I was a stress researcher. This is what happened when I burned out.

November 1, 2021

Recently, I asked some colleagues what I should write about on my blog.

And they said, “Why don’t you write about yourself? Like how you got started doing what you do now?”

I must admit, I hadn’t thought about it.

I don’t usually see the point in telling others my life story, because…well, I’ll just come out and say it: I think I’m a little boring. I’m also an intense introvert in my private life.

But then it hit me that no life can truly be considered boring if it’s passionately lived. And introvert that I am, I feel passionately about the work that I do.

I have spent my career studying how stress impacts us mentally and emotionally. But not just that - I also try to understand how to transform that impact from something negative into something positive, a source of growth and meaning.

I started out in the academic world as a stress researcher and university professor. Now I work full-time as an executive coach, author, speaker, and trainer. My passion has stayed the same, but now I work with leaders and executives to help them manage their workplace stress in terms of time and priorities management, negative workplace culture, communication issues, conflict, and poor employee engagement. I help them deal with the significant stresses of strategic planning and leading large change initiatives. 

As was pointed out recently, workplace stress can lead to signifcant levels of burnout. And after nearly 2 years of dealing with a global pandemic, our stress and anxiety levels have surged even more.

How did I start down this road in the first place? And how did I make the switch from the academic world to the business world?

I think the answers involve two stories.

Story #1: How I started studying stress and mental health

Let’s rewind about twenty years.

I was living in New York City with my husband, Oleg, and our small daughter. I had just wrapped up my PhD research at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook. My work with stress began there – I worked with a brilliant biopsychologist, Brenda Anderson, to study the effects of stress hormones on the parts of the brain involved in learning and memory.

After defending my dissertation, I started interviewing for jobs in Manhattan where Oleg also worked. I had accepted a preliminary offer from the New York Academy of Sciences, located just a few blocks away from my husband’s office at Bloomberg.

Our daughter had just started kindergarten. So, every morning, Oleg would walk her to our local subway station, ride the subway to her school and drop her off, and then continue his commute into Manhattan. Once I began work, I would share the commuting responsibilities.

Everything seemed to be working out perfectly. Not a stress-free life, but you know, all good stress.

About a month after I defended my dissertation, I woke up one beautiful morning, answered some emails about job negotiation stuff, made myself a bowl of cereal, and then mindlessly flipped on the tv.

A horrific image filled the screen: black smoke billowing out of one of the towers of World Trade center.

Concern etched deeply into their faces, the newscasters puzzled over what had happened. No one knew why a plane had flown so low over the Manhattan skyline and crashed into one of its tallest buildings.

My first thought was about Oleg – his first job out of grad school had been in the World Financial Center, just across the street from the WTC. Having only switched jobs about six months earlier, he knew lots of people in those towers.

I immediately called him at his office in midtown. Since Bloomberg is a news outlet, the walls of the large, communal office space are banked with large screen tv screens to keep up with the latest developments on Wall Street and elsewhere.

I asked Oleg, “Are you seeing what’s going on downtown?”

“Yeah, I just saw.”

We were still talking on the phone when another plane hit the second tower. And of course, at that moment the whole world knew that neither had been an accident. That some sort of malicious act was in progress. And no one knew what other targets were still to be hit.

So, I begged my husband, “Please come home now.” Normally Oleg’s commute between Manhattan and our home in Queens was about 40 minutes. On September 11, 2001, it took Oleg six hours to make his way home.

On his way, he saw many acts of heroism and kindness: strangers offering other strangers a ride out of the city. But in the wake of severe trauma, cracks often appear in the veneer of civilization. Oleg saw those, too: more than one fist fight broke out in the frenzied crowds struggling to board each train. 

Oleg is a peacemaker, with a heart full of grace and compassion, so I knew he would be trying to help others as much as he could, even if it compromised his own safety. You can imagine how relieved I was when he finally walked through our door.

The weeks that followed 9/11 were surreal. New Yorkers grieved with those who lost loved ones at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.

But no one knew if the attacks were over.

There were all sorts of rumors that there would be more hits in New York. People in our neighborhood were opening their mail with latex gloves due to the anthrax scares. There was a heavy police and military presence in all the subway stations, tunnels, and bridges – lots of uniforms with lots of guns walking around everywhere. Every day, at least one mass transit line would be abruptly shut down due to some threat or another.

In a very real sense, when Oleg and our small daughter left in the morning, I honestly didn’t know if they would come home safely that night. I didn’t know if any of us were safe.

I felt like I was walking around with a huge knot of fear in my stomach all the time. 

I found this ironic, because I had spent the previous six years of my life studying the effects of stress on mental health. And there I was, living through one of the most severely stressful periods of my life.

That irony was not lost on me, believe me. But there was a difference in the way I viewed stress pre vs. post-9/11.

While I was in grad school, I focused mostly on the science of stress, the mechanics of how it affects certain parts of the brain.

After 9/11, I began to study and think about the philosophical side of stress. How it impacts our mental health and how we choose to treat each other in its aftermath.

