Why Do We Get Burned Out & How Should We Deal With It

We all know what stress feels like. You may have felt stressed around exam period at university. Or perhaps when you’ve gone through a particularly demanding time at work. Stress is an extremely common experience. However, feeling burned out can take your stress to an entirely new level.

Burnout is essentially a state of emotional, physical, and psychological exhaustion. It’s usually caused by high stress levels over a prolonged period of time. Many of the symptoms of burnout actually look quite similar to those of depression. Thus, they may include fatigue, exhaustion, loss of passion, headaches, negativity, hopelessness, headaches, and even suicidal thoughts.

Why do we get burned out? 

Work is a leading cause of burnout. Researchers have found that workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values all affect burnout. When difficulties begin to arise in one or more of these domains, we become more susceptible to stress. And then burn out. A report by the World Health Organisation found evidence that high job demands, low control, and effort-reward balance are risk factors for both mental and physical health problems.

It is not, however, only workload that can burn us out. We may also become burn out thanks to unfulfilling relationships, studies, and daily responsibilities. It’s obvious that burnout can change the way we feel, but it turns out that these effects may be even further-reaching than we know.

Can burning out change your brain?

Recent research suggests that burnout may even be capable of changing our brain. One study, which examined a group of “burned out” individuals in comparison to a group of “healthy” controls,  found that many members of the burnout group had enlarged amygdalas (the part of our brain associated with emotional reactions). This, in turn, may explain why  people experiencing burnout may have more difficulty controlling negative emotions than those who are not. Alarmingly, it also seems that being burned out for long periods of time can even lead to wear and tear on our brain.

Under extreme stress, even our hormones can start dysregulating, particularly cortisol (our stress hormone). Usually, when we face a perceived threat (e.g. a stranger following us), we release cortisol.  The release triggers a range of psychological and physiological reactions as we prepare to fight or flee from the situation. Once the threat has passed, however, cortisol levels decrease, and we tend to return to baseline. Nevertheless, when our stress is chronic, cortisol levels do not return to baseline and instead remain elevated for a long period of time. In response, the body starts  producing cortisol at abnormally low levels. Cortisol imbalance corresponds with severe stress and trauma, so clearly, excessive stress can burn out our stress response.

How can we deal with being burned out? 

A recent study found one important factor that determined just how burned out people became. A group of chief medical officers (CMOs) at 35 large hospitals were assessed for their levels of stress and how they cope. Although 69% of the CMOs said that their current stress levels were “severe,” “very severe,”or “worst possible,” the majority didn’t say that they are burned out. So how could this be the case? They all had high emotional intelligence. Being aware of our emotions allows us to understand what causes our feelings of distress. Moreover, understanding others’ perspectives, emotions, and attitudes might give us the ability to show feelings of compassion and empathy and keep level-headed when we experience difficulties.

Some other ways to prevent and manage feelings of burnout and stress include:

Understanding your limits: Recognizing your strengths and weaknesses may help you identify areas in which you excel and areas which you may need more help with. Becoming aware of your workload limits can also be useful in recognizing when you are on the verge of burnout. 

Using mindfulness practices: Bringing your attention back to the present moment can help you manage feelings of anxiety. It brings back a sense of self-control and openness to solutions.

Taking a break: There are many different ways to take a break. It might be a holiday, it might be some time off work, or it might be reducing your workload. When that happens, we are not functioning at our optimal levels, so we should take a break. Taking a step back from our external pressures can often help us feel less stressed.

Challenging your perspective: When we are in a state of extreme stress, it is easy to perceive everything as a stressor that we simply cannot avoid or resolve. Re-evaluating our situation and realizing that there are other options available to us can be a huge help in bringing our stress levels down.

Being burned out isn’t a great feeling, but you also have to remember that there are ways to cope with it. Try relaxing and staying present. What are your tips for getting out of this state? Share them in the comments below!

Feature image via lukasbieri on Pixabay


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