Are you at risk for burnout? Recognizing & managing stress in your life.


Stress is an inevitable and essential part of your life.

Without stress, you’d be bored.

Without the positive stress of a best friend, you wouldn’t try new things and you wouldn’t have as much fun. Without the encouraging stress of a supportive parent, you might not push yourself to your potential.

If you had no stress at all, you wouldn’t even get out of bed.

But like everything else that relates to health, you can have too much of a good thing.

Excessive stress causes distress – physical, emotional and behavioural.

Stress raises your heart rate and blood pressure. It increases the acid in your stomach. It causes insomnia, exhaustion and headaches.

It can impair your concentration and cause panic attacks. It can make you irritable, moody or emotionally disconnected.

Take a pulse check now. Are you suffering from some of these symptoms? What’s your stress level now?

When you start attending to your own stress level, you’ll note how it varies throughout each day and throughout the week. If you have a high stress job – such as a server in a busy restaurant, you’re likely more relaxed at home, when you’re out with friends and on your days off.

If you’re a busy parent with young kids, you’re break from stress might be when everyone else is asleep.

If you suffer from high levels of stress day in and day out from the moment you awaken until the moment you finally fall asleep, your stress may already be compromising your emotional and physical health.

We would all like an ideal job but that wouldn’t be one where you get paid to do nothing. When the challenge or demands placed on us are far below our capabilities, we’re bored. Ideally, we’d want the challenge of our work to be a close match to our abilities. We’ll feel appropriately challenged and have a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day.

We get into trouble when we don’t have the resources to meet the demands before us: a clerk with too much work to do without enough time or support, a single parent with sick or fighting kids, a nurse rushing to care for a ward of unstable patients, or a teacher with a class of out of control children.

When the demands of our life overwhelm us in the short term, we feel stressed and anxious. It’s just a bad day.

But if we face this imbalance day after day with no end in sight, we begin to feel helpless. If this continues, we’re at risk for burnout. The key symptoms of burnout are: emotional exhaustion, feeling alienated or cynical about our work, and impaired performance.

Doctors or nurses who are burnt out will be irritable with coworkers and patients. They may start treating patients impersonally before the quality of their care declines.

When we’re overwhelmed by our situation, we feel helplessness, and this leads to anxiety. When we feel we have no control over our situation, we may feel hopelessness, and this leads to burnout and depression.

One key to managing stress and avoiding burnout and depression is your locus of control. The key factor in the development of burnout is the feeling of a loss of control, but in spite of the demands of our work or our lives, we often have more control than we think. We must accept the things we cannot change and accept our responsibility to change what we can.

Any one of us can feel emotionally overwhelmed at times. The next time you blow up or someone in front of you does, consider the 80/20 rule. 20% of our reaction is related to the reality of the situation; 80% arises from what we bring from our past and how we conceptualize the present.

The key to managing acute stress is to seize the locus of control.

First, identify the sources of stress. Ask, “Am I reacting in proportion to this stress?” Recognize what you can change or control. It might be your attitude or perspective. Will this make a difference a year from now?

Accept what you cannot change; assume responsibility for what you can. Recognize your choices.

Next: Can we really achieve balance in life?


About Davidicus Wong

I am a family physician. I write a weekly newspaper column, Healthwise for the Vancouver Courier, Burnaby Now, Royal City Record and Richmond News.
This entry was posted in Emotions, stress management, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Are you at risk for burnout? Recognizing & managing stress in your life.

  1. Mary Ann says:

    I just wanted to say that this was a very interesting and helpful article. I happened to read it today in the Health & Wellness section of the Richmond News, in your Healthwise column. I’d like to add my 2 cents. I have found that a book called “Feeling Good” by Dr. Burns which talks about cognitive distortions and how challenging our distorted thinking helps us cope with stress, depression, criticism, etc. very useful. It’s an old classic, but still very relevant today.

    • Thanks, Mary Ann. Dr. Burns’ book is one of three books on cognitive behavioural therapy that I recommend to my patients. In addition to “Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy”, I recommend “Authentic Happiness” by Seligman (who also wrote “Learned Happiness”) and “Mind Over Mood” by Padesky and Greenberger.

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