Stress and burn-out

In the current economic crisis we are all having to cope with change. For companies this means reducing costs and increasing demands on employees. This leads to increased stress, not all of which is the positive kind that prompts us into doing a job well (subsiding when we have completed the task).

Sometimes bosses respond to their own added stress by using a "stick" rather than a "carrot" approach. This can plunge us back into feeling like a helpless child again. Sometimes the critical, parental voice is internal as we tell ourselves that everything will be OK as long as we keep our heads down and work hard.

So what are the symptoms of stress? In the early stages people may feel:

  • more vulnerable
  • fear (for their own and others safety)
  • like they are burning a short fuse (maybe upsetting colleagues)
  • cynical
  • detached/numb/isolated
  • angry
  • sad
  • unskilled
  • lacking in confidence
  • anxious
  • a loss of interest in relationships/food/sex
  • fatigue
  • unmotivated
  • they are making erratic decisions with negative consequences.

At this stage people are sometimes able to recognise how they are feeling and decide to do something about it. Useful strategies are talking to family/friends, taking time off work and taking time to exercise or relax.

However, if these strategies don't seem to work it's easy to feel even more powerless to change the situation. People say things like, "I feel like I'm in a hamster wheel". Our critical, internal voice sometimes tells us that the reason we aren't coping is because we're not up to scratch - that we are a failure while everyone else seems to be coping. If these changes go unnoticed - or are ignored over a prolonged period - more noticeable changes can occur, perhaps leading to a crisis (burn-out).

Changes at this stage that often prompt action - possibly a visit to the GP - can be:

  • depression
  • lack of sleep/exhaustion
  • over or under eating (stuffing down our feelings/punishing ourselves for our weakness)
  • illness (stress is known to lower the immune system)
  • heart problems
  • anxiety
  • increased alcohol intake.

Usually by this stage others are beginning to notice changes. If these changes continue to be ignored there is a greater risk of suicide.

How can counselling help? Probably the most important thing to know is that counsellors aren't there to criticise or judge (people usually do that perfectly well to themselves and/or have others to do it). Counselling is a process rather than a "quick fix" where people are told what to do. The early sessions are about forming a trusting relationship so that the client can be honest with the counsellor, but more importantly with themselves. Through listening, the counsellor will be able to "hear" things that a client has maybe been stuffing down with food/alcohol or avoiding with depression or anxiety.

As people become more aware of what is contributing to their situation and how they feel, they can begin to consider options and try them out theoretically in counselling. If the changes that have caused the stress are permanent the counsellor can help the client look at their least worst options.

Nobody can change the situation but the client still has some control over which of the least worst options they choose for themselves. It might be that the client chooses not to change anything, that knowing and accepting how they feel about the situation is enough to reduce some of the stress. Problematic workplace or personal relationships can be looked at and other ways of relating can be explored. This can also help to reduce stress and increase the feeling of being in charge of your own life again.

People who have suffered burn-out often speak of it as being painful but cathartic. It forces a re-evaluation of who we are and counselling is a highly effective way of re-evaluating. People can come out of the other side even stronger than before.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Exeter, Devon, EX4 3SR
Written by Aileen George, MBACP (Accred)
Exeter, Devon, EX4 3SR

My belief is that if a person has a problem, they also have the answer. My interest in counselling probably began from my own life struggles and the realisation that talking alleviated some of the feelings and helped to provide some clarity. Working with many clients over the years has reinforced my...

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