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Feeling exhausted and uninspired about work could be about having a bad day. That happens to almost everyone.

Sometimes you might even notice feeling cynical about work with a touch of dread or “Sunday Scaries.” Again, that happens to almost everyone now and then. But what if those kinds of days bleed into weeks or even months? You might be headed for or knee-deep in burnout.

In this article, we will discuss seven key strategies to help you slay stress and burnout. Before we start with those tips though, it helps to start with neuroscience. Then, we will talk about common misconceptions about stress and the difference between acute stress which can be helpful and chronic stress which usually leads to burnout.

I often tell my clients they are like Ferraris, and I don’t want them to have to go into the shop every time they need something. I want to teach them (and you) to understand and use science to change their own oil, if you will, and their own lives.

The first place to start with managing chronic stress and burnout is learning to manage your nervous system, so it doesn’t manage you.

Have you ever been called on in a class or workshop or given a presentation and felt your heart beating rapidly, sweating, suddenly feeling hot or flushed, or felt ‘butterflies’ in your stomach? If so, you have experienced your autonomic nervous system or ANS, for short.

Getting to Know Your Autonomic Nervous System

Part of the peripheral nervous system, the ANS regulates specific involuntary body processes such as heart rate, breathing, blood flow, digestion, and sexual arousal. Because the ANS innervates all bodily organs to some extent, when it is out of whack, you will feel it.

The ANS is divided into two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

Sympathetic Nervous System: Your Fight - Flight and Stress Response

When you encounter a stressor in your environment, the SNS activates your fight-or-flight response also known as the stress response.

When in balance, we experience a state of homeostasis.

How the Autonomic Nervous System Works

Our stress response extends beyond the SNS and involves a complex interplay of bodily systems, including the SNS, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and the immune system.

When something in our environment signals the need to act, our stress response triggers a variety of signals to help us do that: increased heart and breathing rate (to propel you into action), tunnel vision (to help you focus on what’s in front of you more than the context), slowed digestion (not needed while moving), muscle tension and contractions (to shift energy/blood to other areas to help you move), and sweating (to cool down the body).

Russ Harris discussed the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Other systems, such as the hypothalamus, alert the body to release adrenaline and cortisol for energy and attention while acetylcholine is released to power your muscles. Ultimately, the primary purpose of our stress response is to activate the body to move and do things or say things.

Parasympathetic Nervous System: Rest-Digest and Relaxation Response

When the perceived threat or danger passes, the PNS signals the body to rest and recover, signaling our relaxation response.

The truth is both of these signals are essential to our day-to-day lives. Sometimes, we need to be alert and act, and sometimes we need to chill out and relax.


Common Misconceptions About Our Stress Response

It’s Only for Emergencies

The most common misconception about stress is that it is only for emergencies. In fact, our stress response is a more generic and universal response. Functioning like a switch, it turns on what we need and turns off what we don’t need. It doesn’t distinguish between stressors. It can be triggered by the more obvious lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) scenario, yet it also fires when you’re faced with a difficult client or steep grades when you’re cycling.

Our stress response helps us perform.

It’s Always Bad for Us

Another common misconception is that experiencing a stress response is bad. Our experience of stress is dictated more by our prefrontal cortex’s or thinking brain’s interpretation of the signals and context, which means that we can manage our stress response, even though we can’t stop it.

This misconception is the most dangerous one because it can cause people to try to avoid and suppress their stress response, which causes it to amplify. Your stress response will fire until you respond to what it needs and flip the PNS switch to recover and relax.

End game for this can often be experiencing a panic attack. A panic attack occurs when you are interpreting normal SNS signals as dangerous or harmful. Your normal SNS responses, which you can’t suppress, become aversive. Your body literally becomes your enemy.

Acute Stress vs. Chronic Stress

Acute Stress

Acute or short-term stress can be good for the body and feel energizing. Your experience typically depends on your interpretation of these signals, the context, and how long they last.

