Three Stages of Burnout

Just like a car needs friction on the road in order to move, we all need some stress in our lives in order to be able to function.  However, just like a car that is poorly maintained and overdriven, we can suffer from stress overload and end up in trouble if we are not careful.  You probably have heard the term burnout, but you probably have not been taught what the three stages of burnout look like.  The more you know, the more likely you are to be able to avoid trouble in the future.

Similar to the way the “fight or flight” response works in an emergency, the first stage of burnout is stress arousal, which is when your body begins to fight against the stress overload.  This stage is characterized by symptoms such as persistent irritability, persistent anxiety, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, headaches, forgetfulness, and inability to concentrate.  Any two – just two – of these symptoms can indicate this first stage of stress overload which may lead to burnout if left unchecked.

The next stage of burnout is called the energy conservation stage.  This is when your body is starting to try to flee from the stress overload.  You know you are somewhere in this stage when signs like these begin to show up: procrastination, being late for work or turning work in late, cynical attitudes and resentfulness, decreased sexual desire, increased consumption of caffeine and/or alcohol, and just plain starting to feel like you don’t care.  Like the first stage, any two of these symptoms is an indicator that you are at a much greater risk of experiencing burnout.

Finally, there is the exhaustion stage.  You can’t fight any more.  You can’t flee any more.  You’re done.  You experience chronic sadness or depression.  You are always mentally and physically fatigued.  You have constant headaches.  You would just like to disappear, move away from everything, including family and friends, in hopes of finding relief.  It is at this stage when you are also likely to have recurring thoughts of suicide as a means of escape.  Just two of these symptoms may indicate that you have reached the point of burnout.

All that is the bad news.  What’s the good news?  That with proper attention and effort, you can turn around and start heading back in the other direction, no matter where you are today.  Did you hear that?  No matter where you are today.

If you are struggling and needs to get help understanding how to manage your stress levels, feel free to reach out to us at and one of our peer support specialists will be glad to chat with you.  If you are having suicidal thoughts that won’t go away, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255) or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to reach a trained crisis counselor for free, confidential help available 24/7.

When Tension Becomes Toxic

Does this sound like a typical day for a police officer?  You’re working your 12-hour shift, and you need an energy boost because you didn’t get enough rest last night.  You’re training the rookie, so you have to show up on every call, and it seems like they’re coming faster than you’re able to keep up with.  Your spouse texts you in the middle of something important to tell you that the dishwasher has leaked all over the kitchen.  Meanwhile, your kids are texting you about every one of their little spats, even though you’ve tried to teach them to work out their own issues.  Your phone rings, and you recognize the number of a bill collector that you know is just going to have to wait because you’re still trying to pay for the deductible on the emergency room visit from 3 months ago.  You walk into the station hoping to get a little time to breathe, and the lieutenant says, “Hey, can I see you for a minute.”  Oh boy.

We are living in unprecedented times when it comes to dealing with stress and anxiety.  From the workplace, to the roadways, to our homes, we are being bombarded with little cortisol and adrenaline squirts throughout the day for little things that are penny-worth issues that we are spending $5 or $10 worth of energy on, damaging our blood vessels, damaging our hearts, and setting us up for disease.  Far from being immune from the effects of this kind of toxic tension, first responders and their families seem to be especially vulnerable to its negative effects.

The pace of life has accelerated, and this certainly contributes to the constant exposure our bodies have to stressful situations that put us at risk.  One of the most significant issues facing people today is the lack of time to recover from the stresses of the day.  It’s hard for us to imagine now, but in 1949 only 2% of American households had a television set.  Now technology has us connected to something nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The difference with stress in modern times is that there is no time set aside to recover from the stresses of the day.  Because we live faster-paced lives, we are being pushed to the limits every day.  And this accelerated pace of life leads to accelerated wear and tear on our bodies.  It makes us look and feel older sooner, it makes us sicker more often, and it is responsible for the epidemic of depression that is sweeping the country.

To be honest, it is not possible to be completely free of stress.  And the fact is that if your body failed to produce any adrenaline, you would die!  And if you don’t have enough adrenaline in your system, you become extremely fatigued.  But the key is that you have to shorten the amount of time that you spend dealing with stress.  Our bodies were designed to handle “emergency” stress . . . acute stress.  The effects of the slow, insidious, aggravating kinds of stress we deal with – ongoing conflicts with the boss or an annoying neighbor, issues with the children, and so on, are what is killing us.

We are trapped by tension, and we must learn ways to break away from the trap.  Here are some helpful tips for responding to the pressures we deal with:

  • First, we need to pay attention to our adrenaline levels. Since we don’t have access to sophisticated lab equipment to monitor our actual blood adrenaline levels, just how do we do this?  For one thing, adrenaline pushes blood away from your extremities to support your fight-or-flight response during times of stress, so if your hands and feet feel cold, your adrenaline level is probably too high.  Having someone who knows you well let you know when your mood changes, keeping an eye on our blood pressure, and paying attention to when you get those “tension” headaches are also helpful strategies.
  • Second, we need to recognize that not everything is an “emergency.” Sitting at a red light that won’t change quickly enough to suit us is not an emergency, it is an aggravation.  For emergencies the body needs adrenaline.  For aggravations, it needs patience and calmness.
  • Third, we must learn to relax. The relaxation response in your body is a powerful antidote to adrenaline.  Use relaxation exercises, listen to relaxation music, listen to meditation recordings – any of these things can help make the switch in your nervous system that is required to lower adrenaline levels and allow you to recover.
  • Finally, we have to get enough sleep. Research indicates that being sleep-deprived contributes to a number of different health problems, including diabetes, depression, and even suicide.

