It’s difficult to imagine that any achievement-oriented, high-functioning adult would not at some point in his or her life experience a “rough patch” characterized by high levels of stress. It’s often induced by the time and performance pressures inherent to the challenges we invite, welcome, and take on.
Stress, Depression, & Burnout
Research confirms what many of us have experienced as the effects of stress. When levels of stress rise and remain high for long periods of time, it leads to felt strain, fatigue, and depressed mood. The physical and psychological effects of chronic stress can thereby lead to burnout.
But how do you know where you are on this continuum of stress-depression-burnout? And what do we know about effecting a turnaround, even using episodes of acute stress and depressed mood to cultivate resilience (so-called “hardiness” and “mental toughness”)?
Stress is associated with depression symptoms, but the effects differ depending upon whether we have high levels or low levels of mental toughness. In fact, mental toughness has been found to be negatively related to stress, depression, burnout, and sleep issues. How do we bottle it, right? Or more practically speaking, what is it and how do we develop it?
It consists of four interrelated dimensions (the 4 Cs):
Control - feeling able to take charge, influence outcomes
Commitment - ready to apply self, persist, confront issues
Challenge - seeing change as normal, opportunity vs threat
Confidence - feeling of self-efficacy and competence
Can we develop mental toughness: Yes, research suggests that mental toughness works as a stress buffer, a resilience resource, and it is a "target variable for health interventions."
Cultivating Mental Toughness
It's hard to feel in control when you are exhausted, overwhelmed, and can't see where to begin and how to proceed. By stepping back from the field of action with the help of a coach, you begin to gain a more balanced perspective, which calms and clears your mind. This momentary reduction in stress, creates time and space in dialogue to sort things out, prioritize concerns, identify action steps, all of which breeds hope and a greater internal locus of control.
We're more likely to rally commitment when there is reason for hope and resources to support our efforts. And it's more rational when we have realistic plans and a step-by-step approach to begin changing things for the better. starting now. It's not just your coach who will support your efforts. Through dialogue with the coach you're able to identify key areas in which you need help as well as ideas about who to approach and how for help.
To see your situation as a challenge is to frame it more in terms of adaptive development. "Of course I'm feeling overwhelmed, look at the novelty, complexity, time pressures, and scope of the demands I've been facing. I was paralyzed by it all. But that was then, this is now." We begin seeing challenge as a development opportunity. You don't need to pretend you have everything figured out. Now is the time to go about learning to figure it out!
All of us can have our confidence shaken. We can also regain our confidence through taking intelligent action and building on incremental gains. With each step forward we affirm our practical competence and value as an actor, as a collaborator, as a leader. We learn to feel more at ease in freely revealing our questions, our needs for knowledge and resources, and our determination to draw upon others to build our capabilities to perform and realize our goals.
Signs of Burnout
Christina Malach was the first to develop a sound conceptualization of burnout. She operationalized it in the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which has been widely used internationally to study stress and burnout. Burnout consists of three dimensions: Exhaustion ("I feel emotionally drained."); Cynicism ("I doubt the value/significance of what I'm doing."); and Professional Efficacy ("I can/cannot solve the problems that I am facing.").
In a somewhat different model, I've conceptualized the phenomenon of burnout in the Challenge-Development Curve. In this graphic we observe that rising levels of challenge will usually prompt rapid and adaptive gains in learning and competence. That is, up to a point, the inflection point. It's at or near that point that, absent some kind of helpful intervention, we begin experiencing burnout ("decompensation").
The critical factor in learning to cope more effectively with stress and identifying opportunities to cultivate mental toughness, is recognizing the signs of an approaching inflection point. See the table below.
We're an adaptive species with plenty of capacity to learn, grow, thrive. But timely intervention means noticing our flagging energy, motivation, mood, and dips in performance. What we feel or see in others's feelings should alert us to taking action. There are rather quick and easy ways of assessing the symptoms of depression and anxiety that might arise with burnout. And it's important to do so.
Solutions comes in many "sizes." A relatively simple case of stress trending toward burnout, but which has not yet produced strong symptoms of depression or anxiety might be resolve in 4-6 meetings with a coach. In more complex cases, a great deal of progress can usually be achieved in 6-8 meetings. In either case, feelings of hope, a vital part of the change process, can begin arising even in the first couple meetings.
Haghighi, M., & Gerber, M. (2018). Does mental toughness buffer the relationship between perceived stress, depression, burnout, anxiety, and sleep? International Journal of Stress Management.
Slavich, G. M., & Auerbach, R. P. (2018). Stress and its sequelae: Depression, suicide, inflammation, and physical illness. In J. N. Butcher & J. M. Hooley (Eds.), APA handbook of psychopathology: Psychopathology: Understanding, assessing, and treating adult mental disorders., Vol. 1. (pp. 375–402). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.