Moving Through Burnout

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. This is based on my own research, experience and observations. Even science can change and be disproven, so none of this is absolutely 100% a sure thing, but it has helped me to think about and respect my own experiences despite social narratives regarding productivity and self-improvement.

I started thinking about this because of a Twitter conversation and wanted to share what I have learned from my research and experience. The question was “will exercise help burnout.” Now the answer to this is going to be a very individual “it depends,” which may not easy or satisfying, but I wanted to talk a bit about why, and how I have learned to think more about movement and how it impacts my body as opposed to exercise as I navigate burnout.

Burnout and the nervous system

Let’s start off with a little bit about the nervous system and how it relates to burnout. The autonomic nervous system is made up of the sympathetic (fight, flight) and the parasympathetic (rest & digest — and sometimes in extreme cases “freeze”) branches. While I used to have a vague concept of these as “stress” = bad, “relax” = good, that’s not representative of the whole picture. As I noted, certain levels of stress can send us into a “freeze” response. Both branches have a role and are important to survival, but what is important for our long-term well-being is the balance between these two branches during times of rest so that we can flexibly move between states as needed by our environment.

One way of measuring this balance is a metric called HRV (heart rate variability) when we are at rest. When the two branches are in balance, they both exert oppositional forces on our heart rate, so the higher the variability, the more balance exists between the two branches. Obviously, this changes significantly through the day in relation to our activities, but ideally, when we are at rest we return to a balanced state so that we are prepared to flexibly react to our environment.

So how does this all relate to burnout? There is some suggestion that burnout occurs when we become stuck in a sympathetic state for a prolonged period of time. Part of what that means is that we begin to deplete our internal resources without being able to restore them since we are unable to fully rest. The other part that is being theorized is that our ability to move between states is greatly reduced, even at rest and once external causes of burnout are mitigated. There is some evidence that abnormally low HRV compared to the general population is common in clinical burnout. Anecdotally, my own HRV tracking over the past year as I moved from initial burnout into deeper burnout has shown a similar trend.

The nervous system and exercise

How does this relate to exercise? Exercise, just like mental stress, activates the sympathetic nervous system. Now, as I said, temporarily activating the sympathetic nervous system isn’t necessarily a bad thing! I suspect we have all heard the refrain regarding the many benefits of exercise. And one of those benefits is that under typical conditions, we can use exercise as a way to put our brain into a sympathetic state and then externally signal to our brain that we are safe. Our brain is wired for physical threats, and so if it goes into a state of threat over an email, simply responding to that email won’t erase the sense of threat, but actively doing and then stopping the action of fight or flight in a safe way can signal that the threat has passed. If you have ever shaken or run or danced off stress, this is what you are doing. If we are still able to move flexibly between states, we can signal to our body that the danger is over now. If this is the case, exercise can be very helpful.

But if the stressor does not go away, this shift may not trigger, because, despite the signal, we have not removed the threat. If you are always afraid that you might get in trouble at work for something you said, that threat never goes away. So we build up more and more fatigue because we cannot move into rest. Our brain won’t let us. If we are here, exercise may actually hurt us, as we are unable to physically recover from any strain that we put on our body when we can’t shift out of sympathetic dominance. And if we have instead flipped into a “freeze” state as the body tries to recover its resources, our body is not physically in the state needed to safely exercise.

How do you know if you shouldn’t exercise?

In my experience, it is quite apparent, although I am working more from my own perception and reaction to burnout here. Here are the signs that I have noticed in myself:

  • Consistently feeling completely drained and depleted by exercise for longer than a typical recovery period
  • Feeling “panic” or anxiety about physical activities I used to enjoy
  • Experiencing greater or more prolonged muscle soreness after physical activity.
  • Exercising negatively impacts my ability to sleep
  • I am finding myself injured or near injury more frequently
  • My baseline HRV at rest is consistently low, drops dramatically after activity, and takes a long time to return to baseline or my baseline even starts to lower

All these things mean stop. Listen to your body. Take a break from the concept of exercise and focus on movement instead.

Focus on movement

I use the word movement because exercise has very specific connotations regarding intensity, duration, progress, and results. I literally mean any kind of safe movement that feels good, you enjoy and doesn’t leave you depleted. And the important thing to remember about burnout is that your body is significantly depleted and running on its reserves! It is necessary to rest. But you also need to remind your body that it is safe, and gentle movement can be a very effective way to do this. And if you are hypermobile, it is particularly important to maintain a level of gentle conditioning for your stabilizer muscles as much as possible as instability in your joints may increase your anxiety levels.

These are some forms of movement that have been helpful to me:

  • Find movement “sparks joy” (credit to Marie Kondo because I love her). If you are curious how to determine this — if you have a stim that makes you feel good, that is the kind of feeling we are looking for in movement
  • Stim! Stim dance! Many of us have been taught to suppress our stims, but it is an instinctual way of regulating our nervous systems
  • Walks in nature
  • Paddling on calm water
  • Beginner contemporary dance (online where I can control my environment and sensory needs)
  • Thoracic mobility work
  • Gentle stretching
  • Stabilizer exercises
  • Simple exercises with a light weight or band focusing on a single muscle group
  • “Slow and low” (credit to Bendy Bodies) — don’t rush to build capacity, and if being upright is exhausting, move near the ground

Some things to watch out for:

  • If you feel panic, stop immediately.
  • Be mindful of your sensory needs (sensory distress adds to your overall stress level and disrupts safety).
  • If you are easily overstimulated, avoid compound exercises and work one muscle group at a time.
  • Yoga is often recommended by care providers, but it can stress some bendy people (ahem me) out. Listen to your body. If it works, that’s great. If not, explore other alternatives that are more friendly to your nervous system. It may even be that specific types of yoga work while others don’t.
  • Try not to have a goal or idea of progressing your exercise tolerance. It makes it hard not to rush our bodies, and it ignores that as we move through burnout we will often see ebb and flow in our progress depending on other external stressors in our lives.

Remember, this is a journey, and it is your journey! You are the one who knows how your nervous system feels. Part of recovery is learning how to listen to it again.