A Complete Guide To Burnout

Are you “burned out“? If so, you probably understand the definition of this phrase quite well. But just for fun, let’s take a look at how that term is defined, and where it originated. As far as definitions go, a burnout is a:

  • reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing, through use or combustion.
  • physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.

You are no doubt familiar with that second definition as it relates to being burned out. It clearly expresses the dangerous repercussions of overwork or stress, when it leads to total collapse or incapacitation of the mind and/or body.

However, that first definition is important to note as well. When you suffer from burnout, you have run out of fuel. You have no energy. You are totally “used up”. When a fire runs out of oxygen and combustible material, it dies. When an engine of any kind has no more fuel, it stops working. These were the types of scenarios that lead American psychologist Dr. Herbert Freudenberger to coin the term “burnout” in the 1970s.

He noticed nurses, doctors and other health care providers working endlessly to help others. Many of them often sacrificed their own health, mental and physical, to help their patients enjoy a better standard of living. These caring individuals were so laser focused on creating positive change in the lives of others that they ignored their own needs. This led to chronic exhaustion, listlessness, and an in capability to cope with normal, everyday situations. These people were literally “burned out”.

These days the term burnout can refer to anyone. It is not just health care providers that can totally overwork themselves to the point of absolute exhaustion. The problem is that psychological and medical authorities have not come up with a concrete definition that gives us a word-by-word description of burnout. This lack of agreement nationally and globally on exactly what constitutes a burned out individual means that we don’t understand exactly how common this debilitating situation is.

Suffice  to say that burnout can be considered as different than mere stress. Suffer enough chronic stress without being treated properly, and you could end up burned out. What is the difference between burnout and stress? Let’s take a look in this complete guide to burnout

Stress vs Burnout: What’s the Difference?

Did you know that some stress is actually good for you? Seriously, you would literally not be able to survive some situations if your body did not know how to respond to stress. If your entire life is sunshine and roses, and you never experience negative emotions or situations of any kind, you would be totally unprepared for your first encounter with stress. There is no doubt that chronic stress can be harmful. It can actually damage your immune system, leading to a heightened chance of falling prey to disease, sickness and illness.

On the other hand, there are good types of stress as well. Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford Center on Stress and Health. He reminds us that short-term stress is actually beneficial when it is not recurring or chronic. When you encounter stress for just a few minutes or even an hour, your fight or flight response is triggered.

When this happens, the hormonal and chemical calls to action in your body are positive. You are highly alert and aware. All your senses come alive. Your brain function improves substantially. You have detected stress of some kind, so your immune system immediately responds. There are studies which show that this type of short-term stress can instantly improve your body’s natural defence system, and help you ward off disease and infection.

Now imagine that situation over the long term. Your senses are hyper-alert for days, weeks and months, instead of just a few minutes or hours at a time. There are no significant rest periods between your stressful states. This is when stress leads to burnout.

Short-term, acute periods of stress are normal and actually benefit your body and your mind. They teach you how to deal with future stress, and trigger your survival instincts. Without this type of short-term stress, a hungry lion would never benefit from the boost of physical and mental energy required to chase down an antelope.

That same antelope would alternately never have a chance of escape if stress didn’t trigger the appropriate response. On the other hand, once your systems can no longer deal with stress because it is a constant presence in your life, your body and mind give out.

This certainly doesn’t mean you should seek out stressful situations. The typical human encounters several short-term stress-triggers every day. You are running late for work. You didn’t receive a return phone call you have been expecting. You get a letter in the mail that does not deliver good news. Speaking of news, media outlets online, in print and on television make sure that you have plenty to be stressed out about. Don’t actively seek stress if you are generally stress-free. You will experience short-term stress soon enough

How Burnout Affects You in the Long Term

You just learned, possibly for the first time, that short-term periods of stress are beneficial. As long as you have sufficient periods of no stress between your short-term stress triggers, your body and mind benefit. Continual, ever-present stress leads to burnout. Unfortunately, many burned-out individuals never recover completely from the situation. That is why it is so important to constantly monitor your environment and relationships, so you can avoid burnout altogether.

Studies on brain chemistry show that burnout can cause long-lasting neurological problems. Your brain controls everything you do. Your brain is crucial for normal bodily function and is the core of what allows you to exist. A normally functioning brain is so important to human survival, that a lack of brainwave activity is one of the requirements for a declaration of death.

Burnout can cause negative changes in your brain chemistry that, if left untreated, can do lifelong damage.

Several studies have been conducted to show just how a burned out brain is affected. Doctor Armita Golkar led one particular study that was held at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. It has been cited by the Association of Psychological Science as important for understanding the chronic stress/brain connection. Basically, the findings showed that burnout actually changes “neural circuits in the brain and hurts people’s ability to cope with stressful situations.”

This means that a terribly vicious cycle develops.

