The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™
AUG 2004, Sec. I
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!
Table of Contents
Shrink Rap: Stress Overture
Main Essay I: Are You Surviving the Burnout Battlefront?
Main Essay II: A Three-Step Model of Burnout Recovery
Readers: Words to Live By
Main Essay III: Prevention: Natural SPEED and Psychological Hardiness
Heads Up: Estrin Paralegal Superconference, PESI Health Care,
Howard County Community College Health Fare, Indiana Univ.
Kelley School of Business
Offerings: Training Kit, Books, CD and AOL Chat
This edition of the newsletter contains a new Shrink Rap and a three-part series
on stress and burnout. The rap was inspired by PR firm. The first-part of this
series has already been published by the Greater Los Angeles Assn. of Legal
Administrators' Leadership Exchange, Aug 2004. Wendy Sweet, Managing
Editor, caught my live program at a conference in LA for Legal Administrators
and invited a submission. The series will also be appearing in slightly edited
form in the newsletter of the Potomac Chapter/Professional Meeting Planners
Intl. The series draws on content from my new book: Practice Safe Stress:
Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout, & Depression. Speaking
of which, the book has a cool new cover. People in the bookbusiness/publishing
industry thought my using Munch's image, "The Scream," was a bit too scary.
I'll be scanning in the cover on my website --
On to the rap...
It's a "lean-and-MEAN" world that's 24/7
"Do more with less"
It's your mantra to heaven
Or to a promotion
So why so much whining and all the commotion?
You're job is essential
It's a matter of course
Unless shipped to India
And you've been outsourced.
But let's not be negative.
Get a grip on your rage.
Have faith in ol' Dubya.
He's sure to increase that minimum wage.
Or are the money and mortgage golden handcuffs?
Sorry -- anytime-anywhere
Never can be enough.
So forget that lifeline
Between work and home
Your soul has been transferred to a cellular phone.
Now the mind races when ear and cell are apart
And like a caged gerbil
You're turning purple, but
Proudly proclaiming right from the start
That blackberry burnout is your purple heart!
So what is the answer to this modern duress?
Should you try Prozac?
Is it time to confess?
To ebay shopping -- which may be a warning
When you're clicking madly at three in the morning.
Still, have no fear...
The Stress Doc is here to lay worries to rest
Now listen and learn to Practice Safe Stress!
Main Essay: I
The Four Stages of Burnout:
Are You Surviving the Burnout Battlefront?
Today's world is 24/7, wired and always on, often cycling between upgrading and
reorganizing (if not outsourcing and downsizing). And the company mantra: "do
more with less." Big surprise…many folks are feeling "lean-and-MEAN" at the
burnout battlefront. But have no fear (well, maybe a little) the "Stress Doc"
is here. With insight, humor, and clear concepts and practical skills, this
three-part series will help you survive and thrive in these turbulent times:
Part I: The Four Stages of Burnout: A Self-Assessment Tool
Part II: A Three-Step Model of Burnout Recovery
Part III: Developing Psychological Hardiness and Natural SPEED: Prevention
The Erosive Spiral
The classic setup for burnout is a professional or personal situation that
places ongoing high demands and responsibilities upon you while restricting your
sense of control, autonomy and/or authority. Inflexibly high expectations and
elusive goals only add fuel to the fire. Consider my Vital Lesson of the Four "R"s:
If no matter what you do or how you try, Results, Rewards, Recognition, and
Relief are not forthcoming and you can't say and mean "No" or won't let
go…trouble awaits. The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and
Have I captured your attention?
Let me now provide a working definition: Burnout is a gradual process by
which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and relationships
in response to excessive and prolonged stress and mental, physical, and
emotional strain. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism, and confusion…a
feeling of being drained and having nothing more to give. Whew!
It's time to examine some of the progressive signs of being caught up in this
erosive spiral. Here are "The Four Stages of Burnout":
1. Physical, Mental, and Emotional Exhaustion. Do you recognize this
sequence? Maybe you are still holding it together at work, but as soon as you
get home it's right for the fridge. You get out the Ben & Jerry's or the light
beer, turn on the tube, hit the sofa, and then you're comatose for the rest of
the evening. Normally you pride yourself on doing a thorough job, a high
quality performance. But all the budget cuts have you looking for shortcuts, if
not cutting corners. And this gnaws at your self-esteem; maybe you waver
between resentment and pangs of guilt. A case of the "brain strain" is
developing, accompanied by an energy shortage and feelings of exhaustion. If
stress continues unabated, you may be ripe for the second stage.
2. Shame and Doubt. At this stage, for example, when a supervisor asks
you to take on a new assignment your first reaction is to be helpful, but
suddenly a voice inside silently screams, "Who are you kidding!" So what's
happening? You're feeling shaky in the present and losing confidence about
managing the future. You can even start discounting past accomplishments.
Remember, this is not a logical process but a psychological one. Will
colleagues, friends, or family members sense that something is wrong. Are you
being exposed as an impostor?
And then you catch yourself emitting heavy, labored sighs. (When do people
often engage in heavy, labored sighing and breathing…other than when calling
those 1-900 numbers? Just kidding.) But seriously, the sighing stress smoke
signal can occur when experiencing a deep sense of loss, or when ego-relevant
change is perceived as uncontrollable. Is chronically grappling with a profound
sense of vulnerability or uncertainty your favorite state? It's certainly not
mine. No surprise that some folks progress to the third phase: "Cynicism and
Are you starting to feel I've been looking in your window? Don't bail out; two
more stages to go. And next we'll check out your "tude."
3. Cynicism and Callousness. Not surprisingly, in response to these
vulnerable feelings some people put on their heavy armor. Do these expressions
sound familiar: "Look out for # 1," "Cover your derriere," "Get out of my
way," "No one's getting to me," and "That's that!" And in the short run this
strategy may work: you become sufficiently abrasive people start avoiding you.
But over time this hard exterior can become a heavy burden. Ironically, it's
often "nice" people who like to accommodate others, that are susceptible.
What can't nice guys and nice gals do? They can't say "No!" They lack
confidence in setting limits or establishing boundaries, especially with
authority figures. They are indiscriminately pleasing and often try to avoid
conflict. In moderation, being a people pleaser can be endearing and helpful;
in excess it leads to dysfunctional relating and exhaustion. Remember, burnout
is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away. Not
surprisingly, you can become resentful; people are taking advantage of you. And
the sensitive individual begins developing a calloused skin for self-protection.
And there's another salient issue. Burnout doesn't just facilitate a hardening
of the psyche, that hard attitude. When your stress starts to smolder and turns
to frustration, seething anger, and then "why are they trying to do this to me"
mistrust…this is also a formula for a hardening of the arteries. High blood
pressure, hypertension, cardiovascular complications, even heart attacks and
brain attacks (or strokes) are potential health risks. Which is why, sometimes,
I'd rather have people hit the fourth stage, than be trapped in the third:
"Failure, Helplessness, and Crisis." While it sounds terrible, consider this:
hitting bottom means there's no more downward spiral. And if you can reach out,
there's nowhere to go but up.
4. Failure, Helplessness, and Crisis. Being caught in that "Career
Catch-22" often signals the final stage: Damned if you do; damned if you
don't. Damned if you stay, damned if you leave. Your coping structure seems to
be coming unglued. Next stop, the Stress Doc's couch. Hopefully not, but the
crisis smoke signals are billowing big time. Why is that? Burnout is like
trying to race a marathon - 26 miles, full speed, nonstop…no way. Even Olympic
marathon runners must pace themselves. Without pacing the body parts wear out
and the mental apparatus breaks down. In fact, one reason the fourth stage is
so disorienting psychologically is that there are cracks in your defensive
armor. Painful memories and old hurts, normally under cover, are pushing to the
forefront of our consciousness, coloring our everyday perceptions. Now a mate's
occasional, somewhat annoying behavior really irritates as it reminds you of a
mannerism of your father. Or jealousy towards a colleague reeks of sibling
Before throwing up your hands, remember, burnout is not for wimps. A lot of
other folks would have jumped ship much earlier. Many reach the farther stages
of burnout because of a sense of responsibility, tenacity, and dedication.
Noble qualities unless paired with a too rigid or "one right way" of thinking.
Then, especially in times of overload, uncertainty, and major change, a
performance benefit can quickly turn into a professional liability.
And finally, there's the question of the millennium: Why is Prozac and its
chemical cousins so popular these days? It's not rocket science, just plain
medical science. Prolonged stress over time will do a number on the functioning
of your hormonal and biochemical systems, influencing the workings of such
neurotransmitters as Serotonin. Serotonin is instrumental in mood stability.
While these new psychotropic medications, especially when combined with
counseling, bring real symptom relief for many (usually without adverse side
effects) the moral is clear. Prolonged stress over time can lead to mood
instability, and even clinical depression, especially if there is some genetic
predisposition, early childhood loss, or unresolved post-traumatic stress.
Fourth stage burnout is the crisis point; it's crunch time. Are you ready to
step up to the plate and reach out for the help and resources you need? A
person recovers and expands his or her strengths and possibilities through a
1) getting proper support from a professional trained in crisis intervention and
2) confronting denial, false hopes, cynicism, and helplessness
3) grieving past and present losses while turning guilt and hurt, anxiety and
aggression into focused energy
4) acquiring skills and technology for transforming new awareness and motivation
My poetic anthem to burnout and beyond:
For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire.
Four stages of burnout. Four steps for recovery and rejuvenation. Are you
ready to experience creative burnout? Stay tuned to Part II for a burnout
recovery model and until then…Practice Safe Stress
Main Essay: II
Burnout Rejuvenation and Prevention -- Part II
Key Steps and Strategies
Part I of this three-part series examined "The Four Stages of Burnout": 1)
Physical, Mental, and Emotional Exhaustion, 2) Shame and Doubt, 3) Cynicism and
Callousness, and 4) Failure, Helplessness, and Crisis. And while the erosive
spiral can undermine energy, confidence, and even physical health, a burnout
crisis can provide both danger and opportunity. And the Stress Doc knows from
Back in the 80s, I was a very unrealistic doctoral student trying to turn a
mystical-like experience in psychoanalysis into a doctoral dissertation.
Several factors fired my questionable motivation: a) a desire to discover a
doctoral topic that wouldn't feel like an academic exercise, b) being driven to
pursue a unique dissertation to compensate for long-standing feelings of
intellectual self-doubt and unworthiness: I was going to "show them," i.e.,
those past and present skeptics, critics, and so-called authorities, and c) a
still inchoate inner artist having a subliminal tug of war with my practical
doctoral student persona. For the sake of brevity, let's just say I was
definitely off the academic wall. As I would later write: "Academic
flashdancing definitely whirled to a burnout tango." And for several months, I
was laid low by exhaustion, existential emptiness, and stress-induced and
frightening dizzy spells.
Fortunately, a silver lining emerged from the academic ashes. I became an
expert on stress and burnout eventually evolving a process of self-care that, I
believe, can be instrumental for both burnout recovery and, even, prevention.
Consider these strategic steps for "R & R" - Rehabilitation and Rejuvenation:
1. Good Grief. While the burnout experience ultimately helped clarify
my career path, it took several months to get out of the "Big Muddy" and "Big
Moody." I needed time to tend to my wounds. Also, a major loss can undermine
your sense of identity. I needed to know that significant others still loved
and respected me despite my feelings of academic failure and personal
humiliation. You may need a mentor or a counselor who can reconfirm your
pre-crisis identity, who can see strengths when you are fixated on your
weaknesses. And you don't have to wait till you are in fourth stage burnout to
start grieving. In fact, recognizing the need to grapple with a changing
reality or to question irrational or idealistically rigid expectations is a sign
of ego strength. And the earlier that one can grieve and "let go" the easier
for emotional catharsis to become a burnout prevention tool as well as a base
for rebuilding healthy purpose and passion.
2. The Four "R"s of Burnout Recovery: Running, Reading, Retreating, and
(a) Running. After regaining my energy and balance, I started a regimen
of daily jogging. First, thirty-forty minutes of nonstop large muscle movement
(jogging, brisk walking, cycling, swimming, etc.) will get those
disposition-enhancing endorphins pumping. The chemical influx helps slow a
racing mind and helps lift a sluggish mood. Also, running or jogging is great
for grounding you when you're feeling vulnerable or when life feels uncertain
and up in the air. There's a beginning and end point culminating in a tangible
sense of control and accomplishment. This routine can readily evolve into a
success ritual, a robust tool for both burnout prevention and recovery.
(b) Reading. In some of my darkest hours I turn to humorous novels or
cartoon books (like Calvin and Hobbes) to add some absurdity, if not levity, to
my perspective. Hearty laughter also releases endorphins, giving vital organs a
brief but vigorous internal massage. As the erosive effects of burnout had
spiraled, my playful and humorous mindset had withered. How wonderful it was to
laugh again and to chuckle at the irrationality of my outrageous egoal
quest. (What is an egoal? Basically it is goal-seeking behavior that is
driven by obsessive thinking and rigid, wounded, false, or self-righteous
pride.) Self-accepting laughter is a great antidote to embarrassment or shame.
And if reading still feels like a strain, turn on those Seinfeld reruns.
(c) Retreating. After my academic meltdown, I needed time to reflect on
this ego-and identity-shattering process: how and why had I generated this
situational drama and psychophysiological trauma? Retreating also allows time
for engaging some existential biggies: What are my skills, gifts, and talents?
What are my emotional, knowledge, and learning gaps? What direction(s) and what
enterprises really feel like me? The blank canvas is scary. There's no
absolute way or preexisting structure. The blank canvas is exciting. There's
no absolute truth or preexisting limits. To paraphrase Walt Whitman: Follow
the open road and discover or recover your soul.
(d) Writing. Journaling through angst and loss is a time-honored
tradition. And contemporary research indicates that taking the time to express
and analyze your emotions through writing provides a stress-relieving anchor in
a stormy, troubled sea. Reflective writing can also be a source of
self-discovery -- a tool for your healing, understanding, and action, as well as
a medium for keeping the faith.
And one of my favorite ways to prepare for serious writing is by reading.
Reading for enlightenment followed the abovementioned lighthearted variety. I
started devouring books about burnout, and then began to write about it.
Actually, I wasn't quite ready to write directly about my dissertation
meltdown. However, in my therapy practice I was working with a couple of
lawyers who were struggling with exhaustion and other serious smoke signals.
Analyzing their erosive spiral was cathartic. And these writings even led to
speaking at several legal conferences. This academic lemon would make lemonade
by becoming an expert -- therapist, writer, and lecturer - on stress and
burnout...and spread the word far and wide. (Obviously, once an egoal-driven
3. Transition and Diversification. The grieving path - from shock and
sadness to fear and rage -- and the retreating process have three basic goals:
(a) to mourn and let go of a painful or problematic past or path, (b) to help
you reenergize and refocus in the present and (c) to enable you to envision,
design, and achieve a vital future. As Nobel Prize-winning author Albert Camus
observed: "Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved
one [or loved position] obstructed a whole corner of the possible, pure now as a
sky washed by rain."
And it's not just chronic overload or elusive goals that can be pathogenic,
leaving us bereft. Experienced professionals are often susceptible to what I
call the Bjorn Bored Syndrome, named for Bjorn Borg, the late '70s-early '80-s
Swedish tennis great. After winning the French and Wimbledon championships five
years back-to-back, Borg suddenly burned out and dropped out of the circuit.
Despite his many triumphs and the glamour of this stellar world, the novelty and
thrill were gone. The hours and hours of repetitive practice was taking a
toll. The Bjorn Bored Syndrome: "When Mastery times Monotony
provides an index of Misery!" The Stress Doc's recommendation:
Fireproof your life with variety.
Recovering from burnout or rebuilding the fire means engaging in soul searching,
shaking up the personal-professional puzzle, exploring anew, or even returning
to one's passionate roots. This might include such job or career path changes
(1) restructuring current roles and responsibilities; working in another
department or division,
(2) taking a sabbatical; perhaps doing some extended travel,
(3) consulting independently or working for a foundation, an association, or an
(4) going back to school to pursue a heartfelt interest, or even returning to
the classroom as an educator,
(5) going into business for yourself or, if self-employed and running on empty,
joining a company,
(6) recovering a previous creative pursuit and turning it into a career path or,
perhaps, balancing a job with a passionate hobby, e.g., being a musician or a
web programmer on the side, and
(7) pursuing a different professional setting or field, a new geographical
location and, in some cases, even making a major "out of the career box"
transition. While one should carefully consult with family, friends, and
advisors this period of reflection is also the time to listen not just to your
head but also to your heart.
