Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Burnout and Microstress: The Drips That Flood the Buckets. Sunday musings…4/23/2023

1 Time. For a guy who has been told, and who really does believe that he needs to find some hobbies so that he isn’t bothering the people around him who already have, I certainly seem to run out of time awfully frequently. Like, every day frequently.

Clue? It’s been three weeks since I’ve “mused”.

2 Spam. Not gonna lie, the bots are winning. Big time. It’s tough to filter out an email address when the bot has 50, or 100,000 or a million different versions of an address from which to bludgeon your email. My spam filters on email are nearly worthless.

It’s almost bad enough that you wanna find out just what it is that all of those “sexy Russian girls” find so fascinating about a slightly chubby, easily winded middle-aged man.

3 Fat. Man, I’m tired of being soft. Sure, there are a couple of very good reasons for these extra 8 or 10 pounds of marshmallow. 5 or so months of pre-surgical pain that prevented me from doing even the most minimal of physical activity, including walking. 4 months of post-op pain after I got my hip fixed. Not gonna lie, the miss-met expectations after surgery put me in a pretty dark and foul place.

Now? I am weak as a kitten and starting back at the whole fitness thing with less strength in my anything than at any time in my life with the exception of my teenage recovery from a broken back. While I am no longer in a dark place, let’s just say that this lack of fitness (and associated hurt caused by the pursuit to regain some modicum of the same) occasionally leaves me in a black mood. All exposed nerves and impatience. The sight of my well-cushioned navel unintentionally exposed when I reached up and my tee shirt ran out of cover almost cost me a full-length mirror.

Good thing I couldn’t bend down to grab a shoe.

4 Safety. “Keep children ‘safe enough’ rather than ‘as safe as possible’.” –Mikki Martin. Supportive reading: Outside Magazine article on raising children outdoors in Norway.

Mikki and her husband Jeff are the founders of the original CrossFit Kids program. There are many things tragic about the demise of the original company we knew as CrossFit, Inc., but for my mind none greater than the dissolution of the bond between the Martins and their creation, CFK. Fitness and the training of children in effective functional movement is fundamentally different than doing so in adults. Literally everything about it is different; the Martins cracked the code and brought what you could think of as Physical Fitness v2.0 to the masses. You can find them and v3.0 of their creation by looking for The Brand X Method.

Many parents would read Mikki’s quote and be appalled. Who in their right mind wouldn’t do literally everything possible to keep their children safe, right? But that creates more than a little bit of a problem if your ultimate goal is to raise a healthy, fit, creative and resilient kid. I mean, come on, the whole “as safe as possible” thing has brought us a couple of generations of kids who have no idea what “monkey bars” are. Climb a tree? No need to worry about some cranky old guy yelling “get off my lawn” when a panicked parent has hauled their budding climber off the maple tree before they were high enough to do a pull-up.

There is an extraordinary young woman, mother of 5 or 6 if memory serves, who was once one of my older son’s close friends. She would come over to our house, partly because she and Dan were buds but really, if she was being honest, because Beth let them play in the dirt. Or the mud, maybe with a little mudpie consumption. Or in a gently flowing stream, perhaps washing down that mudpie with a sip. All of which would be anathema to the “as safe as possible” crowd of course, notwithstanding the research showing that all of the above leads to healthier, happier kids.

Likewise, organized sports and other athletic activities. Here I will admit that I am conflicted, almost paralyzed in fact by my aversion to the wanton head trauma that seems so prevalent in all of the so-called “helmet” sports, including the beloved football of my youth. But even if we exclude them there are still risks involved in literally every physical activity in which our kids will participate. Do you know what the most dangerous sport is in terms of injuries? Hint: it isn’t a helmet sport. It’s actually baseball. More injuries, indeed, more deaths than any other junior sport. Care to guess what the safest is? Yup…a tie between strength training and functional fitness programs like TBXM in children as young as 8.

We should let our kids be kids. Explore. Try some stuff that may not turn out like riding a horse or trying to “ollie” a skateboard. Climb a set of monkey bars or see if you can traverse that horizontal ladder when your feet are hanging a yard or so above the ground. Ride your bike to school. Jump in that big pile of leaves that Mom or Dad dumped just on this side of the street. Grab that sunfish and try to get the hook out. Play in the dirt and dig up some worms.

