Much-need conversations about burnout, its symptoms, and its causes have dominated discussions both on and offline for a few years now.
Workers are starting to call their work-life balance and the environments of their workplaces into question, rightly prioritising their physical and mental health so that burnout can be prevented.
We all know that burnout causes emotional exhaustion, fatigue, and feeling unmotivated and helpless, but a recent twitter thread from a PHD student studying burnout, backed up by a lot of research, reveals some unexpected physiological symptoms of burnout too.
It turns out, burnout can actually change parts of your brain, triggering all kinds of problems for the tired and overworked.
Emma G Cartisano writes in the thread that when people are burnt out, their amygdala – the part of the brain that controls our emotional response to perceived threats – enlarges.
Basically, our amygdala is responsible for our flight or fight response – the part of us that decides if we’re running away or putting up a defence in the moments when we feel like we’re in danger. When the amygdala is working properly, we only do this in moments that are appropriately deemed a potential danger. But if the amygdala is enlarged by burnout, you can see how the system won’t work properly.
Cartisano’s information likely comes from this study in Stockholm, where researchers closely analysed the physical changes burnout caused in the brain. They performed MRIs on healthy people without chronic stress problems, and compares to those experiencing severe burnout, attributing their symptoms to stressful working conditions, entailing more than 60 to 70 hours of work per week continuously for several years.
The main takeaway from the study was that, when we are burnt out, the amygdala is no longer able to do its job well and we start perceiving absolutely everything as a potential threat, triggering our fight or flight system when it’s not necessary.
This could explain why so many people with burnout talk of fear when their manager asks for a meeting, or overreact when their partner says something inoffensive but a little ‘off’.
It also explains why so many people have quit their job when things have become too difficult. Considering most people spent the last two years working on top of the stress of the pandemic, could The Great Resignation, and the hike in divorce numbers, be a result of burnout?
Cartisano goes on to explain that, on top of paranoia problems, chronic stress (which leads to burnout) also affects the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that’s responsible for helping us learn.
‘Stress makes it harder for us to maintain attention and make new memories,’ she writes. ‘All this means that when we’re experiencing burnout, we struggle to pay attention to the world around us and respond appropriately to daily interactions or outcomes.’
This information is bleak but knowing this means we can put practices in place to stop our brains from tricking us when we’re exhausted.
Charlotte Fox-Weber, psychotherapist and author of What We Want: A Journey Through Twelve of Our Deepest Desires, shares her advice on what to do if you’re recognising this kind of paranoia-provoking, dulling burnout in your own life.
Spot your imaginative stories
It’s essential when you’re battling burnout to realise that you could be using your imagination in an unfavourable way.
Charlotte tells Metro.co.uk: ‘You might come up with vivid stories of people disliking you, the world finding you disastrous, the consequences of falling short on a responsibility.
‘We come up with stories we tell ourselves to keep going, but those stories are full of angsty cautionary messages that are imaginative and punishing.’
Spend time with kind people
As this research establishes, we’re super sensitive when burned out and panic can come from all kinds of places.
‘You’re thin skinned when burning out, and spiky remarks or downright negative feedback can knock you off your rocker,’ Charlotte explains. ‘When possible, engage with nice people who are reassuring and accept you in whatever state you’re in.’
Ask yourself what really matters
You might discover, once you’ve asked yourself what matters in your life, that actually you’re working way too hard on something you cannot stand.
‘You might be freaking out about an issue that isn’t even that interesting to you,’ Charlotte notes.
‘I love the realisation of boredom at these moments. Stress distracts us from boredom so much, and often that’s because we feel shame about being bored, shame about finding someone else [or our jobs] boring.’
Fox-Weber says that often, rather than admit we’re bored and need something new to stimulate and drive us, we can obsess and fixate and get run to the ground overworking instead.
Do something for yourself
‘Often, we think we need a dramatic overhaul of our schedule and our lives if we’re going to make changes,’ Charlotte adds. ‘Take a day, and really take that day.
‘Sleep, rest, have fun, and use that time to not be productive.
‘Do something you want to do, even if it’s just for an hour. Let that hour be your hour.’
Reduce your responsibilities
Feeling overly responsible is often at the heart of burnout whether its work-based, emotional or financial responsibilities.
Charlotte recommends checking in with yourself about who you’re responsible to and where the feelings of responsibility come from.
From there, cut the worst offenders if you can.
‘In your mind, clarify how you’ve overdone the pressure and expectation of being everything to others,’ Cahrlotte urges.
Burnout is, put plainly, awful to deal with. But the more we learn about how it works, the better we can manage and prevent it.
Just remember, if you’re overworked and stressed and you’re catching yourself being short with people, unable to enjoy yourself and getting worked up over small things you wouldn’t normally, you’re not a monster. You just need a rest.
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