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Burnout: It's in Your Nervous System

Written By: Natasha D’Arcangelo, QS, LMHC, NCC, CCTP, CCFP



I remember sitting in my therapist’s office thinking to myself that I had failed at another career. I was a classroom teacher once upon a time and lasted only a year before I quit. I was overwhelmed by the amount of work and that my worth would be largely determined by how many students passed the state exams. Fifteen years later, I completed a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling to be a therapist. Only here I was trying to complete my pre-licensure hours and I didn’t know if I wanted to do that either. I was working in community mental health barely making a living wage and wondering why I had bothered to spend thousands of dollars on another degree. I wish I could go back and talk to that version of myself and let her know that I had the ability to manage my burnout.


I wouldn’t understand that until COVID came along and I took a training that transformed my life. I learned about compassion fatigue from Dr. Eric Gentry - something they don’t teach you about when you are embarking on a career as a professional caregiver. I learned that my past traumas (not me being a failure as a person) are what was keeping me in toxic environments. I’ve now had the privilege of learning directly from Dr. Gentry how to present his research to audiences, and I hope that sharing some of the insights here will help someone who reads them.

The ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) free online assessment helps individuals identify areas of abuse or neglect they may have experienced growing up. Years of research in the field of trauma has shown that people with higher ACES scores tend to have physical and mental health struggles later in life. As young children, these individuals learn that their environment is not safe. As a result, the nervous system lives constantly in a state of flight or fight. It’s not a conscious decision made by the individual, it’s simply the brain trying to keep them alive in an unsafe situation that they are trapped in because they are a child.


These panic responses don’t automatically shut off in adulthood. They continue to play a role in how we present ourselves in romantic relationships, as parents, and as employees. For example, if you have an ACES score of 8 out of 10 and you work in customer service, you spend a lot of your day in panic mode. If someone raises their voice to you or reminds you of someone who might have been abusive in the past, your nervous system will turn on your flight or fight response. Your brain goes back to when you were younger, and you revert to either getting out of that situation or trying to fight your way out of it.


Now think about how exhausted you are when you get home. You’ve spent most of your day trying to protect yourself from a life-threatening danger that doesn’t exist in the present moment. It might be uncomfortable to deal with a customer who raises their voice, but it is not life-threatening and therefore doesn’t require panic mode.


What if you could control your panic mode? I’ll let you in on the secret of how to do that—it involves learning how to check in with your body throughout the day. Do a quick body scan from head to toe and determine where in your body you have tense muscles. Whenever you identify that you have tense muscles, look around and ask yourself, am I in immediate life-threatening danger? And I mean that literally as in, is there a bear in the room with you right now? If the answer is no, then you don’t need to be in flight or fight mode. You might hate your boss or think that the administration is making the most stupid decisions in the history of decision-making, but none of that is life-threatening to you in the present moment.


As a therapist, I always encourage clients to focus on what they can control. You can’t make your boss any less hateful or make the administration sensible. But you CAN control what’s happening inside your nervous system. Now that you’ve figured out where those tense muscles are, do another body scan. Take five seconds and start at the top of your head. Slowly travel down through your body and try to unclench or loosen up all your muscles. Even if your tense level goes from 100% to 98%, you’ve interrupted your threat response. That’s a power you now have that you didn’t have before! You may need to do it multiple times during a workday to make it through, but it will give you a higher quality of life to not be in a constant state of panic.


I can hear you saying, Yeah, yeah - but I still have the same boss, or the administration is never going to change. However, I can guarantee you that if you get yourself into a relaxed body when you are dealing with their nonsense, you’ll be better equipped to handle what is being thrown at you.


One of the most powerful statements I heard was when Dr. Gentry shared,

“Your workplace is designed to keep you anxious. They are always going to demand more of you than you can give.”

He said that when presenting to emergency room physicians, he would get up in front of the room and tell them, “You have no demands at your workplace.” Then he would duck because he expected someone to throw something at his head.


He meant that even in an emergency room, you have a choice in what happens. If you spend every day trying to accomplish the outcomes that your workplace has set forth, you are going to fail every day. There’s always going to be more meetings, more emails, etc. I don’t know what you do for a living, but I am sure that if you spend the next week at your job 24/7, there will STILL be work at the end of the week. Combine this inability to succeed with your past traumas and your nervous system spends all day on fire. No job should determine your worth as a person.


Now what if you reframe this thinking? Look at it through this lens – I can either choose to do the tasks at my work, or I can choose not to. I know some of you are thinking that means you might lose your job – which is a possibility. But I ask you to stay with me for this reframing process. You STILL have a choice. Choosing not to complete the work tasks is a choice. And every choice comes with a consequence. Your internal dialogue can go something like, “I choose to do it because the consequences of not doing it are not worth it to me.” Focusing on your best every day is sustainable, trying to accomplish every single task at work is not.


You can use a sentence like, “Today I did my best and my best is good enough.”

When you look at it as a choice, you are no longer powerless. It doesn’t mean that you have to stay there forever. It doesn’t mean that what the toxic workplace is doing is okay. What it does mean is that you can decide what happens next rather than continuing to remain in a workplace that is poisoning you.


I left a job earlier this year that looked good on paper. But they asked more and more of the therapists and didn’t listen to our concerns about burnout. I made the CHOICE to leave because I knew what was happening to my nervous system was not sustainable. It was empowering to vet potential job opportunities using my knowledge that I needed a workplace where I could fulfill my mission to help others. I made the leap to my current position and my nervous system is no longer on fire every day but more importantly, the work I do is fulfilling and aligns with my core values. That’s my hope for you as well.


Here are some resources to help get you there:


 

Meet the Author

Natasha D’Arcangelo

Natasha is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and is passionate about breaking down the stigmas that surround mental health. She hopes that sharing her experience with compassion fatigue and burnout helps others with their healing journeys.




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