These habits from mental health pros can set you up for less burnout and foster more joy.
When faced with a new week, new year, or new moon, we’re encouraged to set positive intentions and map out ambitious game plans. But if you’re completely stressed and burned out, you may not only struggle to zero in on ambitious goals but to break free of a vicious cycle of stress and burnout.
Both are symptoms of an overloaded nervous system and can happen when we’re taking on too much, have lost work-life balance, and aren’t in touch with the aspects of life that bring us joy, notes Jill Carnahan, M.D., the Medical Director of Flatiron Functional Medicine in New York City and author of Unexpected.
“This often leads to symptoms of fatigue, lack of motivation, overwhelm, sadness, despair, and hopelessness,” she notes. Many people turn to less-than-stellar behaviors that only serve to compound the issue, such as drinking, binge-watching TV, shopping online, or obsessively scrolling through social media. But instead of providing rest and restoration, fun, or true joy, these activities only serve to deplete your happiness and satisfaction, spur guilt and shame, and create more stress and burnout, notes Dr. Carnahan. And that’s the definition of a downward spiral.
“We engage in these behaviors because we have nothing left in the tank,” explains Lauren Cook, PsyD, MMFT, a San Diego-based psychologist. “It takes energy to take care of ourselves and engage positively with others. When we're running on exhaust fumes, it feels like it takes everything in us just to survive.”
It’s no surprise that at the same time, we let go of the self-care measures that we need so desperately, like eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep, points out Cook. “This can get us into a deeper hole that feels harder to work our way out of.”
Thankfully, experts say simple, healthy moves can help you break out of this kind of rut — as well as kick-start a feel-good upward spiral.
How to Deal With a Downward Spiral Head-On
Paying more attention to your triggers is a powerful first step to preempt or curb a downward spiral, says Dr. Carnahan.
“For example, if you can identify that every time your boss reprimands you, you go home and eat junk food and binge watch television, you might try preparing in advance for the next time this happens,” she notes. Dr. Carnahan recommends taking the following three steps:
1. Take note of a stressful moment and the fact that you’re being triggered to engage in unhealthy behaviors in order to cope.
2. Write down alternatives to your normal responses.
3. Create a plan to make better options easier, more convenient, and almost unavoidable so that next time, it is difficult to take the unhealthy path.
For instance, if you’re stressed by work drama, instead of reaching for a glass of wine or scrolling through TikTok, take a well-being break and call a friend and go for a hike or plan a game night with your roommate.
“Knowing what the stressor is can be half the battle because once we know we can strategize around it,” agrees Niro Feliciano, a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and anxiety specialist and author of This Book Won't Make You Happy. “Is it work? Then, set boundaries around work related tasks. Turn off your work email notifications at a certain time. Don't check it first thing in the AM.”
It can also help to know you’re not alone. “Feelings of stress, overwhelm and burnout happen to everyone,” says Dr. Carnahan. “It is simply a reminder to do what you need to regain balance and reprioritize your health and self-care."
How to Jump Start an Upward Spiral
Whether you’re in a full-on downward spiral that you need to break free of or you want to set the stage for even more positivity and abundance in your life, you can aim to begin an upward spiral. “An upward spiral is when you’re building this positive momentum that moves you in a way in which you feel like you’re progressing, succeeding, and, at its best, that you’re thriving,” says Cook.
Stephanie Macadaan, a licensed marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, adds that you’ll know you’re in an upward spiral when you’re in tune with your authentic self and have clear goals that motivate you to live a life that feels nourishing and fulfilling.
"An upward spiral is when you’re building this positive momentum that moves you in a way in which you feel like you’re progressing, succeeding, and, at its best, that you’re thriving."
And the overall key to beginning an upward spiral is creating positive habits that will compound one another, she explains. And progress begets more progress. The longer you keep up with a healthy habit — whether a new exercise plan or meditating daily — the more likely you’ll be to continue it, notes Cook.
Get Specific About You Want to Achieve
The best first step to jump starting an upward spiral is to get very clear with your wants and needs, notes Macadaan.
“I often recommend creating a workbook that lists out your clear goals,” she says. “A mood board or another visual to go along with it is really helpful. Then, review that daily so that you are making these goals a conscious part of your everyday life. This continually reinforces motivation.”
