Struggling with feelings of burnout, stress in lockdown? Look at your daily routine, says health expert

With the rest of the country cautiously opening up to COVID-19 alert level Delta-2, Aucklanders are still staring down the barrel of a couple more weeks of restrictions at levels 3 and 4, and many people are getting pretty over it. 

While the 2020 lockdowns saw many of us walking daily, placing soft toys in windows for children to spy and baking loaves of fresh sourdough to keep us nourished, this lockdown has seen many people just struggling to fill the day. 

Comedian Chris Parker succinctly sums it up pretty succinctly in this video. 

Lisa Grey, burnout expert and lead clinical researcher at wellness company BePure, says she's seen an increasing number of clients battling with stress and burnout in her clinic this year, and this lockdown is not set to help matters. 

"For some of us, lockdown provides a chance to slow down, avoid the morning rush and get more sleep. For others, lockdown presents a new challenging reality that takes a toll on our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing," she tells Newshub. 

"Temporary unemployment, financial stress, home-schooling, and social isolation are just a few of the challenges many members of our community are facing at present."

Lisa Grey is an expert on burnout and clinician at BePure.
Lisa Grey is an expert on burnout and clinician at BePure. Photo credit: Supplied.

Grey says these challenges, on top of the stress of everyday life, compound and can tip some of us into a state of overwhelm. 

"If you find yourself struggling with daily tasks and unable to get out of bed in the morning, or if you feel like your brain is 'offline' and your creativity amiss - It may be time to tune into your body and give yourself some TLC."

Burnout is formally recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a "work-induced syndrome", but Grey says it can occur in anyone who has endured stress that has not been resolved or effectively managed. 

"The symptoms of burnout are not exclusive to the workplace and for many caregivers and parents lockdown creates a perfect storm, in which stress becomes an omnipresent part of everyday life. 

"For parents or caregivers, lockdown means simultaneously taking on the role of caregiver, full-time teacher, cleaner, chef, playmate and employee without extra resources or hours in the day. For these individuals, this switch in roles often leads to the omittance of self-care activities that help them cope with the hustle of everyday life." 

But even those who aren't parents are heavily impacted by lockdown. 

"The demand for change invoked by lockdown is enough to make any busy human in the modern world feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped to manage their new norm and current stress load."

Grey has put together some advice for those struggling with feelings of burnout and overwhelm at home. She says the most powerful tool to help "foster resilience and get you back on your feet" is one accessible to all of us: Routine. 

Why Routine? 

"As much as we like adventures and novel stimuli, humans are naturally hard-wired to crave stability and routine. This is because regularity and familiarity provide us with a sense of knowing and safety - both of which are very calming to our brain," says Grey. 

"Decision making is stressful to the human brain and the fewer decisions we have to make in our day, the more capacity your brain has for adjusting to new challenges. Having a routine helps to remove some of these choices by creating structure and providing us with a sense of accomplishment on a daily basis."

Grey points out that routine also allows us to create separation between work, down-time and personal care.

"From a physiological point of view, every organ system in our body has a regular rhythm and runs on a diurnal clock or routine. For this reason, routine helps to foster physiological balance and creates a sturdy baseline from which we can flex and bend in times of uncertainty and challenge. 

"Whilst this application may seem simple, when everything feels like it has run amok, routine may be all you need to feel grounded, collected and under control."

What does a good routine look like? 

Grey says a good routine looks different for everyone. 

"It's important not to overcomplicate or take on too much, so start by picking one or two from the list below to get you started."

  • Aim to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day. This encourages us to balance our body by having a regular sleep regime and good quality sleep. 
  • Keep up with personal hygiene by showering and get dressed for the day as if you were going out (even if the clothes you choose are casual and comfortable). This keeps our regular morning routine in place and helps us create a demarcation point between daytime and evening. 
  • Eat nourishing meals at regular time intervals and reduce overstimulation from caffeine and processed foods. This helps to balance your blood sugar levels, keeping energy levels and your temperament stable. Eating regular meals abundant in nutrient-dense whole foods also helps to reduce inflammation, support good gut health and boost our immune system. 
  • Keep to a daily schedule of exercise and movement - this helps the body to exert mental stress through physical exertion - an amazing tool for helping to "blow off steam" and inhibit stress accumulation. Exercise also helps to boost our immune system. Choose something that you enjoy and you walk away from feeling lifted by. 
  • Get outside for a minimum of 30 minutes every day regardless of the weather - especially in the morning to signal to your brain it is daytime and give your body exposure to light. Our body is photosensitive and responds favourably to direct natural light exposure. 
  • Allocate time for working and time for resting. You may want to do this by creating separate "zones" in your home to differentiate work areas from play and leisure areas. This physical separation helps our brain to mentally "leave work" at the end of day and switch our brains to play or relaxation mode. 
  • Adopt daily mindfulness or reflective practice. If this is new to you, setting up a new routine is the perfect time to start. It is harder to create new habits when we already have a routine established - creating a new routine permits us to adopt new behaviours with ease. This might include; deep belly breathing, use of a meditation app like headspace, journalling, a daily yoga practice. Consider what anchors and relaxes you -music, dance, crafts, outdoor time, cooking or gardening. 
  • Limit screen time especially in the evening. Be aware of how much time you spend in front of a screen every day. Make sure that you take regular breaks from on-screen activities including TV, phone, video and computer use. Try to reduce how much you watch, read or listen to news that makes you feel anxious or distressed. Seek the latest information at specific times of the day, once or twice a day if needed.
  • Stay connected - Social contact is important. If your movements are restricted, keep in regular contact with people close to you by telephone and online channels
  • Top up on key nutrients that can help alleviate symptoms of burnout: Magnesium, zinc, omega 3, vitamin B, vitamin D and selenium. If you struggle to get all of these in your diet, supplement producers like BePure, Eve, Clinicians and Healtheries all have products designed to fight burnout. Supportive herbs include kava, passionflower, lemon balm, ashwagandha rhodiola and theanine. 

For parents and caregivers, it is common for children to seek more of your attention during times of stress and uncertainty. Here are a few things you can do to support your whānau.

  • Maintain familiar routines as much as possible, or create new ones your family can all engage with. This might include sticking to usual bedtimes, weekday mealtimes, and creating space for school/work and play for your whole family. 
  • Help children find positive ways to express feelings such as fear and sadness. Creative activities can be a great way to do this - Get your kids to draw pictures, write poems or stories, build something, bake a cake, sing, dance, or engage in imaginary play. All of these encourage time away from screens and give our children a chance to use their creativity to express themselves in a fun way. 
  • Help children stay in regular contact with friends and family members through telephone, email, social media or video calls.