Burnout has been the buzzword for the past few years. The definition of burnout is: a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.
Feeling spaced out and tired, having no will or motivation to do anything, slow thinking, feeling stuck and irritable. Burnout is mostly examined in relation to the workplace, but the symptoms and causes are very similar in all parts of life.
Let’s look at burnout from the body’s perspective, through the lens of Polyvagal Theory:
The nervous system responds to stress by getting activated, releasing a cocktail of chemicals that create symptoms of rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, sharp/focused vision. The body tries to do something about the stressful situation by moving the nervous system into fight or flight response. When the stress is constant, the activation can get stuck in the body; it has nowhere to go to.
If you are having a highly stressful dinner with the in-laws, you might be able to bite your tongue during all the way through to dessert, even though you are activated and full of stress hormones, but then your frustration has nowhere to go. If this keeps happening the body’s only response is to shut down, to disconnect as a survival mechanism. This is the freeze response.
Being in the freeze state can show up as:
- Not being able to tune into body (feeling numb in certain parts of the body or all over)
- Not knowing what we want or need
- Feeling alone and lost, not being able to make connections
- Slow thinking, attention is all over the place, spacing out frequently
- Difficulty in making decisions or making sense of things.
- Slow at responding to hurt or not standing up for ourselves
I see this a lot with clients, who have difficulties in setting boundaries. It is not always about the lack of skills of communicating our boundaries, but more about being disconnected from the present moment and not noticing when our boundaries are crossed. Not knowing our needs and wants.
To move out of the freeze response there’s a simple tool that can work instantly but temporarily; Orienting ourselves in our environment. We can do this by simply looking around, noticing things and using our senses if that feels safe. To move clients slowly and gently out of the freeze response and depending on the skills they need to acquire, I may recommend taking up active sports (weightlifting, HIIT or martial arts) or singing, improv, acting etc.
However, in the long-term we want to focus on developing the ability to safely move through the initial activation phase (fight or flight) so we don’t get stuck in freeze: with professional help (therapist or embodiment coach) we can learn to digest the activation, to transmute the energy that gets amplified. In case of an antelope running away from a lion, this looks like literal shaking once the danger is over. In my regular practice, once a week I dedicate a session for emotional hygiene: this can be a specific breathwork (holotropic breathing) or biodynamics shaking. Both modalities bypass the mind and directly access the nervous system.
There are many simple embodiment tools that can be helpful in learning to manage our state. When working with a professional we first learn this by co-regulation, through being validated so we learn to trust our own feelings and thinking and finally moving into reconnecting with ourselves by incorporating simple embodiment practices in our everyday life.
These are essential tools to live our lives in a more balanced way, but something that may not have been modelled to us as children. It is never too late to develop these skills: What we need is a compassionate listener, with expertise in embodiment and nervous system regulation, as well as accountability.
Emotional regulation is an integral step to a happier and more fulfilled life. Stress and other triggering scenarios are unavoidable, but regulating our emotions allows us to respond from a more informed place. For more simple, practical tools check out our downloadable workbook: Balance & Stability.