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When you think about “burnout,” you probably can define it more with a feeling than words. I like the classic imagery of a matchstick being burnt at both ends. Burnout happens when we can’t or don’t properly recover from workplace stress. That buildup of stress becomes overwhelming and affects both our mental and physical health. According to the World Health Organization, which classified “burnout” as an occupational phenomenon in 2019, burnout is defined by feelings of exhaustion or low energy, a mental distance and cynicism related to work, and reduced efficacy. While burnout is related specifically to work stress, other stressors outside of work also impact our level of resilience.
Perhaps an image comes to mind when you think about the word “mindfulness.” Popular culture has focused on this term a lot in the past few years, often with a graphic of a healthy-looking person in a pretzel-like pose in some idyllic location. For me, mindfulness is focusing on whatever I’m doing at the moment. I also like to practice mindfulness in the form of meditation as well as in doing everyday tasks.
You can practice this by bringing attention to your breath. Can you feel it in your body? How long can you keep your focus there? Everyone gets pulled away by thoughts many times. The mental fitness “rep” happens when you realize you’ve been pulled away and intentionally come back to focus on your breathing. If focusing on your breath doesn’t feel right, try focusing on your hands or feet.
I like to use a synonym for mindfulness, “mental fitness,” to better convey what it is and how to practice it. We all know we must flex and work our muscles from time to time to keep them strong and in working order. The same idea applies to mindfulness, or mental fitness. Every time we practice mindfulness, we are flexing our mental muscles, therefore, strengthening our mental fitness.
Our central nervous system has two parts — the sympathetic (flight or fight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). We’ve all had our fight-or-flight response triggered at one time or another — how does that feel? When this happens, your heartbeat may skyrocket, you may get flushed or clammy, or you might want to throw something or scream. When our sympathetic nervous system is triggered, it sends energy to our muscles so we can react. Too much of this leads to built-up stress, causing burnout. To counteract our sympathetic nervous system, we want to intentionally activate our parasympathetic nervous system through activities, like deep breathing, stretching, light movement or laughter.
Our brains have a way of creating pathways when we practice something new — this is called neuroplasticity. Thanks to this process, we can form new and lasting habits. The best way to overcome burnout is to build a toolkit of practices that work best for your life. Find a podcast, a mindfulness app, a book or a teacher to help create this new habit. Practicing mindfulness will allow us to find balance and recover faster from stress.
Katie Garrett, CPRP, is Marketing and Digital Communications Manager at Fox Valley Park District.