Burnout Syndrome: Guide To This Exhausting Syndrome

Everyone knows the feeling of excitement and newness when they begin a job, school, or start up their own business. After a while though, that excitement wears off and eventually, you’re left feeling without energy or want to do anything. You turn off your alarm and wait another 20 minutes in bed before getting up slowly without any will to start the day. You completely lack motivation-even when you try. That’s burnout syndrome. So, what is burnout syndrome? What are the signs, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of it? How does it affect the body and the brain? How does it tie into depression? How can you fight against burnout?

Burnout Syndrome
Burnout Syndrome

What is burnout syndrome?

It’s important to understand stress to be able to understand burnout syndrome. Stress isn’t something we can just feel and see (sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, grinding of teeth, or stomach issues), it’s also something that creeps into our lives without your knowledge. This creeping stress happens especially when you have lots of tasks, big or small, with little time to do them. You have trouble concentrating and you commonly feel adrenaline rushes. That’s stress. So, what’s burnout syndrome?

Defined by HelpGuide, burnout syndrome is “a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.”

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Richard Gunderman, a physician, and professor of philosophy and radiology at Indiana University defines burnout syndrome as, “the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of tiny disappointments, each one hardly noticed on its own.

“Burnout” was first invented in the 1970s by Herbert Freudenberger, an American Psychologist. Freudenberger used the term to refer to the consequences of high stress and high expectations and ideals. Having seen the loss of motivation, emotional depletion, and negativity he saw with volunteers at a free clinic in New York, he defined it as such- a loss of motivation, negativity, and cynicism, and emotional depletion. In 1976, the publication of Maslach’s article “Burned-Out” in the Human Behavior magazine generated a huge, positive public response which popularized the concept more. Nowadays, burnout syndrome is recognized as a legitimate disorder by a large majority of medics and has been given its own ICD-10 code (Z73.0).

Burnout syndrome, also referred to as “feeling burned out”, can happen to anyone. It’s actually not uncommon for a teacher to feel burnout syndrome, too. It’s not uncommon to feel burned out, either. A 2013 report of human resource directors in the UK showed that almost 30% of them felt burned out. A Gallup Poll found that almost 2.7 million German workers feel burned out.

Signs of burnout syndrome

Common signs of burnout syndrome include:

  • Feeling exhausted
  • Unable to find motivation
  • Feeling numb about work or school
  • Forgetfulness and cognitive problems such as memory or attention issues
  • Lack of creativity
  • Pessimism
  • Isolation
  • Anger
  • Mood swings
  • Reduced performance overall- people who are suffering from burnout syndrome are often negative about their tasks whether they are work or home involved.
  • Feeling depressed
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Stomach and digestion problems
  • Insomnia

Causes of burnout syndrome

Burnout syndrome happens due to a stressful lifestyle with lots of pressure which turns into the person feeling unable to cope with the stress and being exhausted. To be permanently overworked,  underworked, or conflicts with colleagues can also lead to burnout syndrome. Physical illnesses can also be the cause of burnout-type symptoms.

It’s a mistake to say that burnout syndrome is a simple emotional response to a challenging job, long hours, or unhappiness. There is more and more evidence that burnout has a large physical toll that stretches from our professional lives into our home. It’s not just a state of mind, but it’s actually a condition that can leave its mark on both the brain and the body.

How does burnout syndrome affect the body

Our bodies are ready to deal with short-term stress. However, constant and long-term stress and burnout can really take their toll on the body. Short-term stress activates our sympathetic nervous system fight-or-flight mode. This response to stress releases cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline into our systems to help us (our ancestors) run from danger. However, when our stress and anxiety become so constant that our fight-or-flight mode is often activated, it negatively impacts our body, our sleep, digestion, and immune system. When we become burned out, our bodies stop producing cortisol which is a process known as adrenal fatigue.

Burnout Syndrome
Burnout Syndrome

How does burnout syndrome affect the brain

Considering that burnout syndrome has a lot to do with chronic stress, it has a long-lasting impact on the brain-especially the brain’s physical structure. Burnout and stress can cause enlargement (swelling) or shrinkage, thinning and premature aging in the amygdala– the part of the brain that deals with emotions. That’s why people who have burnout can often be on edge and have mood swings as well as signs of depression and anxiety. This can also happen in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)– two parts of the brain that help us modulate out stress responses. There is also the fact that long-term stress affects our gray matter negatively with significant gray matter loss which makes our brains more susceptible to neurotoxins which can cloud our judgment and hurt our brain.

More new research has shown that chronic psychosocial stress (the type of stress that characterizes burnout) not only impairs one’s social and personal functions but it can also overwhelm their cognitive skills and neuroendocrine systems which leads, eventually, to distinctive permanent changes in one’s anatomy and brain functions.

