Mythbusting Resiliency & Burnout


“Be kind for everyone is fighting a hard battle” Plato

“Life is both ‘simple and hard’ but becomes ‘complex’ when we try to make it  ‘easy’” Dr Pete

I am a fool. After all these years of research and clinical practice I still fall into the trap of thinking that people who are fit and healthy, good-looking,  have extraverted personalities, shiny sport cars, happy families and an apparent lack of any personal problems, are role models of what it means to be resilient – but I am completely wrong! The notion that resiliency means you don’t have any personal problems is a myth!

I am also a fool when it comes to the subject of burnout! For years I thought burnout was some disastrous, slow-moving, hidden disease that was unstoppable once it started and only inflicted upon those Mother Teresa selfless type caregivers. I thought there would be no chance of recovery or return to health but rather a gradual slide into self-sacrificial oblivion which was only rewarded in heaven. The notion that burnout is both a complex irreversible phenomenon and only affects the selfless caregiver type is also a myth!

Knowing With Your Head vs Heart

There is a cliché expression about knowing things with your ‘head’ and knowing things with your ‘heart’ to explain why, despite knowing something, we do not change our behavior. Whilst I have known what resiliency and burnout are in my ‘head’ for many years, it has taken me a long time to know in my ‘heart’ that resiliency is not about being free from problems which bring you down but rather about how quickly you rise again. Similarly, burnout is not a mysterious disease impossible to recover from, but simply a non-clinical term to describe chronic stress conditions such as Depression and Anxiety – all of which are treatable.

Mythbusting Resiliency & Burnout

Let’s get to grip with the reality of both resiliency and burnout and discover just how much control we really have over both these things:

Resiliency – Exploding the Myth

Resiliency according to various dictionary definitions is: “A human ability to recover quickly from disruptive change, or misfortune without being overwhelmed or acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways.” This definition highlights two important ingredients: (1) the presence of ‘disruptive change or misfortune’ in a person life, and (2) the ability to recover without becoming overwhelmed.

Wow! I can certainly relate to this definition of resiliency, as I’m sure most of you can. Most of us have had to deal with changes and challenges in life and most of us have managed a lot of change without becoming too overwhelmed (although I have probably crossed the tipping point a few times!). So being resilient is not about the absence of problems – quite the opposite as problems are one of the requirements of the definition. Clearly the rich and famous, without the apparent life problems, cannot claim to be resilient! Secondly being resilient is about recovery – not becoming so overwhelmed that you become dysfunctional – again a reflection of many people who struggle each day but do not succumb to their challenges or distress – but keep going in the face of adversity as opposed to people who seem to breeze through life without struggling.

Of course the caveat to criticism of the rich and famous is the obvious fact that some of the rich and famous hide their challenges and distress behind a smiling face and glamorous life – only for it all to come crashing down when it all becomes too much. In hiding behind a smile we may not be able to see (or empathize) with, as Plato said, ‘the hard battle they may be fighting.’

Burnout – A Simple Condition Requiring Hard Decisions for Recovery

Burnout is defined as: “An emotional condition marked by tiredness, loss of interest, or frustration that interferes with job performance. Burnout is usually regarded as the result of prolonged stress”. The term “emotional condition” deserves some specific focus. As a Psychologist I know that in the world of clinical psychology burnout is not a clinical condition according to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM V), but rather reflects Adjustment Disorders with Stress, Anxiety and Depression or specific Anxiety or Depressive Disorders. This is good news because all of the above mentioned disorders are able to be effectively treated using cognitive behaviour therapy (which is the basis for all the Stress Surfer books and eCourses).

The other important aspect of the definition of burnout, particularly in relation to recovery, is the exposure to “prolonged stress”. There is some painful truth to the negative effects of experiencing multiple stressful life events over a long period of time creating a “tipping point” (see my previous blog). For many people this long period of time exposed to stress leads to a range of bad habits in self-care and relationships creating significant barriers to recovery. The cycle of double trouble (getting stressed about being stressed) and self-blame when interpersonal problems occur, can result in people becoming ‘stuck’ and unable to truly recover unless some hard decisions are made to break free from negative patterns of behavior. Unfortunately too many people shy away from making such hard decisions and never fully recover.

Your Next Steps: Resiliency & Burnout

So where are you at in your own level of resiliency and burnout risk? When it comes to resiliency, are you more resilient then you realized and do you need to look behind the public image of others to be able to better empathize with the struggles they face? Do you also need to be kinder and more generous with yourself about your own coping skills and ability to cope with life?

When it comes to burnout and the basic facts of stress management do you need to take a brutally honest look at your situation and what “unsolvable problems” may really need to be solved and the hard decisions you may need to make to get your life back on track. Let us never forget the airline safety mantra that tells us that “we must put on our own oxygen mask first before we help others!”

Ride the Waves of Life!

Dr Pete

The Stress Surfer

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