Stress and burnout can affect your relationships and make it difficult to look after yourself. In this article we’ll look at some actions you can take to manage stress, and how you can use self-compassion to address early signs of burnout.
Burnout is a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by long-term stress [1, 2, 3]. Many things can come together to cause burnout. These could be:
You can expect to experience some stress in life, but if you have too much for too long you might begin to experience negative symptoms. It is not caused by being too weak or being unable to handle life’s difficulties: it can happen to people who have lived through very tough situations .
Burnout can affect your emotional wellbeing: you might feel a loss of motivation, a negative outlook, and feelings of helplessness . It can impact your relationships, both with yourself and with others .
The three systems model, created by the psychologist Paul Gilbert , can be helpful for understanding burnout. You have three emotional systems: threat, drive and soothe. The threat system alerts you to danger, activating your ‘fight or flight’ response. The drive system motivates you to look for food, water, and safety. Your soothe system helps you to relax and feel safe.These systems work together to help keep us alive, each becoming more powerful over the others when needed. A balance of the three systems is a sign that your body is working how it should. Sometimes the systems become unbalanced, and threat and drive become more dominant. This can happen if you have a lot of demands on your time that are physically and mentally draining to you.
People experiencing burnout often struggle to be kind to themselves. You might notice that you’re being judgemental of yourself, feeling disconnected, or constantly striving without a break. There may be good reasons why you are pushing yourself such as working hard at your job, or caring for other people [2, 7]. However, a lack of self-compassion can be a sign that you are stuck in drive mode and not connecting enough with soothe. This can lead to symptoms of burnout that tend to be harmful to building good relationships .
The irony is, if you do burn out, you will be too exhausted to care for other people or achieve your goals at work. It is better for everyone if you are able to take time to take care of yourself before burnout happens.
Recognising your feelings is a way to show yourself compassion and regulate your emotions . In his book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris explains that pushing feelings away and ignoring them is like trying to hold an air-filled ball underwater: eventually your arm will get tired and the ball will surface. In fact, pushing feelings away can result in a rebound effect, and they can come back even harder. Taking a moment to notice your feelings can help you feel better if it is beyond your control to change anything for now.
You can practice recognising your feelings by ‘dropping anchor’. This is a technique you could try to become more aware of what you are experiencing. To drop anchor you can use the acronym ‘ACE’ :
A – Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings
Notice and name any thoughts, emotions, and sensations you are feeling in your body.
C – Come back into your body
Connect with your physical body in some way – push your feet firmly into the floor, slowly breathe, stretch your arms above your head.
E – Engage with what you are doing
Get a sense of where you are – perhaps notice some things you can see, hear, taste, smell and feel. Finish by refocusing your attention on what you are currently doing and engage with it.
Burnout is a difficult experience that can affect our relationships, but there are techniques available to help you manage and prevent it. Practising self-compassion and kindness can lead to many benefits, such as more energy and time for those we love. Try dropping anchor and let us know how you get on.
By Helen Molloy
 WHO, 2023
 BMJ, 2018
 Mental Health UK, 2023
 Hool, 2022
 Harris, 2008
 Gibson et al, 2021
 Rutter & Croston, 2023
 Barlow et al., 2018
 Linehan, 2015