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Burnout, overload, and resilience: the impact of stress

Exploring psychological perspectives on stress...

Stress, burnout, overload, and resilience are the themes being explored within an exciting research project that I have been invited to join. The project is exploring the ways in which these constructs are expressed in literary fiction and visual images from different cultures, past and present. The project involves a creative writing workshop where participants are invited to reflect, write, and draw about their experiences of burnout and resilience in the context of mental health and wellbeing. As a part of my contributions to the project, the research team and investigators asked for my reflections and perspectives on stress and resilience. Drawing on my training, skills, and experiences as a Clinical Psychologist and Yoga Teacher, this first article in a two-part series shares psychologically-informed and holistic ideas about stress and how we can understand it better.

Explore this article:

Psychologist and therapy in Exeter for mental health and anxiety

What is stress?

What do we actually mean by “stress”? It is a term that has become commonplace in a lot of our settings and environments: there is strong social representation that we are feeling increasingly stressed out or overwhelmed, and that stress is a part of our culture and daily lives. The World Health Organisation defines stress as “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation” (WHO, 2023). The WHO definition acknowledges that stress responses are entirely natural and normal, and that it is the way in which we respond to stress that determines our overall health and wellbeing.

What contributes to feeling stressed and overwhelmed?

In my clinical work as a Psychologist, I have observed the broad range of factors and events that might generate a sense of stress. Of course, we all differ in what we perceive as stressful and there is huge individual variation: two people might be exposed to the same challenging situation but the impact of the event on our feelings of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm can be very different. This is where our cognition and thinking process plays a major role: cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) highlights the central element of our explanations of events, thoughts and interpretations in determining our emotional experience (Westbrook, Kennerley & Kirk, 2007).

Even with individual variations, I have noticed some patterns in that there are particular circumstances that tend to prove stressful for a lot of people. We can categorise possible stressors as either external (something outside of us that we encounter in the world around us) or internal (something we notice within ourselves). External stressors might include significant life changes such as moving house, starting a new job, going to university, retirement, bereavement, or physical health issues, as well as difficult relationships and problems getting along with other people. Internal events and experiences that might bring about stress include: changes to the way we feel within ourselves; heightened levels of arousal and bodily sensations; changes to our thinking (especially increased worry thoughts and rumination thought patterns); and drugs and alcohol (both of which change the way we feel inside and change how we interpret and perceive things). It is also crucial to recognise that beyond the stress caused by major life events, changes, and transitions, daily and ongoing stresses in our lives can have a cumulative effect and be harmful to us (Maté, 2019).

BAM Therapy psychology and therapy in Exeter and online

What about the role of our past experiences?

Psychological theory indicates that it is not just the stressors that we experience in our lives that contributes to our coping responses and emotional wellbeing. There are also “vulnerabilities” that we carry with us from our early lives and it is the interaction between these ongoing characteristics and vulnerabilities with life stressors that influences our sense of feeling stressed. The stress-vulnerability model (Harris, 2010), whilst traditionally applied to mental health concerns, is also a useful generalised reflection tool. It helps us to recognise that the experiences we lived through as children and young adults form the foundations of our beliefs and ideas about ourselves, other people, and the world. These early events establish patterns in how we manage emotion and learn to relate to others. If our early experiences were distressing, unpleasant, or traumatic then threat-based patterns in the body and mind and less helpful emotional response styles might be formed. Later, when we encounter stressful circumstances in our adult lives, this can trigger our underlying vulnerabilities and it might make us more likely to perceive something as stressful and tip us from coping okay with life to feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, and unable to cope. Additionally, Maté (2019) emphasises that the current emotional and psychological state of the person exposed to stresses plays a part in our stress responses and behaviours.

Online therapy and yoga for stress relief

How does stress impact the body?

My final reflection point on stress will be to consider the role of our nervous system functioning. When we are overwhelmed by stress, our nervous system is less able to tolerate or manage potential threats in the environment (Health & Social Care, 2021). This involves one of two responses in the nervous system: either a disconnected and shut down response in the body and mind (the freeze response), or a protection mode that is focused on escape or defence (the fight or flight response). These biochemical stress responses are normal, experienced involuntarily without our conscious awareness and are designed for survival. At the same time, the body and mind stress response states mean that it is tricky to connect with others, feel safety, explore, rest, and feel calm. However, if we invite an open mindedness to our internal landscape and develop self-awareness, then we can become more familiar with what state the nervous system is in. Once we have this better understanding of ourselves and awareness of when our stress responses have been triggered, we can then choose to respond differently to restore balance to the body and mind: this is the learning and practice that develops psychological resilience.

In the second article in this series, psychological perspectives on personal resilience will be explored: coming soon!


If you are struggling to cope and need some extra help, then you can explore working with Dr Kayleigh Darch and beginning psychological therapy. Find out more here or contact Kayleigh.


This blog was created for the "Reading Bodies" project at the University of Exeter. Research was funded by Professor Katharine Murphy's AHRC Fellowship: Reading Bodies:

The article can be viewed in full at its original source here:

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