – how the person feels about the situation. For example, when a person no 1 would have to give a public speech, he most likely experiences stress, when he is worried about leaving a bad impression. The person no 2, on the other hand, might experience no stress, because he is truly excited about sharing his experiences with others. When our emotional reactions – to be stressed or not to be stressed – rely on the interpretations, maybe we could mindfully change the reactions or way we see things?” Laurik explains.

Burnout takes time to recover

As said, long-lasting chronic stress – like overburdening workload, physical or mental exertion – that has not been dealt with, can lead to burnout physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others (American Psychological Association). Many things lead to burnout, and some of them are related to work – like lack of control, insufficient compensation, too challenging or too easy assignments. Some of the factors, on the other hand, refer to personality (perfectionism, negative attitude, excessive need to control the situation, extreme sense of accomplishment) and lifestyle (not-balanced use of time, lack of close relationships, overload). And the list of symptoms is long – starting with nervousness, sleep-issues and abusing food and alcohol to procrastination, feeling like a failure, lack of motivation, low self-esteem etc. Everyone experiences burnout in a slightly different way.

When a person feels like he/she is on the verge of burnout Laurik recommends to slow down, contact a specialist and start working on it. “Burnout is not something you can sleep off in a week – and if you managed to do so, then congratulations, you got away with a higher stress level or chronic stress. Recovering from burnout takes months before getting back to normal life and work rhythm. You have to pay it all back – the extra time and energy you lent from yourself, you have to give it all back,” he says.

The daily activities are the key

But how to take care of yourself and keep the stress levels manageable? One helpful way to keep us on track is to find a balance between different kinds of tasks we do day in day out. One could divide all actions and responsibilities into four groups:

Mental health blog graph

When feeling overwhelmed and stressed, it would be wise to analyse your daily or weekly task lists and see how the activities are divided between different groups. Maybe there are way too many things on the “I have to” plate and nothing in the “I want to” section. When the balance is off, some changes – short term or long term – should be considered. It is essential to know that when the stress level is getting higher, it is even more important to keep yourself in balance and add activities that bring you real joy in the schedule (not only binge watching Netflix). When a person is already experiencing burnout, the daily plan should include more resting and fewer activities. 

In addition, Laurik recommends mapping out the mental, physical and social activities of each day – what kind of activities are in excess and which are missing? Are there enough activities that require effort, enough activities that you actually enjoy? Have you met or talked to your peers enough? Maybe a regular physical activity will help to clear the mind after a challenging day at the office? And as we know, our overall health relies on three pillars: physical activity, healthy eating and sleeping – the more stress you have in our life, the more you should pay attention to these three.

*The article is based on a workshop “Stress, burnout and depression” carried out by Noviti with Margus Laurik to Workland members.