How to Stop Stress from Becoming Burnout

31By Andrea Pautz, M.D.
Issue: Spring 2003, Stress - Issue #31

Most of us stress every day at home or work. Stress can also appear in our inner life as discontentment with the world and with ourselves. Life overloads and we are too busy to nurture the inner child. Though we can change certain life circumstances to some degree, our choices follow our priorities. Usually, we allow ourselves to be interfered with or overloaded. Between the cell phone, the beeper, and our various commitments, we compel ourselves to join the society of the “twenty-four seveners.” Regardless of where the overloading comes from, if we leave our own soul fire unapplied, and don’t warm our life experiences through, we end up feeling chronically overwhelmed.

Recall an all-too-frequent occurrence: just as you’re sitting down to a family dinner, the phone rings (you know it’s a salesperson!). Such interruptions bother us not because our food is getting cold, but because the rhythm of nurturing of the family is disrupted. Such events make us feel unfree (while we did choose to have a phone, we didn’t choose the call). Invasive advertisements, news flashes, cars honking--any of the mechanical and spiritual detritus of our modern world--can kick us out at a moments notice. And the result of these consistent, arrhythmic interruptions of our intentions is accumulating stress to the point that it can become a nagging, negative force in our lives.

While stress can detract from our lives in a general way, ignoring it can lead to a greater problem. When stress becomes chronic, when we regularly fail to take breaks for the recuperation of the life-force body and emotional body, we eventually burn out. When we severely abuse hygienic daily rhythms over long periods, when we miss sufficient sleep at a regular, healthy time, we develop burnout syndrome. The process typically runs over years or even decades. The life force body (also known to anthroposophy as the etheric body) recuperates with all that is rhythmic: the daily routine, the rhythm of the seasons, soul rhythms, and many more. In burnout, the etheric body, through chronic neglect, does not recuperate enough to function properly. Like unmended clothing, it becomes full of holes, and no longer protects us from the wind. Then, chronic soul worries pass into our being unfiltered by the etheric body.

What can we do to prevent the build-up of stress from turning into full-blown burnout? What can we change? We need to create counterbalances to stress. We need to intercede freely in the chain of stress factors with consciously chosen events that are enjoyable and fulfilling. Often a ‘taste’ of something different is all we need to nurture our being. To get that taste, we have to slow down our lifestyles a bit. Here, I like to use the analogy of a car stopped in the sand. If I start too fast, my wheels spin, digging in deeper and deeper--and I go nowhere. As soon as I slow down, the wheels grip. Though going slower, I move ahead freely.

This means remembering to take mental breaks in our day. We are not talking necessarily about hours a day for pauses, but a few minutes here and there to step out of worries, to observe nature, to enjoy a concert or a book, or go out for dinner - all to get that ‘taste’ of something nurturing. Yes, a mom can still take care of her children around the clock, and a manager can work longer hours than he or she might wish. Let the tastes of life nurture contentment of the soul, nourish the life force body in regular, rhythmic ways before stress leads to burnout.

But what happens when stress does lead to burnout? Burnout syndrome is a serious medical condition requiring attention by a health practitioner thoroughly familiar with the syndrome and its presentations. The do-it-yourself approach does not work anymore, at this stage. The patient must have gentle, yet firm support, and a safe place to discuss all worries and concerns. The condition and the patient need to be taken absolutely seriously. Genuine support for the individual mirrors the patient’s struggle and may prevent depression, preclude the use (and misuse) of psychotropic drugs (prescription or nonprescription), and may well lead to social, emotional and spiritual growth rather than stagnation, depression, anxiety, and anger. The support and medical treatment may prevent the spouse and family members from giving up on the individual and writing him or her off as mentally unbalanced. Tremendous growth and healing can replace further destruction.

European health-care systems recognize burnout syndrome and reimburse treatment of it. Patients routinely go to clinics for holistic treatment, staying a required one to three months. That duration of treatment recognizes that because the etheric body did not burn out over night, but rather over years or decades, it can be healed under appropriate supervised care, but needs time to mend.

Clearly, this article is not intended to allow readers to diagnose or treat burnout syndrome, but rather to alert them to the causes, suggest some preventative measures, and to urge them to consult with a health professional if in doubt about symptoms.

Dr. Andrea Pautz, M.D. is a board -certified internist, a trained eurythmist, and a DAN! (Defeat Autism Now) doctor. She practices conventional, holistic and anthroposophical medicine in Jacksonville, Florida.