It’s summer and even when it’s beautiful outside and hope is in the air and we’re so busy we don’t have time to dwell on how we’re feeling, many of us are simply burned-out. It’s almost a miracle when you find someone who’s not experiencing burnout. And for people in service based industries, like real estate, and who are caring for others outside of work, the struggle with burnout is often even more pronounced. By caring for others, we don’t prioritize caring for ourselves.

Today, we’re taking a break from talking about digital marketing for real estate and shining light on what we can do to reduce or eliminate chronic stress and be more productive and fulfilled. We’re “turning toward the difficult stuff” as Emily and Amelia Nagoski describe in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (check out their interview with Brene Brown here). To start, we’re going back in time to the 70s when a psychologist named Herbert Freudenberger first coined the term burnout.

Severe Stress in “Helping Professions”

Freudenberger used the term “burnout” to describe the impact of severe stress on those in “helping professions”, think doctors and nurses who sacrifice their own health for others’. We believe that real estate agents fit this description as well.

In the World Health Organization’s definition of burnout, burnout is work related. It’s about the impact of your work on your health. You could feel negatively about your work and be experiencing burnout and you also could love your job and be experiencing reduced professional efficacy because of burnout. It’s this last piece that really resonates. So many real estate professionals, like so many of our friends and family members, have cited feeling less productive in the past year and a half, and have sought ways to either do more with the same, or do more with less.

Signs of Burnout

Whether you view burnout as work related or, like many, can relate to the broader definition of burnout as emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by chronic stress, burnout is real. The Nagoski sisters talk about three signs of burnout:

  1. Emotional exhaustion – the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long
  2. Decreased sense of accomplishment – the incomparable sense of futility; feeling like nothing you do makes a difference
  3. Depersonalization – the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion

Many real estate professionals who have experienced emotional exhaustion attribute it simply to too much stress. It’s not like you can all of a sudden stop caring about your clients, can you? And yet stress and burnout are fundamentally different.

Stress is necessary for survival. It’s what triggers our fight-or-flight response and what drives many of us professionally. Stress can be incredibly motivating and trigger immediate and effective action. When it’s uninterrupted, however, stress can be incredibly damaging to our health and lead to burnout. As the Nagoski sisters write, “the good news is that stress is not the problem. It’s how we deal with stress—not what causes it—that releases the stress…and ultimately, keeps us from burning out. You can’t control every external stressor that comes your way. The goal isn’t to live in a state of perpetual balance and peace and calm; the goal is to move through stress to calm, so that you’re ready for the next stressor, and to move from effort to rest and back again.”

So what is uninterrupted stress? And what does “moving through stress to calm” and “releasing the stress” look like?

Uninterrupted Stress and the Stress Cycle

Uninterrupted stress is a period of prolonged stress, often called chronic stress, without periods of calm or recovery. Chronic stress comes when a person never sees a way out of a situation; when they experience unrelenting demands and pressures for seemingly unending periods of time. In a normal stress response, our bodies experience a rush of physical changes, such as increased cortisol production and a faster heart rate, among other things. Then, after learning that the danger we were facing is gone or the event which caused the stress response has passed, we can return to feeling safe and our pre-stressor state of calm. Our heart rate returns to normal and we are able to restore ourselves physically, emotionally, and mentally. This is known as the completion of the stress cycle, or interrupting the stress cycle. 

In an uninterrupted stress cycle, the opposite happens. We never reach a point where we feel safe so we remain in a heightened state of physical, emotional, and mental alertness that affects us over time in much more pronounced ways than acute stress, or individual stressful events (think moments of profound loss or change, such as a death or divorce). Research has shown that living with chronic or uninterrupted stress caused by work, a bad relationship, financial insecurity, our environment, or so many other things, is much more damaging to a person’s health than isolated events, even those that feel overwhelming and insurmountable in the moment.

You may be wondering by now, okay, so what can we do about it? How can we create the feeling of safety and calm that allows us to complete the stress cycle, restore ourselves, and be ready to tackle the next stressor head on? How can we reverse burnout?

Seven Ways to Complete the Stress Cycle

The below are seven things you can do to ease burnout and interrupt the stress cycle. These should take a few minutes at most, though you can certainly spend more time on them. The key is to avoid overthinking them or, like I do, expecting perfection. It’s okay if you need to start small because the little things really make a difference.

  1. Move – since both the onset and impact of stress are physical, de-stressing has to be physical too. The key here is that you don’t have to exercise in a traditional sense. You know the runner’s high people talk about, or maybe you’ve experienced? It’s when you experience an extreme state of zen after finishing a race. You can literally achieve that by punching a punching bag (or a pillow!) for five minutes. Or by putting on a song and dancing. Or by doing twenty pushups next to your desk. Those activities are all enough to interrupt the stress cycle.
  2. Breathe – a simple breathing exercise that you do for one minute (think five second breaths in and five second breaths out, repeated six times) is enough to calm down your vagus nerve, complete your fight-or-flight stress response, and drastically improve how you feel. When I’m up with my toddler in the middle of the night, about to completely lose it, the only thing that works is to close my eyes and count my breathing. I never believed how effective it can be until I depended on it.
  3. Talk to Others – the Nagoski sisters sum up the benefits of conversation well, writing “Casual but friendly social interaction is the first external sign that the world is a safe place”. Maybe talking about the weather isn’t such a bad thing after all, especially if you can truly be present in a conversation, even if very briefly. When you get your next cup of coffee, look for a way to compliment the barista and see what happens. Little moments like that have a significant impact on our perception of the world – are we in danger or do we feel safe?
  4. Laugh – laughter is one of the oldest triggers we have to release emotions. “When we laugh”, says neuroscientist Sophie Scott, “we use an ancient evolutionary system that mammals have evolved to make and maintain social bonds and regulate emotions.” Laughing and even recalling something that made us laugh, is the equivalent of opening pandora’s box, but in a very good way. Through laughing, we can experience any of many emotions all at once, and return to a place of stasis after. If you don’t have someone nearby whom you can trust to make you laugh, or a funny story that’s top of mind, keep a YouTube playlist handy and take five minute laugh breaks. It’s a highly effective way to interrupt the stress cycle and it doesn’t require much.
  5. Hug – physical affection helps our bodies release trust and bonding hormones like oxytocin that balance out the extra cortisol and stress hormones and help us know when we’re safe. Research suggests a twenty second hug is all it takes to interrupt the stress cycle. And if you don’t have another person nearby whom you want to hug, you can give yourself a hug, or a pet, or a pillow (seriously!). It’s the act of hugging that triggers the release, though there are also other benefits to being physically close to someone. Try it everyday when you get home and see what happens.
  6. Cry – crying is one of the best ways our bodies have to release stress, so embrace it whenever you have the urge. If you really don’t feel comfortable in a particular moment, find a time that works for you to cry because crying is a normal and very necessary part of being human.
  7. Be Creative – make something, anything. Creativity triggers a different part of our brain that, like the above, helps us know when we’re safe and it’s time to move on from stress. I’ve worked with people who simply doodle to interrupt their stress cycles, and it works magically for them. Creativity takes many shapes.

Are you experiencing burnout? What’s worked best for you to complete the stress cycle? We’d love to hear from you.