Burnout and Stress

Stress defined by Oxford languages is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.” 

Stressors are the things that cause stress in a person. With activism there can be a lot of stressors; the climate crisis, eco-anxiety, imposter syndrome, lack of confidence, people in power ignoring what you are saying, not seeing any action or change happening even though you are constantly fighting for it, lots of work to do and not enough time, people being mean etc.

And if you understand things better by looking at it in a science or mathematics way, the equation of stress is stress over how we perceive things and how we cope which is wrote as s/c+p.

If we perceive an event badly in our own minds and we keep on thinking about it and making it worse in our heads combined with not having a coping mechanism to deal with these negative thoughts this can lead to stress. By looking at this equation the way to deal with stress is to focus on how you personally perceive things in your mind and having a positive mindset as well as learning coping mechanisms to deal with challenging situations. Positive mindsets and coping mechanisms will be discussed in the next post.

The symptoms of stress:

  • Aches and pains

  • Headaches

  • Heart racing

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Dizziness

  • Shaking

  • High blood pressure

  • Muscle tension and jaw clenching

  • Crying out of the blue

  • Built up anger

  • Fast breathing

Our bodies also have a natural response to dealing with stress which is the fight, flight, freeze mode.

What is the fight flight freeze mode?

This is when a release of hormones is triggered in your body when you feel threatened which prepares you to be able to run away from a threat to safety or to stay and fight the threat. This goes back to cave man times when humans were faced with life-threatening threats like a lion chasing us. In that moment we had to decide whether to fight the lion or to run away from it, the hormones released would help us to do both. This surge of hormones to make this decision causes your body to use a large amount of energy stored in the body. By using this energy in a short space of time you are left exhausted afterwards once the hormones and adrenaline return to their original state and stop spiking. 

Nowadays, the fight or flight mode is no longer triggered by the threat of a lion but new threats like school or work deadlines or people being mean. Our bodies can’t tell the difference between the lion or the work deadline and so it still triggers the same fight or flight response to be able to survive. Our bodies are not meant to experience this fight or flight response as much as it does in the modern world now as it is unnatural for our bodies to use this much energy in a short space of time. If this state of fight or flight mode exceeds over a long period of time it may lead to burnout.

Freeze mode is the result of your body and mind not being able to decide whether to fight or run away so it freezes on the spot and begins to shut down. This is why stage fright happens. 

When any of these fight, flight, freeze reactions are activated, there is a rise of resistance in our bodies. This resistance fights against the stress and stops it from taking control of us. But, with high levels of resistance comes high levels of exhaustion. The more resistance that needs to be called forward, the more tired you become. And this exhaustion can lead to burnout! Burnout is currently in many instagram posts, facebook posts, magazines, websites, articles; all over the place. It is one of the key mental health challenges that everyone seems to be dealing with lately.  

So, what is burnout and have you experienced it before?

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and

  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” - World Health Organisation. They also mention that it is not classified as a medical condition.

Defined by Oxford occupational is “relating to a job or profession” For many, activism is a full-time job that is more than a job or profession it is a vocation. Therefore I personally think the definition of burnout should be extended to workplace and activism stress. 

I will break down the definition above related to activism.

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress = Chronic workplace stress would be unbearable stress that is impacting your daily health created from your activism.

Has not been successfully managed = There were no coping mechanisms in place and you did not know how to deal with this stress.

Feelings of exhaustion

Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job = many activists, including myself, have experienced the feeling of getting mentally distanced from our activism work. We may remove ourselves from the situation and suddenly the joy of activism and the relief of taking action has worn away and you are doing the activism out of negativity and out of a place of anger because you feel forced to do it when really you need to take a break and restore the joy of activism.

Reduced professional efficacy – you may be more distracted and you may have deadlines in your activism to get an event done or a document done and you are not as time efficient or good at it.

I perceive workplace as activist world here. When looking at both they are quiet alike. You are working every day to make the world a better place, you may be in meetings, meeting people in real life, working on documents and graphics, working on social media etc. For the 11 of the activists on the form, 8 said they experienced burnout before with 1 being unsure. They experienced burnout on a yearly basis with the next common result being on a daily basis.

So, what causes this burnout? 

As well as the fight, flight or freeze response causing burnout there may be other causes like:

  • Being on technology like phones 24/7 and not being able to take a break from it. This constant absorption of different feeds may lead to stress.  

  • Addiction to busyness  

  • Being told that being stressed is good because it means that you are working hard and efficiently – this could lead to people aiming to be stressed so they know they are ‘working hard’ when this could impact on their health badly.

  • When told that that money, image and achievement brings us happiness many people may strive for these at any costs, like burnout and excessive stress.

  • The feeling that if you stop your activism and take a break, even for a minute, the world will end. For those seeing the effects of the climate crisis around them daily, this mindset and feelings are forced upon them as they are literally seeing their world being destroyed.

  • Too much to do and too little time – if you have taken too much work on and you are unable to get everything done.  

The symptoms of burnout, in order of most experienced those on the form to least experienced are:

  • Loss of productivity – meaning you aren’t able to do as much work as you could before

  • You feel like a failure

  • Loss of motivation – you don’t want to do anything

  • Energy depletion/exhaustion

  • Mental distance from work/activism - You find yourself distancing away from your activism, seeing it as a chore and growing out of it, not wanting to do it any more because it is too stressful

  • Reduced activism efficiency – You don’t do you work, projects, activism as well as you did before

  • Feeling helpless

  • Feeling defeated

  • Feeling detached

  • Making mistakes you usually wouldn’t

  • You can’t focus

  • Negative feelings towards work/activism

  • Sense of losing control

  • Feeling trapped

  • Discouraged

  • Apathy – not caring about anything any more because it hurts to care

  • Overworking

In the next post we will look at resilience and ways to cope with stress, burnout and general mental health challenges.  

If you want to know more about stress and burnout here are some useful websites to find out more: