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Psychologist Bart Verkuil strikes a blow against burnout

Burnout is on the increase. It is caused by group pressure, being ‘on’ all the time and asking too much of ourselves. Clinical psychologist Bart Verkuil advises lowering our expectations.

This article previously appeared in our alumni magazine, Leidraad (in Dutch). The full magazine is available online.

The times in which a lion or bear would gobble us up the minute we set foot outside are long gone, we don’t generally die of hunger here in the Netherlands and we’re not at war, but many of us still suffer from severe chronic stress: the internal alarm bell that tells us danger is approaching. Why is this? It’s because we demand too much of ourselves. ‘People are increasingly likely to push themselves beyond their limits or be enticed to do so by the world around them,’ says Bart Verkuil, associate professor of clinical psychology. ‘In the past, offices closed at five, whereas nowadays you can work all day and night if you want.’

‘Consciously and unconsciously we do all we can to avoid being rejected by the group.’

Group pressure through social media also causes stress. ‘It’s often “the group” that pops up on your phone. If you don’t respond quickly, you unconsciously feel the threat of rejection.’ This is compounded by it being much easier to compare ourselves with others, which affects our self-image. We can look on real estate sites to see if the neighbours’ house is nicer than ours, and we can compare likes on Facebook. ‘Consciously and unconsciously we do all we can to avoid being rejected by the group. And that causes stress and worry.’

Success as a person

Research has shown, says Verkuil, that we also experience more stress because we keep setting ourselves higher goals. Fifty years ago we thought it was important to contribute to society, generally by doing voluntary work. Then you had succeeded as a person. We now want financial independence, something that by no means all of us will achieve and something that also entails uncertainty. ‘And uncertainty is trigger number one for stress.’

Stress isn’t the same as being busy Verkuil is keen to emphasise. ‘Being busy is often temporary and can even be associated with a pleasant kind of flow. With stress there’s a sense of threat: you’re working flat out because you’re scared you won’t earn enough study credits or will get a bad appraisal from your manager.’ People try to get a grip on stress by worrying. ‘To begin with, worrying is useful: you try to solve your problems,’ says Verkuil. ‘But rather than constructive thinking, it often consists of repetitive thoughts, where you keep on coming up with new worst-case scenarios. Then worrying is counterproductive: you can’t sleep and your performance drops, which in turn leads to more stress.’

‘A human life has a number of notorious worry periods’

A human life has a number of notorious worry periods, such as puberty. Adolescents have the mental capacity to start asking serious questions: what do I want to do with my life? Do others like me? And this causes a lot of worrying. Around the age of 40, when most of us have found our way in the world, the worrying decreases, only to increase if we find ourselves sandwiched between adolescents and parents who require more and more care. Stress decreases markedly around the age of 65.

In the genes

Some people are more susceptible to stress than others, says Verkuil. ‘A mother’s stress can be passed on to the baby in the womb. Sensitivity to stress is in your genes and it is also determined by your experiences.’ Research has shown that children who have a deep sense of responsibility at a young age already – for example if a parent is ill – worry more when they are older. ‘Taking the lead can become the status quo: they are unable to relinquish this sense of responsibility.’

Stress is measurable to some extent, through questionnaires, heart rate, cortisol level and brain scans. Verkuil: ‘But you can’t say that someone is suffering from stress in the way that you can take their temperature to find out whether they have a fever.’ According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), you are suffering from chronic forms of stress (anxiety, depression) if this affects your everyday functioning: if you get into more arguments, for instance. But one person reaches their limit sooner than the other. ‘Optimists, self-confident people who are clear about what they’re willing to accept, usually suffer less from stress. People with a deep sense of responsibility, however, people who are extremely loyal and always prepared to jump in if others are out of the running are susceptible to burnout. You see it a lot in education nowadays. We use cognitive behavioural therapy to try to teach people what they can and can’t control.’

Putting the brakes on

What has he learned from years of stress research? Verkuil: ‘One thing I’ve learned is that long-term stress is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, stomach problems, headache and premature death.’ Whereas people used to think that stress is caused by a response in our sympathetic nervous system – a stressed person is accelerating flat out – we now know that it can also be caused by reduced activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest, recovery and digestion. ‘Stressed people have dodgy brakes, which means that the accelerator constantly has the upper hand,’ says Verkuil.

‘We have to wave goodbye to the idea that we should be permanently happy and successful.’

What can you do about stress? ‘Exercise can help,’ says Verkuil. ‘It produces the happy hormone, endorphin, which helps fix your brakes.’ We should also lower our expectations. ‘We have to wave goodbye to the idea that we have to be permanently happy and successful. That’s not how life works.’

Text: Frederike de Raat
Photo: Marius Roos
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