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Healing Burnout at Ebb & Flow: Understanding Stress Reactions

Updated: Sep 7, 2023


The World Health Organization characterizes stress as “any type of change that causes physical, emotional, or psychological strain.” Everyone experiences stress from various aspects of their lives, but the mechanisms through which this stress is experienced and transformed into the unique biological, psychological, and social reactions that we each experience.


Stress Reactions in the Body


Stress reactions can be characterized biologically as stimuli that disrupt our homeostasis, or physiological balance. When we encounter stressful stimuli in our environment, multiple physiological systems are activated, including the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. Stress can be very adaptive and help prime our bodies to take on challenges like fighting infections or preventing danger as in the “fight-or-flight” response. However, prolonged exposure to stress or even sudden exposure to significant stressors can lead to a dysregulated stress response that may lead to further negative physiological changes. Exposure to chronic stress may even put individuals at increased risk for medical and mental health disorders like cardiovascular disease, obesity, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment, and addiction.


Stress Reactions in the Mind


When confronting stress from a psychological perspective, our minds’ reactions may include cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses. Cognitive responses might include decreased concentration and forgetfulness, racing thoughts, intrusive thoughts, and rigid thinking. These thoughts may be expressed emotionally through feelings of guilt, anger, worthlessness and hopelessness, anxiety, depression, and agitation. The stress-induced thoughts and emotions may also be present in our behaviors, including neglect of our goals or responsibilities, avoidance of reminders or triggers for stressful feelings, impulsive decision-making, decreased physical activity, disruption in our sleep habits, and variability in appetite. Although the impact of stress on our minds may be complicated, each of these components (i.e., cognitive, emotional, and behavioral) can be targeted by evidence-based psychological interventions like cognitive-behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness-based treatments.


Stress Reactions in our Interpersonal Relationships


As our stress reactions result in physiological and psychological changes, they also negatively impact our social and interpersonal relationships. In particular, as we start to withdraw from activities we usually enjoy or express more feelings of agitation and irritability due to chronic stressors, we increase the risk of disconnecting from important relationships. We may display a reduced tolerance for conflict in our relationships or may be more likely to perceive the


behaviors of our close relationships as negative, which may reinforce our own negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Stress then precipitates a pernicious negative feedback loop in which we seek out negative information to confirm how we feel which then leads us to feel worse or expect more negative outcomes in the future. Without learning to cope more adaptively with chronic stress, we put our relationships at risk and may inhibit our opportunities to form meaningful connections with the people we care about most.


Better Tools to Cope with Stress


Learning to change how we respond to stress in our life requires a careful assessment of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in our daily life. What thoughts are you having when you encounter a stressor in your life? How do you feel emotionally in those moments? How do you respond behaviorally to that stress? These observations will help educate you about your stress response and understand how your mind and body connect to form your stress responses. Once we have identified how your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors relate to your stress, we can use effective strategies to change those thoughts, improve your ability to regulate your emotions, and implement new behaviors that support your well-being instead of reinforcing your stress.

Mindfulness-based interventions that incorporate meditation may be particularly beneficial in reducing your stress. Through practices like open monitoring and focused attention, you will cultivate an improved awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations in your body. This increased awareness can even change your physiology by reducing the activation of our sympathetic nervous response that drives the “fight or flight” response. Psychologically, mindfulness promotes self-compassion, decreased rumination, and increased attentional awareness. Mindfulness meditation can be challenging at first, and like any new exercise, achieving these mind and body benefits from mindfulness requires patience and practice for several weeks.

Licensed clinical psychologists and pre-licensed clinicians at Ebb & Flow have been trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based interventions. We are ready to help you get started today to regain control over stress in your life and begin healing the symptoms of burnout you may be experiencing.



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