I realized then that all stress we experience in life can be divided into two basic types: the stress we seek and the stress that seeks us.

We seek stressful situations when we pursue hard goals. We can all think of personal examples here: studying for a degree, working for a job promotion, training for a marathon.

We don’t really struggle to understand the stress we seek. In all cases of this first kind of stress, the work we’ve set out to do has such great meaning that we willingly suffer in order to achieve it.

It’s the stress that seeks us that we often can’t understand, that we find surprising and disconcerting.

This is the stuff of tragedy. This is what we as a nation experienced after 9/11. The world has experienced it many times over in the years since, not just in terrorism and war, but in tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires.

Families are now experiencing it due to Covid-19. This pandemic has killed, as of this writing, 5 million global citizens.

It has obviously impacted us in the workplace as well. According to one report from the Americal Medical Association, half of all healthcare workers are now reporting that they are burned out. Talking with a healthcare executive recently, we agreed that 2020-2021 felt to many like a grueling marathon. But with the 2021 surge in Covid-19 cases, healthcare workers felt they were shoved into running another one, without rest or reprieve.

The mind can understand and accept the first type of stress because there are obvious reasons behind it. There's a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the meaning and the subsequent suffering. In the first type, you and I create both the meaning and suffering ourselves. Stress was just the journey we took to get from point A to point B.

What we find so disorienting about the second type is the absence of any meaningful landmarks. We find ourselves in a strange land of sorrow, with little or no idea how we got there, or how we will survive it.

This is the type of stress I wrote about at the beginning of the pandemic. I also addressed it in my book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression. This suffering is not a journey we ever choose to take. It’s more like being thrown into a dark shadowland. I mean this in a scientific sense, because trauma can cast dark shadows over the mind that lead to neurological disorders like PTSD, clinical depression, and clinical anxiety.

But it’s also a shadowland in the emotional sense. The world becomes a darker place.

Those suffering from panic disorder or anxiety find this shadowland a terrifying place. They stumble through with their heart pounding, their breath choking in their chest. Each step is a fearful one. Sometimes they fear they are losing their mind. They live in dread of the next stressful thing to happen.

Those suffering from clinical depression find this shadowland a desolate place. Each step is a hopeless one, because life has lost its meaning. They begin to wonder what there is to live for.

In this dark world, we start searching for landmarks to navigate by: meaning behind the suffering that will help us understand and accept it, and hope that we will eventually make our way out.

Meaning and hope.

I have now studied and taught about stress, crisis and trauma for over 25 years. And yet I know of no brighter stars to navigate by than these.

Get My Book

Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression is currently available at Amazon.com. 

Story #2: How I became an executive coach

After working as a university administrator and professor for a number of years, I had my own serious bout of burnout.

Technically, burnout means that we struggle with three things at the same time: 1) loss of energy (e.g., “How will I even get out of bed today?”), 2) loss of enthusiasm (e.g., “What am I even doing this for?”), and 3) loss of effectiveness (e.g., “I can’t handle this workload anymore.”).

What caused my burnout? Well, it was complicated.

It usually is, by the way.

Workplace burnout is almost always multi-factorial and can be fueled by both organizational issues out of our personal control but also by our individual, often counterproductive choices. My burnout was a classic case, fueled by university budget cuts that strained already heavy teaching loads, but also my own stupid perfectionism and lack of work-life balance.

So there I was, a stress researcher getting way too stressed out.

Go ahead and have that ironic chuckle if you want to. Just goes to show you, it happens to everyone!

I knew I needed a break, so I quit teaching and started to work full time on a book in my research field. That’s when I wrote Leaving the Shadowland.  

While I was writing it, though, my husband Oleg (a computer programmer) got a job offer from a tech company in Silicon Valley. That meant a cross-country move from our rural community in Michigan to the tech-centric, bustling, Bay area of California.

And that wasn’t the only thing stressing me out, either – I was also trying to decide whether to go back to faculty work. On one hand, I desperately missed teaching. But on the other hand, I was starting to feel that the life of an academic researcher was not for me.

What I really wanted was to take my academic theories out for a spin in the real world. I wanted to apply what I was learning about stress, trauma, and burnout to help people. I had done a few seminars on these topics over the years. But I never had time to do more than a few of these moonlighting jobs on nights and weekends. Could I make this cool side gig into a full time thing?

That, I figured, might require a job change. That’s when I decided to train as an executive coach. I trained at the Center for Executive Coaching and then got my associated coaching credential from the International Coaching Federation.

I also hold a specialty certification for Healthcare Leadership Coaching (HLC) and have developed a well-being coaching program for clinicians.  

So, that's my story. I am passionate about what I do. I take true joy in helping organizations build a workplace culture that prevents burnout and promotes well-being.

How can I help you?

Stressed? Burned out?

Helping leaders and organizations deal with workplace stress and burnout is my jam. Please contact me today to talk about how I can help.

About the author 

Pamela Coburn-Litvak

Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker, and certified executive coach. Her research articles have been published in scientific journals including Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior.

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