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How To Recognize and Handle Burnout

Learn what burnout feels like, what causes it, and some ways you may be able to prevent and recover from burnout.



What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that comes from stress exposure (Schaufeli & Greenglass, 2001). Generally, the stress that leads to burnout is consistent and ongoing for an extended period. A single stressful event usually isn't enough to cause burnout. When you are burned out you may feel constantly exhausted or anxious and on edge. You may feel irritable and angry. You may feel like you are living in a fog and unable to think clearly. You may be unable to relax or get to sleep.

Burnout Syndrome

Burnout syndrome was first formally defined in the 1970s to describe a collection of symptoms often seen in people working as medical professionals, teachers, social workers, and others in helping professions (Freudenberger, 1974; Maslach & Jackson, 1981). There are three major categories of burnout symptoms.

  • Emotional Exhaustion: If you feel emotionally drained or like you have nothing left to give, you may be emotionally exhausted. Feeling overwhelmed and fatigued all the time may also be a sign of emotional exhaustion.

  • Depersonalization/Cynicism: If you feel negative, cynical, or callous towards the people you’re tasked with helping or the work that you’re supposed to accomplish, you may have this symptom. You may feel that what you do doesn’t matter or make a difference. You may feel angry or annoyed with your patients, students, clients, or children.

  • A sense of reduced personal accomplishment: If you feel incompetent or that you aren’t able to make a difference, accomplish anything, or be successful, you may be suffering from a sense of reduced personal accomplishment.

Although burnout syndrome was first defined as a condition affecting people working in the helping professions, people working in any number of professions may be susceptible to burnout (Samra, 2018). Moreover, burnout syndrome can result from exposure to stress experienced anywhere, not just in the workplace. Caregiving responsibilities, academic demands, social and cultural expectations, and even just the stress of everyday modern living can all lead to burnout.

Causes of Burnout

By definition, burnout is caused by persistent and ongoing stress exposure. When you encounter a stressful situation, your body rallies its resources to prepare you to confront and overcome the challenge. When your brain detects a potential threat, a cascade of neurochemicals and hormones are released throughout your body (Black & Garbutt, 2002; Tsigos & Chrousos, 2002). The hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline increase your heart rate, open up airways in your lungs, and increase both blood sugar and blood pressure. All of these effects get you ready to either confront or run away from a threat.

If, after a few minutes, the threat is still present, another hormone called cortisol is released into your bloodstream. Cortisol stimulates your liver to produce glucose which then travels to your brain and increases your alertness, attention, and focus. Cortisol also prepares your body to withstand pain, injury, and fatigue and puts any bodily activities not necessary for immediate survival on hold. Processes like immune responses, digestion, reproduction, and cellular repair are halted, allowing all of your energy and resources to go towards dealing with the threat or the stressor.

The body’s stress response system becomes problematic when the stress isn’t short-term but is instead unrelenting and long-term. Normally, the body’s stress response system is equipped with a negative feedback loop. High levels of cortisol usually signal your body to stop the production and release of more hormones. Exposure to chronic stress can throw this negative feedback loop all out of whack, and your stress hormone levels may fail to get back to normal (McEwen, 1998). This imbalanced stress response system may lead to many of the symptoms of burnout including insomnia or other sleep disturbances, anxiety, irritability, an inability to relax, as well as many cognitive and physiological symptoms of burnout.

Signs & Symptoms of Burnout

Exposure to high levels of stress for prolonged periods may cause the brain and body to adapt to the physiological responses to stress. These adaptations can be seen as symptoms present at the physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral levels (Weber & Jaekel-Reinhard, 2000).

  • Physical symptoms: Immune, cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, and reproductive systems are all affected by consistently high levels of stress hormones. Physical symptoms of burnout can include headaches, intestinal problems, muscle tension, chest pain, fatigue, changes in sex drive, upset stomach, and vulnerability to disease.

  • Mental symptoms: Stress hormones can impact brain structures involved in memory, problem-solving, attention, and executive functioning. This may result in forgetfulness, trouble staying focused, impaired problem-solving, impaired self-control, and feelings of “brain fog”.

  • Emotional symptoms: A chronically elevated stress response system may cause you to feel emotionally unstable or to feel overwhelmed by your own emotions and emotional reactions. You may feel that all of your emotions are intense and exaggerated. What once may have been mild irritation may now be an overwhelming rage. You may feel easily frustrated and angry, irritable, anxious, panicky, sad, or may cry without knowing why.

  • Behavioral symptoms: The cognitive and emotional symptoms of chronic stress exposure may cause you to have more interpersonal conflict - you may be more difficult to get along with and may find yourself having more arguments, fights, and standoffs. You may also seek comfort or temporary relief from your negative emotions in alcohol, drugs, overeating, or other maladaptive behaviors. You may find yourself seeking safety and relief by withdrawing from social life, quitting sports or other hobbies, and withdrawing from friends and family.


How to Handle Burnout

Stress will probably always be a part of your life, whether it comes from school, work, family, housekeeping, or other sources. Learning healthy coping mechanisms for stress and how to prevent it from hijacking your physiological stress response system may be the best, most realistic way to prevent burnout. Giving your body’s stress response systems the opportunity to return to normal levels may prevent them from becoming dysregulated and overactive. You may also find some relief from stress through regularly taking part in calming activities that you enjoy (Shields et al., 2020).

Any activity that calms you may allow your physiological stress response systems to return to normal levels. This gives you a lot of flexibility to choose a calming activity that you enjoy. Some options for self-nurturing activities include:

  • Spending time in nature

  • Physical activity

  • Meditation

  • Yoga

  • Drinking tea

  • Creating art or coloring

Final Thoughts on Burnout

It may be difficult to recognize burnout because it manifests as general symptoms. However, once you do, hopefully you can lean on strong support from those around you, encouragement and advice from a mentor figure, the freedom to say no to demands on time and energy, the safety to feel vulnerable enough to be imperfect and can take a physical break from the source of your stress.

References

  • Black, P. H., & Garbutt, L. D. (2002). Stress, inflammation and cardiovascular disease. Journal of psychosomatic research, 52(1), 1-23.

  • Freudenberger, H. J. (1974). Staff burn‐out. Journal of social issues, 30(1), 159-165.

  • Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of organizational behavior, 2(2), 99-113.

  • McEwen, B. S. (1998). Stress, adaptation, and disease: Allostasis and allostatic load. Annals of the New York Academy of sciences, 840(1), 33-44.

  • Samra, R. (2018). Brief history of burnout. BMJ, 363.

  • Schaufeli, W. B., & Greenglass, E. R. (2001). Introduction to special issue on burnout and health. Psychology & Health, 16(5), 501-510.

  • Shields, M., Hunnell, W., Tucker, M., & Price, A. (2020). Building Blocks and Coloring Away Stress: Utilizing Lego® and Coloring as Stress Reduction Strategies among University Students. Journal of Health Education Teaching, 11(1), 24-31.

  • Tsigos, C., & Chrousos, G. P. (2002). Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, neuroendocrine factors and stress. Journal of psychosomatic research, 53(4), 865-871.

  • Weber, A., & Jaekel-Reinhard, A. (2000). Burnout syndrome: a disease of modern societies?. Occupational Medicine, 50(7).

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