‘We wear it as a badge of honour’: Diane Wolf on why it’s important to fight burnout

In times of uncertainty, the Peterborough-based psychotherapist is providing the tools to help prioritize the self

According to Peterborough-based psychotherapist Diane Wolf, being stressed is often considered a "badge of honour" because it means we're busy and productive and, as is often the case with women, taking care of the needs of others. However, it is critical to take the time to look after yourself as constant stress can lead to burnout and health problems. (Stock photo)

It makes sense that during the pandemic so many of us felt overwhelmed, exhausted, stressed, and — here’s that word we’ve all heard so much and yet don’t seem to say enough ourselves — burnt-out. But now that we’ve gone back to the normal routine, why are so many people still feeling this way?

If you were to ask Peterborough psychotherapist Diane Wolf, she would tell you it’s because we never did return to “normal.”

“As a society, we’ve really lost that sense of predictability, stability, and control,” she says. “We’re living in a huge time of uncertainty.”

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Rising living costs, environmental concerns, wars, viruses, isolation caused by social media — these are all just a handful of the many external factors that have put a strain on individual mental well-being.

“Perception is reality and many of us just do not feel that the world is a safe space anymore,” Wolf says. “I want to reassure people that, if you’re feeling stressed out and burned out and overwhelmed, welcome to the club. You’re not alone, and this is our reality.”

Though burnout — which is defined as a state of exhaustion caused by prolonged stress — has become extremely common in today’s landscape, why do so many people have difficulty acknowledging it?

Diane Wolf is a Peterborough-based psychotherapist, business consultant, and educator who primarily treats first responders living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She emphasizes that getting regular exercise, being outdoors in nature, and getting enough sleep are important ways to fight stress and burnout. (Photo: Heather Doughty)
Diane Wolf is a Peterborough-based psychotherapist, business consultant, and educator who primarily treats first responders living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She emphasizes that getting regular exercise, being outdoors in nature, and getting enough sleep are important ways to fight stress and burnout. (Photo: Heather Doughty)

“We want to be productive, we want to get things done, and we want to feel successful,” Wolf says. “We wear it as a badge of honour, saying ‘I’m so busy, I’m so tired, I only got four hours sleep’ as though this is a good thing.”

Wolf explains that when we live by this mindset, not only do we let ourselves get overworked, stressed, and exhausted, but when it all becomes too much to bear, the first thing that flies out the window and gets pushed aside is our own self-care.

“Making a commitment to someone else sadly works better than making a commitment to yourself,” she says. “You’ll likely let yourself down but won’t let others down.”

Wolf uses this rationale to her advantage in her own life by scheduling aquafit classes in advance and meeting her grandchildren for walks. Putting both in her calendar ensures she does not cancel on her time spent outside and exercising, both of which are essential for fighting burnout.

Biologically, when the human body is under stress, it releases cortisol and adrenaline to prepare it to deal with that added stress. This gives us the energy to, for example, run from a wild animal. But when we are stressed at work, we likely aren’t physically releasing those stress hormones (unless, perhaps, you’re hitting a punching bag every day at the office).

“We shut our mouths and just pretend we’re fine,” Wolf says. “So, that cortisol and adrenaline doesn’t get released in the activity, and instead courses through our veins and causes a myriad of physical symptoms that lead to stress-related illnesses.”

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While daily exercise helps with the physical release of stress hormones, being outside has the emotional benefits.

“Serotonin, which is another good hormone to have, gets simulated when you’re outside or with other people,” Wolf says. “Studies have shown that people feel a lot better when they have been out in nature.”

For those who know they are experiencing burnout but think they can’t de-stress or rest their mind until they’ve checked off their whole to-do list, Wolf explains it’s essential to “recognize it as a return on investment.”

She uses an image of your brain having two chambers: the sympathetic nervous system which is indicated by adrenaline and cortisol, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the “zen” or “rest” area. Both chambers must work in equilibrium with one another.

“The problem is, when you’ve been agitated and you’re stressed, your heart rate is up and you’re panicking or freaking out,” Wolf says. “So, when someone comes along and says ‘relax, calm down,’ it doesn’t work because they’re telling you to activate one system, but it can’t go anywhere while the other is at the top.”

She notes that you must reduce stress before “putting the foot on the brakes” to find that rest, and each person must figure that out for themselves. That usually involves getting the physical relief from exercise before “implementing more restful strategies so that you’re living more in equilibrium.”

If you’re still not sure how to do that, a tactic for thinking proactively that Wolf gives to her clients is one she calls the “CEO retreat” — “because we’re all the CEO of our life.”

“We often don’t make time for the important because the urgent gets in the way and the urgent is something that calls your attention,” she says. “So much of what we do is reactive.”

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She uses the analogy of putting rocks and sand in a jar. If you put the pebbles and sand in first, you won’t have room for the rocks, but if you put the rocks in the jar first, you can fit it all.

“What we have to do is figure out what are the rocks? What do I really need to accomplish?” she says. “Then whatever doesn’t get done at the end of the day, you have to figure out a way to just let it go.”

The past president of the Women’s Business Network of Peterborough, Wolf notes changing this mindset is particularly difficult for women because, whether it’s the result of having to fight for proof of belonging or “mom guilt,” they are under the belief they “have to do it all somehow.”

“We can do it all, and we can have it all, but not all at the same time,” Wolf says. “We need to shift our thinking to ‘I’m only one human being’.”

In addition to physical exercise and getting outdoors, Wolf notes that proper nutrition and having a support system in place is an essential part to battling burnout. But as the bread and butter in her own research, for Wolf, sleep is at the forefront of fighting stress.

“Sleep is the foundation of mental health,” she says. “From an evolutionary perspective, if sleep weren’t really important, we long ago would have evolved to the point where we don’t need it.”

She notes that adults need eight to nine hours of sleep per night and, while it might be seen as “impressive,” people who brag about managing on less “have no idea what restorative functions they’re missing out on.”

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For those who simply cannot fall asleep, Wolf is currently putting together a workbook, 14 Days to Better Sleep, which will help create personalized plans for getting those zzz’s. Tactics include limiting late-night meals, extending sleep in 15-minute intervals, reducing blue light intake, taking a hot bath, and, above all, making sure “consistency is key.”

“If you really want to be a good sleeper, you want to train your body to go to bed at the same time every night with a similar routine to put you to sleep, and get up at the same time every morning,” she says.

While Wolf herself used to be an insomniac, with these tactics, she now has no issues getting to sleep, rarely strays from her schedule, and, above all, prioritizes it as one of her essential rocks in the jar.

“I get a lot done in my waking hours because I’m fresh and convinced there’s a return on investments there,” she says. “I don’t sacrifice sleep.”

For Wolf, it’s a badge of honour that she’s “a super sleeper” — not that she’s burnt out or staying busy.

For those who think they can just “manage it” and “handle it” when it comes to stress, she suggests there’s a better way.

“Why not conquer stress and burnout and feel productive and live a healthier life?” Wolf asks. “People who suffer from burnout eventually end up with a stress-related illness of some kind and then you don’t do anything. Why not live in a healthy way so that, when those things come along, we’re better equipped to manage them more quickly?”