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How Trauma Can Lead To Burnout & What To Do About It

Stress as a vehicle for performance vs. burnout

Stress is a normal part of life. At healthy levels, stress can assist us in performing to our best ability. It helps us stay alert to details that support excellent outcomes on a task. It gives us an “edge” that helps us rise to the top. Ask any peak performer and they will tell you that a little stress is a great activator – a tool to help you push forward toward your goal of excellence.

But for those who have experienced trauma and suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), the body is already functioning at a constant level of stress that makes performing at peak levels or finding “creative calm” (as pictured on the right) nearly impossible.

Hiding doesn’t usually relieve stress

To better understand this, it is crucial to understand what stress is. Many people only identify “stress” as that moment in time when they feel “stressed out.” This usually means that the person wants the things around them that are causing upset to stop.

If we struggle with relationship, we want the other person to stop what they are doing or start doing something we want them to do. If job stress is the problem, we usually want others to stop putting deadlines on or us or to stop giving us new tasks when we have yet to complete that task at hand. Family stresses mean that we want someone in the family to change. Usually, when we feel stress, we want something outside of us to just . . . Stop!

I would like to suggest another way of looking at stress . . . .

Our stress is caused by the way we think about things that happen to us.

Let me give you an example to illustrate what I mean . . . . When I was in high school, I was a competitive swimmer. My specialty was sprinting. It was my job to swim two to four laps (50 to 100 yards) and get it done faster than the swimmers I swam against. I swam as a varsity sprinter through all four years of high school and did it very well. This trend continued during the year after high school, when I swam for the city league.

Until one day when my coach placed me in one of the lead lanes (lead lanes are the lanes where the fastest swimmers are assigned during races – usually the middle lanes of the pool) for a 500 yard race!

My immediate response was STRESS! I went to my coach and said: “Coach, I cannot swim that race.” Of course, his response was: “Yes, you can.” For me, the stressor was the external event: coach putting me in an endurance race when I knew myself as a sprinter. My thoughts are what caused the problem in this situation . . . .

You see, I could swim all-out as a sprinter and worry about breathing at the end of the race. Did I already say that I have suffered my entire life with asthma and was unmedicated/untreated at this time in my life?

My thinking was as follows: I have to win when I race. I cannot breathe well enough to race for 20 laps. I can’t win this race. My coach has seen that I have trouble breathing following my wins. My coach doesn’t care about me. My coach wants to hurt me! I can’t win this race. I won’t survive this 500 yard race. I can’t do it!

So, to deal with the race, I intentionally false-started . . . . THREE times . . . until I was disqualified from the race.

Was it stressful for me to then deal with my coach’s disappointment? Yes. Was it less stressful than the prospect of not surviving a race I couldn’t breathe for? Nope!

But what would have happened if I had been thinking differently . . . .

Let’s say that the coach put me in the race and I didn’t really want to swim it, but I had thought about it this way:

Ok . . . I’ve never swam this RACE before, but I swim this distance in practice every day. Let me just take my time and relax. I will finish the race and that will be enough for me. Where I place is just fine. All I need to do is finish.

As you can see, this second line of thinking would have reduced my stress dramatically and I would have been able to – at least – finish the race. It took me years to prove to myself that I could swim 500 yards without stopping . . . . As an adult swimmer, I’ve challenged myself to do it as part of building up to swimming a mile. This second line of thinking is what allowed me to finish 500 yards at a time and to build up to consistent 1-mile swims.

Looking back on my decision to intentionally disqualify myself for that 500 yard race, I can tell you that the extenuating circumstances surrounding this story included living under chronic stress in my home life. The likelihood that I could have listened to my coach telling me that I could swim the race would have been exponentially improved had my home life been different.

This is true for anyone who struggles with trauma or PTSD . . . .

People, memories or events that would typically be considered neutral register a danger response; similar to what happened for me when I believed that I could not survive a 500 yard race.