The more stressed you are on a consistent basis, the harder it is for you to deal with stressful situations in the future. This affects your neural circuitry negatively, further weakening a healthy stress response. So any future stress becomes harder and harder to deal with, even if it would not be particularly stressful for a healthy brain. The cycle continues to the point where just about anything causes stress, and the sufferer of this condition cannot function normally.

Doctor Golkar tested 40 volunteers that had been diagnosed with burnout syndrome (more on the signs and symptoms of burnout in the next section). These particular participants all blamed their conditions on work-related stress that was ever-present and ongoing. They worked 60, 70 or more hours every week, continuously, for many years. Also in the study were 70 healthy, “burnout free” volunteers with no history of chronic stress.

All 110 subjects were asked to view pictures which typically caused negative or neutral emotional responses. However they responded on a per-picture basis, the participants were asked to maintain, suppress or intensify their emotional response. While the volunteers were focusing on the pictures being shown as well as their emotional responses, a loud, startling sound interrupted their concentration.

Those individuals diagnosed with burnout had a much more difficult time suppressing their reactions to the loud noise. Across the board, the results were the same. This led Doctor Golkar to hypothesize that a brain which has already been chronically stressed to the point of burnout has a much more difficult time dealing with new stressors than a healthy brain. The test subjects which did not suffer from burnout were able to control their responses to the interrupting noise much more effectively than their burned-out counterparts.

All participants were also given brain scans while they were simply sitting quietly.

The stressed-out participants, as a whole, showed significantly larger amygdalas. This is the area of the brain which is associated with aggression and fear. Not only was the amygdala larger and thus more ready to attach stress to any situation or event, but the connection between the amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex was much weaker than in the healthy brains.

Your medial prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain related to executive function. These are mental skills that help you accomplish certain tasks. Executive function allows you to easily switch your focus from one task, activity or thought to another. When healthy, it allows you to remember details, plan, organise, and manage your time.

When unhealthy you can’t pay attention, you consistently say or do the wrong thing in a certain situation, and you forget what your experiences have taught you in the past. This shows undeniably that burnout leads to a reduced ability to deal with stress in the future, and also negatively affects your ability to make simple decisions and perform simple actions.

Aside from this mental damage, burnout can literally change your body, and not in a good way.

When you suffer from burnout, you have very little to no mental and physical energy. This leads to little physical activity. Your body begins to atrophy, from head to toe. Your body is also negatively affected because of your weekend immune system. Your natural immunity is your body’s defence system against illness, disease and infection.

As mentioned previously, an individual diagnosed with burnout has a lowered immunity to infection and disease than normal. This means that a burned out individual is more likely to succumb to disease, illness and sickness which creates negative changes in your body. Let’s take a look at how to identify burnout, so you can seek treatment as quickly as possible. 

The Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

As with any health condition, there are certain signs that indicate burnout is present, or right around the corner. If you can identify with more than 2 or 3 of the following burnout symptoms, you should consider scheduling an appointment with your doctor for a professional diagnosis.

 

  • You feel alone in the world, helpless, defeated and “trapped”
  • You suffer from frequent headaches, muscle aches and back pain
  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Loss of motivation, you just don’t care
  • Feeling tired, exhausted and “drained” most of the time
  • A cynical or negative outlook that gets increasingly worse
  • You are constantly sick (sign of a weak immune system)
  • Self-medicating with alcohol, food and/or drugs
  • You are never happy, and nothing you do is ever good enough
  • A constant sense of self-doubt and failure
  • A recent and drastic change in sleep habits and/or appetite
  • Withdrawing from society

What Causes Burnout?

Now that you know the warning signs of burnout, what causes it? Are there specific circumstances or activities which increase your chance of becoming burned out? Every human being is different. So sometimes, what could cause one person chronic stress that leads to burnout could be a situation which doesn’t affect someone else negatively at all. However, in general, you should be aware of the following scenarios and stressors which increase the possibility of becoming a burned out individual.

Lack of control – When you feel like you have no control over your life you are experiencing a stressful situation.

 

Constant overwork – You need balance in your life. Constantly being overworked and over-stressed, in your career or personal life, can lead to burnout.

 

You don’t feel satisfied or rewarded – This includes feelings of under-appreciation at work, and in your personal life.

 

You don’t feel a sense of community or belonging – When you feel like you’re the only person on the outside looking in, this is a very lonely, stressful experience.

 

A constant presence of conflicting values – People do not perform well when they are constantly surrounded by situations, events and people that conflict with their personal set of values.

 

You feel unfairly treated – When you perceive that everyone is getting a “fairer shake” than you, this could lead to chronic stress and burnout.

 

Spending all of your time accomplishing tasks and taking care of responsibilities, and no time enjoying life and its many rewards – This one is self-explanatory.

 

Remember, the causes of stress in your life may be different from someone else. Basically, anything that makes you feel emotionally drained, overwhelmed and unable to the degree where you cannot meet the demands of daily life could be steering you down the path to burnout. 