Track Your Goals
When you’re aiming to hit any goal, you’re sure to be incentivized by seeing how far you’ve come, which is why Cook recommends not only writing down your intentions but also documenting your progress. “We like to see that growth within ourselves,” she says. “Actively tracking shows the evidence of that.”
Because we tend to focus on the negative, it’s easier to dismiss your accomplishments. But that’s harder to do when you’re looking at clear data, whether that’s more money in your savings account or number of fitness classes you’ve taken this month.
All of the experts interviewed agree mindfulness is key to starting an upward cycle. “Mindfulness is a process for grounding ourselves in the present moment, and it teaches that if we are lost in worry about the future we are not really living,” says Steven E. Pratt, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and Senior Medical Director of Magellan Healthcare, who adds that it has been shown to have a multitude of positive health outcomes.
It’s also a wonderful habit to lean on when you’re stressed, as it can boost productivity. “When I find myself in the state of feeling a need to rush, I will immediately take a mindfulness break,” he notes. “I will look away from the computer and out the window and say to myself, ‘I am here in my office, I am seeing the view, I am breathing in, I am breathing out.’ Even doing this for as little as 30 seconds can have a profound calming effect.” Dr. Pratt has found that these breaks allow him to return to work with greater focus.
Prioritize Joy and Pleasure
Taking a break from your usual grind to add in pleasurable activities can bolster mood, allow space to nurture your bonds, and infuse your day-to-day with more positivity. To be fair, finding room for fun can feel nearly impossible when you’re stressed, but Cook points out that adding in opportunities for joy is not necessarily the huge time commitment we feel like it needs to be. “It can be little moments, whether it’s laughing while making dinner with your family, or you play a board game for 20 minutes,” she notes.
Most importantly is your willingness to put yourself in a mindset where you’re open to experiencing joy, says Cook. When your mindset changes, your behaviors and experiences can change. “It has this positive feedback loop,” she notes. “We want more and more of that, because we’re seeing how much better we feel, we’re seeing how much more connected we feel, and we also see how people respond to us in a much more positive way.”
Make Self-Talk More Realistic
Consider tuning into your internal dialogue, suggests Dr. Pratt.
“It is important to be able to evaluate the validity of our self-talk,” he says. “We need to be able to recognize when our internal dialogue is more negative than the reality of our situation. We can then substitute more realistic and more optimistic self-talk.”
For example, if you’re getting a lukewarm reception for your work from a higher-up, instead of telling yourself, “I’m not good at this, I can’t succeed,” try a more pragmatic point of view, like, “I didn’t do this as well as I’d like this time, and I can do better next time” or “I didn’t do this as well as I’d like, there are skills I can learn so that I do better in the future,” suggests Dr. Pratt. This perspective can lead to a more positive, action-oriented perspective that lends itself to an upward spiral.
Take Note of What You Have to Be Thankful For
Practicing gratitude and acknowledging what you have to be thankful for is more powerful than you realize and can move you in the direction of an upward spiral, says Feliciano. “It increases motivation and builds resilience,” she notes, sharing that when her dad was admitted to the hospital, she could have been anxious and upset, and while she was initially, practicing gratitude allowed her to focus on and appreciate what she could do to move forward and be supportive rather than get stuck in the uncertainty of the situation.
“I was thankful that he was able to get to the hospital in time for the doctors to prevent a more serious situation,” she recalls. “I was thankful for the people who called me to offer support and encouragement. I was thankful for the expertise of the medical team that treated him. Gratitude directed me to the present.” In turn, she experienced less stress and was able to stay in a more positive, mentally healthy place.
Even once you’re able to begin and maintain an upward spiral, there will still be moments that are emotionally challenging or feelings that are hard to work through. And that’s when self-compassion could be especially useful. “It is the ability to sit with yourself during difficult experiences and acknowledge [and accept] the difficult feelings,” says Feliciano. “Self-compassion also helps us to remember that the experience of suffering is universal.”
By supporting yourself and moving through difficult feelings, you'll be better able to regulate stress. As a result, notes Feliciano, you’ll become more empowered to take steps towards your goals and practices that enhance your well-being.
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