People often say they feel “burned out” by their struggles with anxiety, but most are unaware of the deeper truth behind this metaphor.
Imagine soaking your hands in bleach for several hours, even days. You would get a chemical burn that left your skin severely raw and irritated. Even brushing up against something afterward might hurt tremendously. In a similar way, the chemicals (glucocorticoids) produced by the brain’s fear response are caustic. When persistently stressful or traumatic events trigger prolonged or too intense exposure to these chemicals, they create something like a chemical burn on your amygdala, the CEO of fear/protection system. At the very least, this can cause us to feel every stressor more acutely. Making it harder to respond in a calm. Rational way. If anxiety persists, the amygdala blasts chemicals at another part of the brain called the hippocampus, which stores emotional memories.
If the amygdala is the CEO of your fear/protection system, the hippocampus is the board secretary. While the amygdala is triggered in the presence of a threat, its the hippocampus’ job to “take notes” and remember that a particular event was anxiety-producing the past. The next time you encounter that same event, or even something remotely similar, the hippocampus triggers the amygdala and reminds you that you “should” feel anxious—even if there is no practical immediate threat present.
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Calming down this threat system in our brain is an important aspect to overcoming burn out and finding peace.
Here are three ways to recover from burn out:
Be aware of your physical signs of stress—Stress shows up in our body (i.e. tight muscles, sweaty palms, wrinkled forehead) before our brain is willing to admit to itself that it’s stressed (i.e. feeling stressed/overwhelmed/anxious). Be conscious of these physical signs and when you start to notice your muscles tensing, or your breath becoming shorter/your chest feeling tighter or heavier. Focus on relaxing these physical responses to stress through rolling out your shoulders, stretching your neck, or taking slow deep breaths in order to decrease the stress chemicals in your brain before they take over your feelings.
Take breaks—Taking breaks from stress to do things that occupy you mentally and physically is a great way to decrease anxiety. Go for a walk while counting how many runners or cars you see, engage in a brief exercise break like doing 25 sit ups or 15 pushups, or take deep breaths as you say a short prayer. These breaks are not about finding long escapes from stress, but instead focus on taking down your anxiety in your environment.
Focus on Controllables—Increased anxiety often leads to a sense of powerlessness. We often focus on what we can’t control or what we wish we could do which leads to greater anxiety due to a heightened sense of a perceived threat in our brain. Focusing instead on what we can control—such as our responses, our breathing, our next step towards a solution—we are able to decrease the level of perceived threat and subsequently decrease our anxiety.
If you want more tips or greater support for overcoming your anxiety, visit us online at CatholicCounselors.com