There are a lot of misconceptions about trauma, stress, and burnout being perpetuated by pop psychology on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube – and as a super nerd, former ICU RN with extra certifications in how stress, trauma and burnout impact the body – I wanted to clear things up.

First let’s talk about stress. 

There are actually two kinds of stress: distress – the stress we more commonly know about that feels awful, exhausting and heavy. 

And then there’s eustress, which is productive motivating stress. Our drive to get things done. 

Eustress or “positive stressors” include:

  • buying a house
  • getting married
  • starting a new job
  • getting promoted
  • giving a presentation

We can see the relationship between these two types of stress here on this curve. This stress curve was developed by Robert M Yerkes and John D. Dodson and it illustrates the relationship between productivity and pressure. 

On the left side of the curve we don’t have enough pressure and so we just feel stagnant and are bored. Because we don’t have enough pressure, we’re not very productive. 

At the peak of this curve, in the peak performance space we’re operating in eustress , the productive stress. Pressure and productivity are optimized so we’re driven, we’re focused, and we’re able to keep up on our todo lists. This is the optimized stress state. Our body is balanced, we feel good and we’re able to keep up with our goals. 

Now, as with so many of us, especially my fellow highly sensitive high achievers, we easily shoot over this side of the curve and activate our distress response. The sympathetic nervous system. 

This is where many of us are living on a day to day basis and as you can see the longer we stay here the closer and closer we get to burnout.

There are actually three notable stages to this stress curve decline:

  1. The stage of alarm
  2. The stage of resistance
  3. The stage of exhaustion 

The stage of alarm is what our body was designed for: to respond to that initial moment of stress or danger, help us fight or flee our way to safety, and then our stress response would turn off. If you’re wondering where freeze and fawn come into this, they are maladaptive stress responses created because of our chronically stressed out world and from trauma – but we’ll get to that.

The problem is that our world has stressors that don’t go away, like money stress, job stress, family stress, and just general stress from living in the world that we live in. This means we move into the second stage of chronic stress, which is the stage of resistance.

In the stage of resistance our body is coping well with the stress, and is keeping up with the demand for increased energy with hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine (our adrenaline hormones) and cortisol our stress superhero hormone. We’ll talk more about cortisol in another episode when we get into understanding our circadian rhythm and how to work with it.

The thing is, our body can only manage for so long in the stage of resistance before it all gets to be too much and we enter the last stage – the stage of exhaustion or burnout. But like we talked about in the 4 types of burnout episode it’s not always easy to recognize when we’re in this final stage of the stress response.

Alright, so we’ve covered stress which is broken down into two categories: eustress or the productive stress, and distress, which is the heavy, anxiety laden stress.

Where does trauma come into it?

Trauma has become quite the trendy word so before we get too much further I want to clearly define what trauma is versus something distressing. 

Trauma in itself is an injury to the nervous system. A distressing experience activates the sympathetic nervous system, but it doesn’t injure it. Our body was designed to handle stress and to handle it well. But not all distressing experiences are trauma. 

All distressing experiences absolutely deserve attention, healing and compassion. But not all distressing situations are traumatic. And not all distressing situations cause trauma for each person in a group of people that experience the same event.

This is an important distinction.

Now if you’re here thinking ‘I don’t know if what I’ve experienced was trauma or if it was distress’ that’s okay! Again, if you feel you need help working through everything you’ve been through over the course of your life, whether it classifies as trauma or not, you should definitely do that and you absolutely deserve that. 

Let’s see if we can clear things up a bit with an example. The pandemic was a very distressing event for many people across the world. For some it was even traumatic because it affected them on a deeper level and caused injury to their nervous system.

For me, the pandemic really didn’t change much for me except for the fact that I wore a mask to the grocery store. I don’t know if I would even call the pandemic experience distressing for me. That being said, my colleagues in the ICU have absolutely experienced trauma associated with the pandemic. 

Each individual’s experience is what makes the difference.

Why is this important to make the distinction between stress, burnout and trauma?

The reason why I wanted to make sure we were clear on the difference between stress, burnout and trauma is because each of these require different kinds of support and tools to help heal them.

Meditation, mindfulness and reflective journaling can be incredibly helpful for people who are experiencing stress – but can actually be harmful for those experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD or cPTSD) because of that injury to the nervous system that occurs in trauma. Meditation can be next to impossible for people who are burnt out because they’ll keep falling asleep or their nervous system will resist it. Mindfulness often leads to people who are burnt out to dismiss their experience and push through despite their body’s signals that it’s time to change something.

It’s really important to make sure that you’re getting the right kind of help from someone that truly understands the struggle you’re managing – not just have some first hand experience with getting help themselves. 

Although I do understand the physiology of trauma, and I have some advanced training that could help someone heal from trauma – I don’t have the right experience, knowledge or vocational education to confidently help someone work through their traumatic past. This is why I often team up with therapists and mental health practitioners. They can help the client with talk therapy – I can help them with practical stress and anxiety management, habit optimization, self-talk reprogramming, and burnout recovery/prevention. 

They work on healing your past with you – I show you how to optimize your performance moving forward.

Moral of the story? Make sure you have the right team in your corner so that you continue to move forward rather than have a setback because someone didn’t fully know how to best support you.