To put it differently, consider feeling calm to super stressed out as a scale from 1 to 10, where calm is 1 and over-the-top stressed is a 10. If you had chronic childhood trauma or if you currently struggle with PTSD, your baseline is probably around 6 on the stressed out scale. Without a calm beginning, the road to burnout is a quick one. It doesn’t take much to push you over the edge of emotional breakdown or physical illness. Others who don’t have the same history live at around a 3 – they experience an uptick in stress to about 6 when things get tough at work or in relationship – then, they return to a 3 when life settles down. They can stay well and calm.

But for those of us with PTSD, it’s like trying to drive in a neighborhood where the speed limit is 25, but the car throttle is stuck at 30 miles per hour. It seems impossible to turn down the stress meter because the brain is in high gear all of the time.

The reason for this is something that I discussed in this post. In short, everything about traumatic events gets registered in the trauma brain as dangerous. Then, even non-dangerous details taken out of context of the original events get interpreted as threatening even when they are not.

My experience with the 500 yard race illustrates how having a nervous system that was already overloaded with stress can result in dramatic emotions and dramatic actions to try to survive.

If we look at the illustration at the top of this post again within the context of the 500 yard race, I will tell you that I lived in the fatigue/ill health zones because I didn’t have a buffer.

This is true if you live with PTSD. Your nervous system is keyed up and “on alert” all. the. time.

Enter new, real-time stresses and the body begins to break down. (This is what the ACES studies are all about – based on the Kaiser Foundation findings that Adverse Childhood Experiences lead to long term negative outcomes for adults.) This study can be very scary if you believe what the Kaiser Foundation and the CDC are implying . . . . that negative childhood experiences necessarily lead to negative outcomes. They don’t. But you have to be proactive about your healing process, including reducing your reactivity to stress.

Look at the similarities between health issues connected with stress and those that are associated with PTSD:

Health problems reported more for people who have PTSD vs. without PTSD:

  • Arthritis
  • Heart-related problems and disease
  • Respiratory system related problems and disease
  • Digestive problems and disease
  • Reproductive system related problems
  • Diabetes
  • Pain
  • Insomnia & sleep-related disturbances

Stress related illnesses:

  • Heart disease
  • Asthma
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Headaches/Migraines
  • Depression and Anxiety
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Accelerated aging
  • Insomnia & sleep-related disturbances

Can you see how PTSD and stress-related illnesses can work together to lead to feelings of discouragement and real time illness? There are reasons for this AND you can change how you feel.

There are currently initiatives focusing on early intervention to prevent childhood experiences that lead to outcomes predicted by the ACES study. But what if you are already an adult and are trying to learn to deal with the daily impact on your own life? Hope isn’t lost! There is a lot you can to do begin your healing. It takes focus and dedication, putting your own health first. Your healing requires a system of recovery as comprehensive as the impact the trauma had in your life.

You need a comprehensive system to help you overcome the comprehensive effects of long-term trauma.

The first steps in a comprehensive system to reduce your risk of burnout include:

  • Increasing your stress “buffer zone” so that you can respond resiliently when life throws curves in your direction
  • Using a concrete system for diagnosing your stress levels
  • Implementing a long-term system that increases your resistance to stresses rather than leaving you to succumb to the illnesses caused by chronic stress
  • Training your brain to release it’s propensity for alerting you to danger when danger isn’t near

Take it from me . . . . life is so much more enjoyable when the trauma centers of the brain release you to relax. Creative work is so much more in-the-flow when fear isn’t waiting just over your shoulder.

A rested, relaxed body and a quiet mind lead to much more enjoyment in life, no matter what you are trying to do.


Are you ready to move away from stress/burnout and toward peace and serenity in your daily life?

You were traumatized. You may suffer with PTSD. What happened to you isn’t your fault. There IS something you can do about it. When you are ready to make the commitment to yourself to change how you think, feel and live after what happened to you, click the Learn More button.

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