Rebuilding Connections to Recover from Burnout
I’m feeling very superstitious in even writing this down, but for those of us who live in the United States where as of today vaccinations for COVID-19 are highly available and utilized, we may be seeing glimmers of our former lives on summer’s horizon. Just this week, the CDC has said that can vaccinate our kids, ages 12-15, which (for those of you who are parents) is perhaps even MORE welcome news because we see how socialization-deprived many of our children have become over the past year. My own 13-year-old has been requesting to be part of a trial since January; with where we live, that’s simply not an option. But steps forward (or backward?) to our “normal” lives are certainly ones that many of us are treading, many of us with cautious optimism and bated breath.
So why is the title of this post about connections, and what kinds of connections am I referring to? My simple response is this – I’m thinking a lot about internal connections (within our bodies and internal worlds) and external connections (social, outward) as we move, many of us feeling exhausted by burnout, back into interactions of ALL kinds, far more than we have in quite some time. How do we manage rebuilding connections both within our bodies and with our friends and loved ones after over a year’s sabbatical from doing so?
People Are No Longer a Threat, But Your Brain Doesn’t Know That Yet
Here’s an image for you (and one, where I live, that happens at each grocery store visit.) You pull up to your local store, don your mask, and hop out of your car for a quick run in for a carton of milk. As you enter the store, and you’re walking quickly (because that’s what you do) so you nearly collide headlong with a non-mask wearing, sneezing, “footloose and fancy free” shopper. Because you’re surprised by the person AND the person’s maskless face, your body instantly goes into the “fight or flight” state in which your nervous system begins to scream that you are unsafe, in danger, and/or about to be hurt or killed. None of this is something about which you are consciously aware, but your body, having adjusted to seeing other humans as threats since March, 2020, tells you that you are in danger and that you, the prey getting a carton of milk, might be chased, injured, or KILLED by that sneezing, maskless grocery-getting predator. Your body takes over, protecting you, flooding you with hormones that allow you to make a fast escape or to fight off the threat who is, in reality, just another normal shopper on an errand.
Over the past year, our human yet fundamentally mammalian bodies have evolved to survive COVID-19 (great news!) by telling us that OTHER HUMANS are to be feared (not so great.) While we know now, rationally, that (especially if associating with other vaccinated humans) other people are far less threatening to our survival than they were even several months ago, it is very likely that our ability to feel safety and connection may take some time to recover. In the world of how a body’s nervous system responds, yesterday’s poison cannot be today’s pleasure.
From a mental health perspective, utilizing the concept of Polyvagal Theory (developed by Dr. Stephen Porges), it is very likely that we will need to spend quite some time rewiring our brains (and the subsequent autonomic nervous system vagal states that our brains control) to relearn that humans are safe, secure beings. A premise of this theory is that humans are primally and innately wired to seek safety and connection in one another (ventral vagal state), and yet when threatened we shift into a dysregulated state of fight/flight (sympathetic vagal state) or a state of complete shut down or collapse (dorsal vagal state.) For many of us, this past year has meant more time in the latter two – seeing other humans as threats to our safety and thereby shutting down or feeling compelled to fight or flee. For an excellent podcast about this topic, I recommend listening to episode 267 of a podcast called, Therapy Chat, in which polyvagal therapy “godmother,” Deb Dana is interviewed. The more that we can allow ourselves and retrain ourselves to experience other humans as safe and part of our healing, the more we will find ourselves seeking this kind of safety and connection.
Recovering from Burnout = Rebuilding Social Connections
As we shift to our external connections and moving away from experiencing other humans as a threat (physically, somatically, emotionally), we need to acknowledge that part of recovering from burnout is that we desperately need social connections. Because we’re out of practice and neurologically out of synch, it might feel awkward, weird, or even scary! Here are a few suggestions for ways to create those feelings of safety and connection, gradually spending more time in this special and life-sustaining polyvagal state:
- Savor a moment. You know when you find yourself walking your dog, lost in the beauty and awe of that moment, connecting to your pet and the universe? Take a moment to truly savor it – feel the safety, close your eyes, and simmer in the sunshine of being connected.
- Walk with a friend. We know that COVID-19 is nearly non-transmissible outdoors, and if two vaccinated people are taking a walk, you’re all-but-golden. Find a trusted, close pal to go be in physical and emotional synchrony with. Finish with a hug at the end!
- Host a small “coming in” gathering with a few close friends, especially if they’re other vaccinated, agreeable folks. Now that we’re more safely able to gather indoors, it feels rather novel to go into a pal’s home again. Offer your space for this special experience for you and some of your closest confidants.
Above all, as we allow our nervous systems to reinterpret other humans as friends and not foes, and as we cautiously wade into the waters of rebuilding our social lives, please, let’s be patient with ourselves and with others. Your feelings of burnout did not happen overnight, and the biological processes that are behind them are in place to ensure your survival so you really don’t want an “instant fix” here. Go easy, have patience, and know that you’re on the path out of the dark days of missed connections as you create bridges to a more relaxed, connected future.
If you want extra help working through what you’re struggling with, I offer therapy for stress and burnout to get you moving in the right direction.
Leah Rockwell, LPC, LCPC is a licensed professional counselor in PA and MD, providing online counseling services for women suffering from burnout. She’s a lovingly direct counselor and a co-parenting mom of two daughters, determined to make the world a better place for tomorrow’s girls. In former lives, she was a Spanish teacher, a sex education instructor, a wine vendor, and she is pretty sure she was a mermaid.