Calm down in order to avoid a burnout

Hands typing very quickly on the keyboard.
Ever more and ever faster: at some point there is no more balance between demands and resources. (Rainer Sturm/

Many people are coming to their limits, and this in an increasing number of areas. They are stressed out, feel out of balance between the demands of life and their own resources. Knowing how to deal with stress is becoming increasingly important.

The word "stress" was coined in the 1930s by Hans Selye, a Canadian Austrian doctor of Hungarian descent. He is known as the "father of research on stress" and until his death in 1982 had written 39 books and no less than 1700 papers on the subject.

In the 1980s, his work was published in more than 362.000 scientific publications and in countless stories, and quoted in most languages and countries. In summarizing his lifework, he wrote: "I have given the world a new word: stress".

Eustress, or positive stress

No doubt, the word stress now belongs to our everyday language, which most certainly can be related to an increasing perception of stress as being negative. However, stress can also be positive, in which case we call it "eustress". We then refer to the stress factors which influence the organism in a positive way. In principle, stress potential is essential for the viability of the organism.

Positive stress increases our attention capacity and benefits the body's performance, without causing any harm. When frequent and long-lasting, eustress also has a positive effect on the mental and physical functionality of the organism. Loads which might trigger stress reactions are positive as long as the individual can cope with them without being burdened. Hans Selye defined eustress as the "spices of life".

Distress, or illness-inducing stress

Things look different with distress, which is caused by negative, unpleasant and threatening stress factors. These are often negatively interpreted when they appear frequently, bring about physical imbalance and when strategies for dealing stress do not function.

Normally, a situation experienced as stressful will be followed by a regeneration of an individual's resources, which can be helped with sufficient sleep, healthy eating habits and well balanced activities. In the case of distress however, the individual can no longer cope with burdens without harm. In the long run, this can lead to a deficit of attention and performance.

A heart shape in the snow.
Moments of happiness give us new energy. (Katharina Wieland Müller/

A demanding society

While the challenges of coping with work and family life are constantly increasing, stressful situations occur always more frequently. Not only the demands of our society, but also heavier work loads, fear of losing the job, time pressure, night shifts account for burdening factors, as well as relationship problems, fear of failure, illnesses or various environmental factors.

These changes also take place at an ever increasing rate. The constant challenges and the loss of energy over months or years lead to an enormous depletion of energy for the human body, causing the numbers of mental illnesses such as burnout to increase dramatically.

Protection against stress, or how to live with it

And so, because we cannot expect that people will work for less long or that the demands will sink, the question as to how to protect ourselves from the negative effects of stress or how to deal with stress has gained much relevance. Advice on how to avoid or deal with stress have become today as diverse as the stress factors themselves. Three key elements must be taken into consideration: we need to be aware of the causes of stress, be reminded of our own resources and make sure to make time for relaxation.

Recognize the stress factors

Of course, society and economy are requested to do their part to resolve these increasing problems. In dealing with stress, it is important to remain aware that if the larger situation cannot be changed, we can certainly influence how we tackle the situation itself. Negative stress can only be successfully approached by bringing about the necessary changes in one's behaviour, whereby a further step could also involve changes in the immediate environment.

To this end, it is necessary to identify one's individual stress factors, and to ask oneself the right questions as to why we fell stressed out. Is it because of too much responsibility at work, the constant fear of loosing the job, no spare time or not enough time for family and children? Only when the causes of stress are known is it possible to do something against it and to reduce the stress factors.

Four flat stones on top of each other to signify balance.
To find to one’s balance with relaxation. (Rainer Sturm/

Lust for life

Through the increasing demands, the time in which we can become aware of our achievements is getting thinner and thinner. However, these are the moments which give us energy and the desire to live. Therefore it is important to be aware of what helps us to relax, to generate new energy and to feel good. What do I enjoy doing? What gives me a particular sense of well-being? What gives me the most energy?

At the same time it can be helpful to consider in which area of life do I invest the most time and energy? Work? Family? Spare time? Health? While some of these areas give us energy, we can reinvest it elsewhere. It is then important to be aware of the resources and to find the right balance.

We can also gain additional energy through positive experiences, positive thoughts or a positive attitude. Also these things fade away very quickly through the frantic pace of day to day life. It then becomes very important to be able to perceive the positivity in our daily life and in our surroundings. Even smaller things, which sometimes escape our attention, can provide us with moments of happiness: a piece of chocolate, a specific colour, fire, a particular scent, pleasant sounds, etc.

Mental and physical relaxation

Various relaxation techniques help us to react better to stressful situations, and contribute to a mental balance and to a positive attitude. The offers are very diverse. The techniques which are the most applied include:

  • Physical training
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Massage
  • Breathing exercises
  • Yoga
  • Biofeedback
  • Meditation
  • Acupuncture

However, to relax can also mean just to remain quiet and to have nothing to do. To do nothing doesn't mean to read a book or watch a movie, but rather, really to do nothing.

Text: Patrick Gunti - 04/2011
Translation: MyH - 04/2013