Anxiety and excitement are very close cousins, often powered by the same systems. Suppose you’re delivering a presentation to hundreds of people. In that case, these acute stress signals could be interpreted negatively (anxiety about possible social rejection) or more positively (excitement about what you have to say), depending on your mindset.

And sometimes, acute stress feels like the perfect amount of athletic power you need to cycle that hill, crush the ball in tennis, or even sustain arousal in a sexual context.

Chronic Stress

While isolated acute stress can be helpful in specific contexts, when exposure to a stressor is perceived as intense, repetitive (repeated acute stress), or prolonged (chronic stress) without any relaxation response or recovery period, the stress response is now a problem. This type of exposure is associated with: 

  • Sleep loss (this is one of the first cues that you’re entering the world of chronic stress)

  • Cognitive impairment

  • Anxiety and depression (including anhedonia and a lack of interest in activities)

  • Low libido

  • High blood pressure, and

  • Heart disease

The ANS can trigger our immune response if the SNS keeps overheating the engine with no PNS recovery period. For example, chronic stress can cause the release of inflammatory cytokines in the body to attack. Usually, if a pathogen is present, they do their job and leave. With chronic stress, cytokines stay too long and along with the adverse effects of SNS dominance. This process has been linked to:

  • Depression

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBS)

What is Parasympathetic Recovery?

The good news is that while the stress response acts like a switch depending on SNS activity, the PNS also can be used like a switch to activate the relaxation response.

In my practice, parasympathetic recovery is the most critical strategy I teach my clients to slay chronic stress and banish burnout.

Parasympathetic recovery is a term that covers the variety of strategies that you can use to intentionally switch on your PNS when you need it, so creating a relaxation response on demand or as close as you can get it.

Below are recommended research-based strategies to practice parasympathetic recovery and reign in your stress response when you need to:

1. Just Breathe.

One of the most powerful weapons you have is something you always do. The only change here is how you do it.

When things get overwhelming, try this quick and effective breathing exercise called the physiological sigh. You can do this by taking two short inhales through your nose, followed by a long exhale (at least five counts) through pursed lips. This movement signals your brain to lower your heart rate quickly and activate your relaxation response.

Other effective breathing techniques are box breathing and 4-7-8 breathing. Some of my clients want to get ninja on this and also learn about heart rate variability and enjoy using the Emwave.

Fun fact: When we exhale, we offload cortisol. This is why that dogs can, indeed, smell our stress.

2. Interoceptive Awareness – Feeling From the Inside Out

Interoceptive awareness strategies use your ability to tune in fully to your ANS and feel what’s happening inside your body. Without this skill, you’re flying blind because you’re unaware of when you would need to use any recovery strategies. Noticing signs of stress earlier and responding to your body’s needs could save you from experiencing panic.

Over time, this awareness can help you prevent burnout.

When faced with a stressor, for example, speaking in public, the first step would be to concentrate on how it feels in your body. Where do you feel it in your body? Maybe your heart rate is up, or your palms start to sweat. When one of these symptoms begins, think of it like you’re surfing over a huge wave, and you can feel your adrenaline rising higher and higher.

When you surf the wave, it’s helpful to establish a reference point. How intense is it on a scale of 1-10?

When the number is higher, more body-based or bottom-up strategies like physical movement, the physiological sigh, and controlled breathing exercises are helpful.

When it’s lower, more cognitive or top-down techniques like mindfulness can be beneficial. Please note that for some people with anxiety and PTSD who have a problem processing these signals, these strategies can be too uncomfortable, and others (e.g., exteroceptive awareness) must be used first.


  •  Check out my podcast episode on practicing interoceptive awarenessthe neuroscience behind it, how to do it, when it works and when it doesn’t.

3. Burst Physical Exertion and Physical Movement.

One way to fend off physical symptoms when stress arises is to lean into them. Sounds counterintuitive, but if you’re feeling full of pent-up frustration, increase your heart rate by doing some physical exercise (like ten quick push-ups in your office between calls, taking the stairs at work, or using a walking treadmill for your standing desk if you WFH).

This gives your body an outlet to release the built-up adrenaline and cortisol that has nowhere to go and respond to the signals your body is getting to move.

