An illustration of a gauge from happy to stressed representing allostatic overload

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The changes that came with the COVID-19 pandemic have ranged from jarring to downright traumatic. It’s not just that we all have to deal with them—it’s that we have to deal with them everywhere all the time. They’ve disrupted our most common routines: commuting to work, chatting with coworkers over lunch, and even visiting loved ones.

What’s worse, none of us got much time to adjust. The world keeps spinning. Who has the time (or strength) to consider next steps in a career journey?

Actually, you do—but only if you’re able to refocus. You can do that in three steps:

  • Understand that you are not alone
  • Identify your stressors
  • Ensure that the career decisions you make are mindful, not reactionary

Follow these, and you’ll find you can overcome compounding challenges and overwhelming stress—or, as scientists call it, “allostatic overload.”

Allostatic Overload: We’re All Dealing with It

In what may be a comforting revelation, there’s an actual scientific term for the compounding feelings of stress that we’ve all experienced since early 2020: allostatic load. According to Bruce McEwen and Eliot Stellar, the researchers who coined the term,  allostatic load refers to the toll that chronic stress and anxiety take on our bodies.

When that wear and tear becomes too much, we reach allostatic overload.

Allostatic overload makes it difficult to relax, feel safe, or even have fun—let alone focus on your next big career move. Your body and mind are on red alert, and they simply refuse to turn off. It sounds intense—and it is—but understanding why you are feeling this way is the first step to overcoming it.

How to Overcome Allostatic Overload

More likely than not—that is, if you’re like 41.1% of adults in the United States—your body was not naturally equipped to handle the allostatic overload brought on by the pandemic. As a result, you’ve probably felt mentally and physically exhausted from holding everything in.

The best way to remedy that is a two-step process:

  1. Identify your burdens.
  2. Consciously release yourself from them.

Step 1: Identify your burdens.

When allostatic load starts to build, stop what you’re doing and acknowledge what you’re feeling. When we honor our feelings and accept them for what they are, they become much less scary—and much easier to deal with. That will put you on solid ground again, and you can continue to move forward with a clear head.

  • Evaluate how your body responds to stress. If your palms suddenly begin to sweat, your breathing becomes rapid, or your heart rate increases, your body is letting you know you are in a stressful situation. Understanding when you’re stressed allows you to understand why you’re stressed. So start being mindful of the signals your body is sending you.
  • List what’s stressing you out. Jot down the events, tasks, or interactions that trigger your anxiety. This will help you identify patterns and, from there, identify which stressors come from external sources (like a meeting or evaluation) and which are internal (doubts or insecurities).

Step 2: Consciously release your burdens.

Next, you’ll need to bridge the gap between feeling and doing. Here are a few quick tips you can use in your daily life:

  • Take a deep breath. It sounds overly simple, but breathing really is an effective way to elicit a relaxation response and combat those nasty anxieties that make it so hard to focus.
  • Practice positive affirmations. As your allostatic load builds, you’ve probably caught yourself thinking or saying, “This is too much! I cannot do this right now!” Catch those negative thoughts before you start to spiral into overload. Then replace them with positive affirmations such as, “I have the expertise my team needs to get this done” or “I take pride in the work that I do.” A bit of verbal self-kindness will go a long way towards improving your mental wellbeing.
  • Find a way to physically release stress. Anxiety can affect you physically as much as it does mentally, so provide your body with physical stress release. That doesn’t mean you have to go for a run. The tapping method is a popular technique similar to acupuncture that involves controlled tapping of pressure points across your body. You could also try coloring books, meditation, or baking.

If you try all of these or other methods and still feel burnt out at work, it may be a sign that you’re overdue for a career change. Just be sure that your decision isn’t a result of a fight-or-flight moment of panic—and don’t just go and quit because everyone else is doing it.

The Great Resignation: Mindful Evolution or Collective Allostatic Overload?

According to an Indeed survey, 67% of current employees report that their feelings of burnout have gotten worse during the pandemic. This type of statistic has been making the rounds for quite some time now. In fact, it is pointed out again and again as one of the key contributing factors of the Great Resignation—the record-breaking wave of workers quitting their jobs amidst the pandemic.

It seems people are just over it. But perhaps the global community is experiencing a collective allostatic overload.

We know that our bodies and minds are affected by the trauma of the pandemic, and that many of us were already unhappy when that started. Dealing with micromanagers, stressful commutes, slow promotions, and even discrimination was bad enough. It’s no surprise that a pandemic on top of all that brought knee-jerk resignations.

If you’re feeling the effects of an allostatic overload and considering leaving your current position because of it, take a moment to stop and reflect. Remember a lot of people are feeling this way. Identify your stressors. Then consider your career mindfully: Would leaving your job alleviate your anxieties or exacerbate them? Are you considering keeping your job just because you have it?

There are plenty of valid reasons to leave your current employer behind. In fact, we’ve actually been holding onto our jobs much longer now than we have in the past, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. But when you do eventually make that next big jump in your career, make sure it will land you in a better place. Don’t let allostatic overload speak for you.

Zoom meetings will continue. Remote work is certainly here to stay. The Great Resignation is just beginning. This is our new normal—but allostatic overload doesn’t have to be a part of it or the way you shape your career.


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