You may be stressed at this point trying to come up with ways to find recovery time.  You are probably saying to yourself right now, “I can’t possibly drop anything I’m doing to even make recovery time a part of my day; this seems hopeless.”  Let me be the first to tell you that this is not a hopeless situation.  Simply being aware of how your body reacts to stress is the first step, and if you can become aware of when your body is stressed and how you need to respond, you are well on your way to living with less stress.

If you are struggling and needs to get help understanding how to manage your stress levels, feel free to reach out to us at and one of our peer support specialists will be glad to chat with you.  If you are having suicidal thoughts that won’t go away, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255) or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to reach a trained crisis counselor for free, confidential help available 24/7.

No one ever talks about the “freeze” response . . .

Nearly everyone has heard of the “fight or flight” response along with the array of physical responses that are activated whenever a threat is perceived: a quick release of adrenalin, the cardio-vascular system speeds up, blood goes from the extremities to the vital organs leaving hands and feet cooler and lowering skin temperature, brainwave patterns change, and senses become more acute in order to identify the threat with the objective of deciding whether to fight or flee.

There is one problem with this, however, that is often overlooked, which is that a person already in sensory overload who experiences a crisis event is less likely to be able to make that decision, causing another stress response that we will label “freeze.” Obviously, a person who is incapable of either fighting the threat or fleeing from it will fall victim to it.

In overload mode, we are experiencing too much stress which results in our becoming unproductive.  Some of the problems associated with overload include diminished memory and recall, often leading to lack of clarity, poor judgment, indecisiveness, and loss of perspective, that is, that our challenges are perceived as out of proportion to their actual magnitude.

It is important to understand that the brain keeps a very accurate record of everything we experience, and it has been designed in a way to filter the memories we have in order to – for lack of a better way of putting it at the present – keep us sane.  Stress short-circuits the brain’s program when it puts the body in “survival mode.”  The front part of the brain loses function, and the middle part of the brain, which is designed simply to help keep us alive, takes control.  This change, as evidenced by changes in brainwave patterns, results in cognitive issues such as confusion, uncertainty, poor attention, poor concentration, poor memory, and so on.  Additionally, people may become disoriented as to time, place, or person, have difficulty identifying objects or people, experience changes in their perception of their surroundings, and also experience changes in levels of alertness.

Quite simply put, a person trying to live from day to day in “overload” mode is not prepared for a critical incident in which the fight or flight response is triggered; consequently, that person will likely freeze instead.

If you are one of those struggling to manage the daily stresses of the job, get help now.  Your survival, or the survival of others, may depend on it.  Reach out to us by sending a message to and one of our peer support specialists will be glad to chat with you.

What’s in a label?

First responders are reluctant to see licensed mental health professionals for fear of being labeled as having a problem.  While this is certainly not always the case, the decision to fight the stigma and seek treatment for stress-related symptoms can often have unintended consequences.  Can the symptoms of chronic or critical incident stress lead to a wrong mental health diagnosis?

Under extreme stress, the kinds of responses consistent with an individual’s personality type will often mirror symptoms of other diagnosable mental disorders.  Humanizing the Badge published an article not long ago entitled Beneath the Surface in which the following the statement was made about professional diagnoses: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  That is to say that many licensed mental health professionals with little or no experience in treating individuals suffering from chronic or traumatic stress will often revert to some other diagnosis that can be much more harmful in the long run to the career of a first responder.  Information on the website for the National Center for PTSD, run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, confirms this to be true.

Diagnoses of other conditions might include:

  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (NOT the same as OCD)

This is certainly a “catch-22” situation, because sometimes there is an underlying disorder that must be addressed in order for an individual’s condition to improve.  When in doubt, reach out to a qualified peer support specialist like those who provide support on this page who can help you understand what you are experiencing and help determine whether professional help is going to be necessary.

If you’re suffering, don’t suffer in silence.  Message us at and let us help you begin a journey toward better mental health.  If you are having suicidal thoughts that won’t go away, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).

Regrets, I’ve had a few . . .

Do you see what I did there . . . a little double meaning?  The fact is that many people do have some regrets after they’ve had a few drinks, but they have begun to use alcohol to deal with stress, not thinking about the reality that it actually exacerbates their problems.  They may not be to the point of being alcoholic, but they certainly can be classified as what a pair of Harvard-trained professionals call “almost alcoholic” (Doyle & Nowinski, 2012, Almost Alcoholic).

Excessive alcohol consumption is a typical response to stress for those who have neglected to maintain more healthy coping mechanisms.  Sadly, this is especially true among police officers.  Two words every veteran police officer knows: “choir practice.” Stressful day on the job?  The shift gets together afterwards for choir practice.  Even so-called “tee-totalers” (total abstainers from alcohol) are likely to believe that consumption of alcohol in moderation has little, if any, ill effects on the consumer.  But that is not what we are talking about here.  The relationship between alcoholism and stress is not in dispute, and the relationship between police officers coping with extreme amounts of stress and attempting to find relief through alcohol consumption is not in dispute either.  It is no coincidence that in a study done regarding police suicide, data showed that the majority of the individuals completing a suicide had alcohol in their system at the time.

While a drink, sometimes two, can be okay, excessive drinking can cause a great deal of turmoil in other parts of the individual’s life and contributes to greater amounts of stress in the long run.  It is best to find other methods of coping with stress that do not actually exacerbate the problem.  With the right kind of help, you can:

  • identify and assess your patterns of alcohol use;
  • evaluate its impact on your relationships, work, and personal well-being;
  • develop strategies and goals for changing the amount and frequency of alcohol use;
  • measure the results of applying these strategies; and
  • make informed decisions about your next steps.

If you are struggling with stress, not coping well, and need a place to start learning about how to make it better, please reach out to us at  I promise you, there will be no regrets.