Stress and Burnout
Stress — just the word may be enough to set your nerves on edge. Everyone feels stressed from time to time. Some people may cope with stress more effectively or recover from stressful events quicker than others. It’s important to know your limits when it comes to stress to avoid more serious health effects.
What is stress?
Stress can be defined as the brain’s response to any demand. Many things can trigger this response, including change. Changes can be positive or negative, as well as real or perceived. They may be recurring, short-term, or long-term and may include things like commuting to and from school or work every day, traveling for a yearly vacation, or moving to another home. Changes can be mild and relatively harmless, such as winning a race, watching a scary movie, or riding a rollercoaster. Some changes are major, such as marriage or divorce, serious illness, or a car accident. Other changes are extreme, such as exposure to violence, and can lead to traumatic stress reactions.
How does stress affect the body?
Not all stress is bad. All animals have a stress response, which can be life-saving in some situations. The nerve chemicals and hormones released during such stressful times, prepares the animal to face a threat or flee to safety. When you face a dangerous situation, your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity—all functions aimed at survival. In the short term, it can even boost the immune system.
However, with chronic stress, those same nerve chemicals that are life-saving in short bursts can suppress functions that aren’t needed for immediate survival. Your immunity is lowered and your digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems stop working normally. Once the threat has passed, other body systems act to restore normal functioning. Problems occur if the stress response goes on too long, such as when the source of stress is constant, or if the response continues after the danger has subsided.
How does stress affect your overall health?
There are at least three different types of stress, all of which carry physical and mental health risks:
- Routine stress related to the pressures of work, family and other daily responsibilities.
- Stress brought about by a sudden negative change, such as losing a job, divorce, or illness.
- Traumatic stress, experienced in an event like a major accident, war, assault, or a natural disaster where one may be seriously hurt or in danger of being killed.
The body responds to each type of stress in similar ways. Different people may feel it in different ways. For example, some people experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, depressed mood, anger and irritability. People under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold, and vaccines, such as the flu shot, are less effective for them.
Of all the types of stress, changes in health from routine stress may be hardest to notice at first. Because the source of stress tends to be more constant than in cases of acute or traumatic stress, the body gets no clear signal to return to normal functioning. Over time, continued strain on your body from routine stress may lead to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, anxiety disorder, and other illnesses.
How can I cope with stress?
The effects of stress tend to build up over time. Taking practical steps to maintain your health and outlook can reduce or prevent these effects. The following are some tips that may help you to cope with stress:
- Seek help from a qualified mental health care provider if you are overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, have suicidal thoughts, or are using drugs or alcohol to cope.
- Get proper health care for existing or new health problems.
- Stay in touch with people who can provide emotional and other support. Ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations to reduce stress due to work burdens or family issues, such as caring for a loved one.
- Recognize signs of your body’s response to stress, such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol and other substance use, being easily angered, feeling depressed, and having low energy.
- Set priorities-decide what must get done and what can wait, and learn to say no to new tasks if they are putting you into overload.
- Note what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.
- Avoid dwelling on problems. If you can’t do this on your own, seek help from a qualified mental health professional who can guide you.
- Exercise regularly-just 30 minutes per day of gentle walking can help boost mood and reduce stress.
- Schedule regular times for healthy and relaxing activities.
- Explore stress coping programs, which may incorporate meditation, yoga, tai chi, or other gentle exercises.
(From Fact Sheet on Stress by the National Institutes of Mental Health)
How relaxation helps
When you feel stress, your body responds by releasing hormones that increase your blood pressure and raise your heart rate. This is called the stress response.
Relaxation techniques can help your body relax and lower your blood pressure and heart rate. This is called a relaxation response. There are several exercises you can try. See which ones work best for you.
One of the simplest ways to relax is by practicing deep breathing. You can do deep breathing almost anywhere.
- Sit still or lie down and place one hand on your stomach. Put your other hand over your heart.
- Inhale slowly until you feel your stomach rise.
- Hold your breath for a moment.
- Exhale slowly, feeling your stomach fall.
There are also many other types of breathing techniques you can learn. In many cases, you do not need much instruction to do them on your own.
(From U.S. National Library of Medicine: Relaxation techniques for stress)
Unremitting stress can lead to a state of burnout. This condition is marked by emotional exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work. Health care workers have particularly high rates of burnout.
If you or someone you know is overwhelmed by stress, seek help from the professionals at the Faculty & Staff Assistance Office at 617-353-5381. If you or someone close to you is in crisis after-hours, call the toll-free, 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
Information and Resources
- US National Library of Medicine – Stress
- Fact Sheet on Stress (National Institutes of Mental Health)
- Stress Relief Guide: Quick Tips for When You’re Short on Time ) (HelpGuide/Harvard Health Publications)
- Being Assertive: Reduce Stress, Communicate Better (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research)
- Coping with Stress: Workplace Tips (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research)
- Exercise for Stress and Anxiety (Anxiety and Depression Association of America)
- Feeling Stressed? Stress Relief Might Help Your Health (National Institutes of Health)
- Meditation: A Simple, Fast Way to Reduce Stress (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research)
- Live Your Life Well (Mental Health America)
- Managing Your Stress in Tough Economic Times (American Psychological Association) Available in Spanish
- Positive Thinking: Reduce Stress by Eliminating Negative Self-Talk (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research)
- Road to Resilience (American Psychological Association) Available in Spanish
- Social Support: Tap This Tool to Reduce Stress (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research)
- Stress Management (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research)
- “How to make stress your friend” Kelly McGonigal. Filmed at TedGlobal June 2013
- The American Institute of Stress Compilation of information on many stress-related topics
Burnout in Medicine