Burnout evokes an experience of loss: from loss of control or abandoning a
cherished goal to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. However, wrestling
with loss often yields new possibilities. As I once penned: Whether the loss
is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion, each deserves the
respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering
jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like
spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.
Engaging with these three strategic steps will provide preventive fireproofing
while enabling you, if necessary, to recover and rejuvenate from a burnout
experience. These ideas and actions will stimulate you to define and design
your transitional future. And finally, these are words to help us all…Practice
Subj: Words to Live By
1. "When I die, I want to die like my grandfather-who died peacefully in his
sleep. Not screaming like all the passengers in his car." Author Unknown
2. Advice for the day: If you have a lot of tension and you get a headache, do
what it says on the aspirin bottle: "Take two aspirin" and Keep away from
children" Author Unknown
3. "Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say so? There's a Support group for
that. It's called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar." Drew Carey
4. "Instead of getting married again, I'm going to find a woman I don't like and
just give her a house," Rod Stewart
5. "The problem with the designated driver program, it's not a desirable job,
but if you ever get sucked into doing it, have fun with it. At the end of the
night, drop them off at the wrong house. Jeff Foxworthy
7. "If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's
life, she will choose to save the infant's life without even considering if
there is a man on base." Dave Barry
9. "Relationships are hard. It's like a full time job, and we should treat it
like one. If your boyfriend or girlfriend wants to leave you, they should give
you two weeks' notice. There should be severance pay, and before they leave you,
they should have to find you a temp." Bob Ettinger
10. "My Mom said she learned how to swim when someone took her out in the lake
and threw her off the boat. I said, 'Mom, they weren't trying to teach you how
to swim." Paula Poundstone
11. "Why does Sea World have a seafood restaurant?? I'm halfway through my fish
burger and I realize, Oh my God... I could be eating a slow learner." Lynda
12. "I think that's how Chicago got started. A bunch of people in New York said,
'Gee, I'm enjoying the crime and the poverty, but it just isn't cold enough.
Let's go west." Richard Jeni
13. "If life were fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators could be
dead." Johnny Carson
14. "Sometimes I think war is God's way of teaching us geography." Paul
15. "My parents didn't want to move to Florida, but they turned sixty, and
that's the law." Jerry Seinfeld
16. "Remember in elementary school, you were told that in case of fire you have
to line up quietly in a single file line from smallest to tallest. What is the
logic in that? What, do tall people burn slower?" Warren Hutcherson
17. "Bigamy is having one spouse too many. Monogamy is the same. Oscar Wilde
18. "Suppose you were an idiot ... And suppose you were a member of
congress...But I repeat myself." Mark Twain
19. "Our bombs are smarter than the average high school student. At least they
can find Afghanistan." A. Whitney Brown
21. "Women complain about premenstrual syndrome, but I think of it as the only
time of the month that I can be myself." Roseanne
23. "You can say any foolish thing to a dog, and the dog will give you a look
that says, 'My God, you're right! I never would've thought of that!'" Dave Barry
24. Do you know why they call it "PMS"? Because "Mad Cow Disease" was taken.
Author Unknown, presumed dead.
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, is a keynote and
international/Celebrity Cruise Lines motivational speaker, psychotherapist,
syndicated writer, and author of his new book, Practice Safe Stress: Healing
and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and The Four
Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Conflict and Rage Into Inspiring Attitude
and Behavior. He was the keynote speaker for the Society of Human Resource
Management (SHRM)--Maryland state chapters at their 2004 Leadership Conference.
The Doc, AOL's "Online Psychohumorist," is a training and OD Consultant for
numerous companies, associations and government agencies. Interviewed by the
BBC and Biography magazine, Mark has a multi-award-winning, USA Today Online
www.stressdoc.com . The site was selected as workplace resource in a
National Public Radio feature on "Bad Bosses." For more info, email
email@example.com or call 202-232-8662.
(c) Mark Gorkin 2004
Shrink Rap Productions