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The changes to our neural structures due to burnout syndrome is serious. This study took 40 participants with formally diagnosed burnout from the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University in Sweden. Each participant chalked up their symptoms to stressful working conditions with each one detailing more than 60-70 hours of work a week for several years. The study then took 70 volunteers with no history of burnout and had each group do two tasks- one measured their ability to be able to regulate their negative emotions and the other task was an evaluation of their brain’s connectivity in using resting-state functional MRI (R-fMRI).

The two different groups showed similarities in their responses when they were instructed to maintain or intensify their emotional reactions. That said, the burned-out group was unable to down-regulate their emotions when asked. Those who were diagnosed with burnout syndrome also had more difficulty in keeping their strong negative emotional responses in check compared to their “healthy counterparts”. Overall, the burned-out group had much stronger responses to everything. When looking at their R-fMRI, the two groups differed greatly in their amygdala. Those who were burned out had an enlarged amygdala and also had weaker connections between their amygdala and the other brain areas that are linked to emotional distress- specifically the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).

The researchers saw that the more stressed the participant was, the weaker their connection between these two brain regions was. The study also found that a weak connection between the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) which plays a role in executive functions. A weak connection between these two parts of the brain could explain why people who suffer from burnout have more difficulty in controlling their negative emotions. These findings aren’t alone. Another study was able to corroborate these findings, too.

Both studies that found the weak brain connections due to burnout and chronic stress also found that data from animal experiments show that stress can cause an enhanced release of glutamate, the most prominent neurotransmitter, as well as a stress-related elevation of extracellular levels of glutamate which induce a retraction in the stress-targeted areas of the spine such as a medial prefrontal cortex, the basal ganglia, and the anterior cingulate.

Burnout syndrome and depression

There are symptoms that occur in people who suffer from depression and people who suffer from burnout. Some of these symptoms include conditions such as feeling down or sad, having an overall reduced performance, and feeling extreme exhaustion. Due to the similarity between the two conditions, some people are diagnosed with burnout syndrome

although, in reality, they are suffering from depression. Having burnout syndrome doesn’t mean that the person has depression. However, depression can be a symptom of burnout and burnout may increase one’s risk of developing depression.

Burnout does have a few characteristics that make it different from depression. The biggest symptom being that most of the person’s problems are work-related.

It’s important not to self-diagnose when considering if you have burnout or depression. Someone who has depression but is only diagnosed with burnout might be told to take a few days off of work to relax or to take a long vacation. However, people who are burned out or who were exhausted beyond belief would get to feeling better while someone who has depression wouldn’t feel much better, if at all because depression requires a much more rigorous course of treatment.

Burnout syndrome diagnosis

There is no existing diagnosis for “burnout” because, unlike depression, it’s not widely studied nor accepted as a medical condition. However, some people would diagnose burnout as the result of another disorder such as depression, anxiety disorder, chronic fatigue disorder, or excessive stress. Some diagnoses can be made via questionnaires, but they aren’t always accurate. The most common questionnaire being the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). However, this questionnaire was made for research purposes and not made for doctors to use as a tool for diagnosing burnout.

One of the best frameworks for defining and assessing burnout comes from the Maslach Burnout Inventory which has been cited over 6,000 times by Google Scholar. It’s a scale that evaluates burnout based on three stress responses- feelings of detachment and cynicism, an overwhelming sense of fatigue and exhaustion, and a sense of professional lack of accomplishment and ineffectiveness.

One scientific review found that 13 of 15 scientific papers found that burnout syndrome is related to cognitive deficits. According to the researchers in the study, the cognitive deficits refer specifically to the “executive attentional and memory systems appear to suffer in association with burnout, and cognitive functioning is impaired in burned-out individuals.”

Treatment for burnout syndrome

One useful treatment for burnout syndrome is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), according to studies. Psychotherapy (talk therapy) combined with coaching can be useful. Often, the best ways to treat burnout syndrome is to lower stress levels by doing activities such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness, Qigong, etc. Drugs shouldn’t be used unless they are treating another condition such as depression or insomnia.

Prevent and fight against burnout syndrome

In order to prevent burnout, it’s important to remember that you’re under pressure. It’s also important to change your habits in order to balance your personal life with your work. Here are a few more ways to prevent burnout:

  • Work smarter, not longer. With numerous tools and apps out there it’s easy to be able to organize yourself and your time in a productive, non-burnout way. Try using a to-do list. Science has proven that to-do lists make you more productive. It’s also proven that crossing off something on a to-do list releases endorphins which help fight stress!
  • Try thinking of the tasks on your to-do list that take a lot of time and get them done. Procrastination has been shown to create more stress which will lead to burnout. Try and get things done in a timely manner rather than waiting until the last minute.
  • Unplug from the world. It may seem stressful to be away from technology- especially if you have nomophobia. However, it’s important to unplug every once in a while which helps our overall well-being.
  • Try working less. 41% of Americans didn’t take a single day off in 2015 and overall, Americans take only half of their paid vacation. In order to work better, you need to take vacations.

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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