Nobody ever died from tasting a worm to see why the fish seem to like them so much.

5 Microstress. Four clicks. That’s all it took. Four additional clicks added to the process of putting in a post-op order after surgery without any warning or explanation. 11 seconds of additional work on top of the tripling of the time taken to paperwork my way out of the OR necessitated by the advent of EMR. That’s all it took. Why? Why did we have to add this duplication of stuff that was already accounted for? Four clicks and I was literally enraged.

Four additional clicks pretty much defines the “micro” in “microstress”.

All of my reserves were depleted. There was no room for, well, anything else. I like to think of myself as possessing three distinct, finite “spaces” that encompass my daily lived experience. Timespace is easy: how many minutes I have over the course of my waking day to accomplish whatever it is that I need or want to accomplish. Brainspace is a little more complex: the amount of “carrying capacity” I have in my brain for the combination of accessible information storage and “computational” power to apply to the memory I am carrying in my RAM, so to speak. Lastly is Emotionalspace, the most complex of them all. This describes where I am on the proverbial “happy <-> sad” scale, my emotional resilience (how likely I am to be able to withstand negative events or vibes), and my emotional carrying capacity or empathy.

In my mind I see these three spaces as buckets, each a particular size at any given moment, and each filled to a level that corresponds to whatever state in which I find myself and the world around me. Timespace is mostly fixed of course; my bucket can never hold more than 24 hours worth of minutes. I only get to determine how many of them I’ll be awake to use. Both BrainSpace and EmotionalSpace are more elastic. There are some days when it seems like I can bring up any fact or notion I’ve ever acquired, and then work it effectively to carry out whatever task I’ve been presented. The BrainSpace bucket just seems a bit bigger sometimes. So, too, the EmotionalSpace bucket. There are days when I am just feeling on top of the world. I’m happy, and happy to spread some of my joy. I can withstand the emotional currents, both internal and external, that buffet each of us as we sail along. On days like this my EmotionalSpace bucket is as big as a swimming pool. On others it is quite the opposite; each tiny bit of negativity goes into bucket that shrinks with every passing minute.

Until four additional clicks, four tiny drops cause one or two or all three of my buckets to overflow.

That’s when stuff gets dicey, when the buckets overflow. It’s rather rare that you wake up with huge buckets, with all of your spaces sitting there and all kinds of volume available like so much space on a hard drive, and something comes along that floods one or more, producing what we might call “acute stress”. Chronic stress is what brings most of us down. The accumulation of tiny microtraumas, little moments of tension, discord or anxiety over time. A continuous flow of tiny drops filling up your buckets.

My Mom isn’t doing all that well in her retirement facility, a situation that produces a chronic drip that fills all three of my buckets. A kind of background stress. I barely know it’s there most of the time, but that’s a part of why stuff like that is so insidious and therefore dangerous. Unlike the tsunami that will ensue when Mom eventually passes away, the daily drip, the microstress of having her be less than well slowly fills my buckets and leaves less room for, well, everything else.

We each live our lives in a constant state of filling and emptying our buckets. “Burnout”, the inability to roll with the mundane in our lives, occurs when one or all of our buckets is so full that a single additional drop affects us as if it was that tsunami above. My buckets were so full from microstraumas like my Mom’s situation that the surprise addition of four clicks after surgery brought me to a place of injury no less hurtful than if I’d gotten there all at once; once there it doesn’t matter if it was four drops or from a veritable shower of challenge or trauma. Either way, you’ve entered the burn-out zone. I knew I was close; the “empty space” above the water in my buckets is where patience and empathy live and I’d been getting short of both. As it turned out, the surprise addition of four clicks on top of all of the other clicks it took to paperwork my way out of the OR was at least one drop too many.

Understanding burnout, understanding stress and stressors both micro and macro and how it all affects each of us, means understanding that the breaking point is more often a tiny drop into a bucket filled to the brim, with no space left above to breath.

Leave a Reply