One of the keys to managing stress is RESPONDING to what your body needs. If you are feeling a fight-flight response, then sitting still is not going to work.

Exertion can later trigger a relaxation response and release endorphins.


4. Exteroceptive Awareness – Feeling from the Outside In

Being both present and shifting your attention away seems contradictory, but it’s actually an excellent tool for managing stress. Exteroceptive awareness (awareness of what’s going on outside your body) is also a great way to engage your PNS. Be sure to limit the intensity of external stimuli. Too much, and you can become overwhelmed as though you’re in a crowded area like a football game or concert.

An excellent exercise asks you to identify 5 things you see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste around you. Shifting your awareness from your inner world to your sensory experience of the outside world can activate your PNS.  

Try practicing one or more of these strategies daily several times a day when you’re not stressed. You can do these in a few minutes.


5. Short Breaks and Vacations

During the day, try to inject short breaks into your routine and, if you can, move or stand to combat the adverse effects of prolonged sitting. Set a time for 45 minutes and walk down the hall, down the street, or shift to your standing desk.

Instead of taking longer but less frequent vacations, try taking shorter but more frequent vacations. Current research shows that the positive effects of a vacation are real and measurable but fade after 3 weeks. More frequent but shorter vacations are the key.

Busy professionals often face unique barriers to therapy.

6. Set Compassionate Boundaries.

Learn when and how to set boundaries with people at work and at home. Research shows that healthy boundaries are key to relationship success because they promote compassion. When your stress response is triggered by another person’s stressful behavior, such as frequent yelling or arguing, the other techniques can only help you so much.

  • Read this blog article about why setting boundaries can actually be a compassionate move. This skill is one that Brene Brown has said helped her learn “that people were [not] sucking on purpose just to piss me off.”

7. Enhance Positive Social Connections.

If possible, limit your contact with people who stress you out or engage in negative communication habits such as frequently complaining, gossiping, or criticizing others. Instead, surround yourself with meaningful relationships that make you feel loved and secure.

If your closest relationships feel toxic, that can be a sign that consulting a professional could be helpful. In addition to therapy for individuals, there are evidence-based therapy options for couples and families.

Although these strategies can help you create and maintain parasympathetic recovery to prevent chronic stress and burnout, there are limits.

When you’re dealing with a job that comes with shift work, excessively long days, limited time off, or a toxic work environment, or you’re going through a relationship loss or have experienced a traumatic event, you can still help yourself. It’s just more difficult. In those instances, it can be helpful to seek resources at work and home and professional support.

There is one last area that is more of the foundation of the seven tips above.

Emphasizing the Basics: Enhancing Your Relationship with Your Physical Body

This is the strategy that rules them all. One last tip for parasympathetic recovery and your overall functioning beyond the seven listed above.

These are critical.

For now, in addition to those body-first strategies mentioned above, here is a list of the most important factors with the acronym DIMS, which is what happens to us if we don’t address these every single day.

  1. D = Diet

  2. I = Interacting with Nature (in green spaces such as parks and forests, and blue spaces like oceans, creeks, and rivers)

  3. M = Movement + Exercise (for your nervous system health, mental health, and overall well-being, independent of weight loss)

  4. S = (adequate) Sleep and Sunlight

However, please note that often taking these actions can be difficult. There are individual, social, and systematic factors that can make this difficult for people to do on their own. These barriers are real. If you struggle here, it is ok.

The key here is making small changes. Change is not made by big leaps. Indeed, expecting and seeking big, unrealistic leaps can often stifle change. Change is one step in front of the other and little wins end up making a big impact.


As well as having extensive training in the treatment of anxiety and its related issues, our team of therapists also offers a wide variety of online therapy services in North Carolina and all PSYPACT states. We work with lawyers, entrepreneurs, students, parents, and teens who are dealing with stress and burnout, trauma and loss, ADHD, depression, and life transitions. Our goal is to help you find success both professionally and personally so you can gain Momentum to excel in a bright future.


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