9 Step Plan to Avoiding Burnout in the Future and Coping With Burnout Symptoms

Obviously, avoiding burnout is your best case scenario. Once you have been diagnosed with burnout syndrome, there are steps you should take as well. The following steps will help you prevent from getting burned out, and also help you deal with burnout if you already suffer from this condition.

1 – Get Moving

Physical movement leads to so many health benefits. It keeps your brain alert, boosts your heart health, and ramps up your natural ability to resist infection and disease. Your physical body, inside and out, becomes stronger and healthier. Your organs and all of the interior processes which allow you to function and exist also become healthier. Don’t worry, you won’t have to purchase an expensive gym or health club membership. You also don’t have to transform from the couch potato to Olympic athlete overnight either.

Look at opportunities every day to stand up as opposed to sitting down. Take the stairs instead of the lift, and park further away from your work entrance than you usually do. Spend part of your lunch break walking, and engage in some type of aerobic activity at least 3 times a week. The key here is to get more physical movement and exercise into your life. You benefit is overall health and well-being, and exercise acts like a wonder drug to prevent and treat burnout

2 – Get Enough Rest

Physical activity is important to beat stress and keep burnout at bay. Rest is just as important. Adults need between 7 and 8 hours of restful sleep every night. Proper sleep has been linked to dramatically lower levels of stress. Adults who get plenty of rest are also generally healthier overall than their sleep deprived counterparts. Less stress and a healthy body due to proper rest make an effective tool for burnout prevention and treatment

3 – Eat Smart

Nutritionists now believe that is much as 60% to 75% of your level of fitness and health is due to your diet alone. This is why it is so important to monitor what you put into your body. The less processed foods. If your diet consists mostly of food items that are wrapped, bagged, boxed and canned, you are eating a lot of processed foods that are pumped full of harmful toxins, preservatives, steroids and other unhealthy chemicals and minerals.

Start eating more foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Switching much of your diet to raw foods has been shown to have immediate health benefits. If eating raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries is out of the question for you, you can still cook them. Opt for broiled or steamed over fried, and make sure you’re getting wild caught salmon, grass fed beef and organic eggs in your diet as well.

These days there is no excuse for claiming ignorance where diet is concerned. You know you should be eating more fruits and vegetables, and less drive-through and restaurant foods. Doing so reduces your chances of becoming burnt out, and has been proven to reduce burnout symptoms in those that have been diagnosed with this condition.

4 – Stay Hydrated

How important is hydration to health? In one of many similar studies, patients suffering from Alzheimer’s had their daily water intake raised. Simply increasing the amount of water those Alzheimer’s sufferers drank on a daily basis dramatically decreased the debilitating symptoms they were suffering from. This is how crucial water is to overall mental and physical health, and preventing burnout.

The human body can go for 30 or more days without eating any food. However, human beings can’t go more than 3 days without drinking water. You do receive some water in the foods that you eat. However, this is never enough to properly hydrate your body for maximum health benefits.

The thing about drinking water is that you really can’t overdo yourself, in most cases. Water is an excellent detox agent, flushing your body of dangerous toxins, poisons and waste. When your body is healthy, it deals with stress effectively. As well as preventing burnout, a properly hydrated body has a better chance of coping with burnout than a body that is thirsting for hydration.

5 – Limit Exposure to Triggers

You are probably aware of a few things in your life that cause stress. Limit your exposure to these stressors. A smart dieter trying to lose weight surrounds herself with healthy food. She also steers clear of situations where unhealthy food is present. Do the same. Whether you are trying to treat or prevent burnout, staying away from stressful situations just makes sense.

6 – Socialise for Support

There is a lot of evidence which suggests socialisation can reduce stress. When you socialise, you generally “hang out” with people like yourself. This is why animals heard in the wild. There is a feeling of safety in numbers. Sitting at home alone and brooding on your problems is never the right answer. This often leads to blowing your situation out of proportion, and creating more stress than is actually present. Socialisation has also proven successful in treating burnout as well as preventing it.

7 – Practice Stress Relief Techniques

You can meditate just about anywhere, at any time you have 5, 10 or 15 spare minutes. Meditation has been used as a calming, stress-relief practice for centuries. Aromatherapy, acupuncture, acupressure, deep breathing and taking frequent work breaks are all effective stress-relief techniques.

8 – Schedule Your Life, But Remain Flexible

When you are unprepared, you are often stressed out. Organise and schedule your life. Create to-do lists and carry a daily planner with you. There is a wonderful sense of control and peace of mind when you make a schedule and stick to it. However, make sure you leave room for flexibility, or an unforeseen conflict with an unforgiving schedule could cause for a stressful situation.

9 – Get Some Sun Every Day

Your body needs a healthy amount of vitamin D to function properly. As mentioned earlier, when your body is healthy and strong, it is easier for you to deal with stress. When your skin is exposed to 15 to 20 minutes of sun each day, your body creates the required amount of vitamin D. You should obviously not strip down to your birthday suit, but the more of your skin that absorbs the sun’s rays the better for healthy vitamin D production.

 

 

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