When You Can’t Relieve Stress, Add Resources
A simple rule to help you overcome burnout
The other day, a close friend and I were texting about something hard happening in her life. I asked how she had been doing lately, and she gave it to me straight: “I feel like I’m doing everything I can to stay sane, but no matter what I do, it doesn’t balance the scales.” Enter distressed emoji.
My friend’s insightful (and extremely relatable) observation reminded me the Belgian researchers Isabella Roskam and Moïra Mikolajczak, who study parental burnout and effects. While burnout can feel a lot like stress and even anxiety and depression, it’s not just about the presence of tough circumstances. Burnout, they say, usually occurs when people have more stressors than resources––essentially, when your personal “scale” is off balance.
Of course, the imbalance problem isn’t only individual. Certain populations are more prone to burnout and its effects due to systemic factors. For example, single parents, BIPOC folks, and differently abled individuals often experience more stress alongside fewer resources, which could heighten the risk for burnout and its effects.
One way to overcome burnout in any role — whether it’s your job or your identity as a caretaker, romantic partner, or parent — is to tip the scales in the general direction of balance. That often means when you can’t change your stressor, it can help to add resources — or, if the resources you need aren’t available, minimizing the stuff that’s stressing you out. If you’re privileged enough to have a choice in your stress-resource balance, even the tiniest bit of weight lifted can calibrate the scales in your life.
For example: Let’s say you‘re taking care of a chronically ill relative. Odds are, you can’t magically heal the person’s condition or dampen the stress associated with it (or you certainly would have by now). But perhaps you could ease that stress by infusing your day with resources that boost your resilience: conversations or texts with caring friends, strolls around your neighborhood, a hot bath with your favorite candle. These things certainly won’t make the stress of your role disappear, but they might add bright spots that help you handle the strain. See the scales balancing?
Or, say you’re a parent trying to make a living writing, like me. I can’t change the demands I face on a daily basis––that I need the money I make freelancing, and that I have two kids who are home with me most of the time. Those stressors won’t disappear anytime soon, which means I’m constantly toeing the line of burnout. I can, however, find tools to help me cope with the stress of writing while parenting: a mentor to help me navigate the freelance world, the empathy and advice of other journalists, and of course, the occasional babysitter.
Achieving true balance in life may be an unrealistic cultural ideal, even a myth worth throwing out altogether. But to keep yourself mentally and physically well––and to ensure you give your best in whatever you’re doing––keep an eye on your scale.