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Liza Baker July 2020

BurnOut Kuel Category Expert: Liza Baker

In January, we took a look at why burnout is endemic in the nonprofit world, and in April, we detoured a bit to talk about the Covid-19 pandemic and its effect on our stress levels.

But what exactly are stress and burnout? We toss those words around pretty freely, so maybe we can start by taking a look at their definitions. (Yes, I know—my early Chinese studies are showing, Confucius’s rectification of names and all that….)


I like to define stress (or, more accurately, the stress response) as the physical, mental, and/or emotional reaction to a situation (real or imagined) or thought that makes you feel something negative.

There is actually a “good” type of stress—sometimes called “eustress.” This is usually as innocuous as a looming deadline on an article we have to write (ahem). We often respond “well” to this sort of stress as it helps us to focus and just get sh!t done.

Negative Stress Falls Into Two Flavors:

The really bad news? Stress can be physical, mental, or emotional”

  1. Acute stress happens when we narrowly avert (or don’t) a car accident or meet a bear on a hiking trail. Our body instantly, automatically reacts by triggering a “fight, flight, or freeze” response and we somehow get through the stress, which then quickly abates.
  2. Chronic stress occurs when we are unable to get our bodies out of that fight, flight, or freeze mode. Our stress response system is triggered, and it has trouble shutting off. The extreme outcome of longterm chronic stress is burnout.

The really bad news? Stress can be physical, mental, or emotional—and our bodies do not distinguish between these varieties. Ongoing physical illness or trauma, mental patterns, emotional trauma: they all trigger the same response by our bodies.

The Most Common External Causes Of Stress:

I’ve encountered in my work with women 40+, especially those in the mission-driven world are:

  • Always being in nurturer mode—at home and at work
  • Major life changes (hello, perimenopause—and also parenting parents, death of parents or partner, children leaving the nest, retirement….)
  • Work or school
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Financial problems
  • Being too busy
  • Children and family

The Most Common Internal Causes Of Stress:

  • Chronic worry
  • Pessimism
  • Rigid, “all-or-noting” thinking, lack of flexibility
  • Negative self-talk
  • Unrealistic expectations/Perfectionism

The Areas In Which We Most Frequently Experience Stress Are:

  • Relationships—with ourselves and others
  • Careers, both in terms of finances and fulfillment
  • Time, more specifically the demands and constraints on our time
  • Environment/sensory—surrounding sights, sounds, smells, …
  • Our (lack of) self-care or what I call soul care
  • Our (lack of) control

It’s beyond my control

(Kudos to you if you know where that line comes from!)

As humans, most of us like to feel that we are in control, and we normally think we are in control—of ourselves, our environment, our future, others around us. One thing the pandemic has done is show us exactly how little control we do have.

What is beyond our control? The re/actions, thoughts, feelings, and responses of others..

What is within our control? Our own re/actions, thoughts, feelings, and responses

When we get right down to it, stress is often due to our perception of a situation rather than the situation itself. If you follow the work of Byron Katie, you know that our stress is created by our interpretation of an event or situation, not by the event itself. It’s highly subjective, which is why one person might be completely freaked out by something like going to the grocery store during the pandemic while another one doesn’t think twice about it. It’s why some people see negative things as happening to them while others see negative things as happening for them.

How Do We Feel Stress?

The effects of chronic stress is broad and deep, and burnout can include impacts in the following areas:

  • Cognitive: memory, concentration, monkey mind, anxiety
  • Emotional: down, overwhelmed, irritable, tense
  • Physical: palpitations, perspiration, immunity issues, GI issues, headaches; hormone changes (increase in cortisol, decrease in serotonin/dopamine/estrogen/progesterone)
  • Behavioral: increased or decreased appetite, development or return to nervous habits, increased or decreased sleep, turning to excessive numbing mechanisms such as tobacco, alcohol, drugs, food, sleep…

You’ll notice that what the body learns to do is to slow down or completely put a halt to what it considers “non-essential” systems. And believe me, what you consider essential is probably very different from what your body thinks. You may be concerned with building muscle, reducing fat, having nice skin, hair, and nails, but your body is way more concerned with ensuring that your vital organs keep functioning.

What Happens When Our Bodies Remain Chronically Stressed:

  • Muscle loss/fat gain
  • Weight gain
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Chronic pain, tight muscles
  • Chronic disease: cancer, respiratory, stroke, accidents, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, kidney disease
  • Unstable blood sugar
  • Carbohydrate cravings
  • Reduced immunity
  • Skin conditions, brittle hair and nails
  • Amenorrhea
  • Reduced fertility

why are you in a position to have to deal with stress to begin with?”

If you are the parent of a high school athlete in this era of overtraining, consider what happens, especially to girls. I once commented to a fellow mother whose daughter was on the cross-country team with my child that I was concerned about the fact that she was not getting her period any more. “Oh God, yes! That’s totally normal for these girls,” she replied.

It’s important to recognize that while stress is common, it’s certainly not normal. One of the questions I like to ask my potential clients is, “How well do you handle stress?” “Oh, pretty well,” is the most common reply. Sorry, wrong answer, thank you for playing.

Because that’s a trick question. What I’m really wanting to know is, why are you in a position to have to deal with stress to begin with? And of course, removing our stressors entirely takes time and commitment, so what can we do in the shorter term to reduce stress?

Stress Reduction:

Eckhart Tolle writes that when we are in a stressful situation, we have three options:

  1. We can minimize stress by leaving the situation.
  2. We can try to reduce stress by trying to change the situation.
  3. Or, we can tolerate it by staying in the situation—and deciding to be okay with it.

If you are determined to try and change the situation, think about what is within your control; in other words, what can you manage? If indeed we can only control ourselves, here are three suggestions for you:

  1. Manage your accessibility: how much do you make yourself available to people, to situations, to technology, to the media…? Learn to say no to all these more than you say yes!
  2. Tack control of your interactions: consider who your energy vampires are and who your energy angels are.
  3. Manage your time: there are a lot of time management apps and programs out there—make sure you find one that works for you or make up your own. A few of my favorites:
    1. Take Mark Twain’s advice: if the first thing you do in the morning is eat a live frog, you can go through the rest of the day knowing the worst is behind you. (And if you have to eat a few frogs, eat the biggest one first. Blergh.)
    2. Do Stephen Covey’s 4 Quadrants exercise, and figure out what is urgent—and what is truly important. Focus on the tasks that are important, not urgent.
    3. Learn from Natalie Eckdahl of the Bizchix podcast and start determining your “weekly 1 + daily 3”—the bigger task you want to accomplish this week and the 3 smaller ones you want to cross off your to-do list daily: the rest is extra credit!

Some Concrete/Accessible Tools Clients Have Found Useful To Manage Stress:

  • Make better food choices, hydrate, reduce caffeine and sugar intake
  • Physical activity
  • Journaling
  • Breathing exercises
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Cultivate a positive mindset: avoid the negative, seek out the positive
  • Positive (self-)talk
  • Down time (alone or with family/friends)
  • Social connection for meaningful conversation 
  • Detox from media—social and otherwise
  • Celebrate/reward yourself for even the small victories rather than judging yourself for your perceived failures

In Conclusion

Perhaps the simplest way to think about stress is the following: conduct a quick check to figure out whether the situation that is stressing you out can be fixed:

  • Yes? Then find a way that works.
  • No? Find a mindset that works.

At the end of my DiSTRESS/De-stress workshops, I suggest that participants write down a single sentence and start turning to it whenever they experience one of their most common stressors.

“When [this stressor happens] and I begin to feel [your reaction], I will [1 small stress management technique].”

For example, “When my to-do list gets too long and I begin to feel overwhelmed, I will identify the three items on the list that absolutely must get done today and focus just on those.”

Try it out, and once you’ve mastered this one, start on another one. Eventually, you’ll have your stress neatly managed. Celebrate each victory, no matter how small, and don’t spiral into judgment if you feel like you didn’t succeed. Tomorrow is another day.

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Liza Baker

About the Author:

Liza Baker is a full-time health coach and nonprofit consultant, self-published author, blogger, podcaster, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Her favorite women to support are the under-appreciated, under-listened to, under-taken-care-of, under-valued, overwhelmed, overworked, over-scheduled, overtired, and OVER. IT. ALL. women 40+ who work in the mission-driven/nonprofit sector. Put more simply: she helps women be well while doing good.