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We all want to bring our best and feel our best in every aspect of our lives—from work to workouts, relationships to hobbies (do we even have time for those nowadays?). But, with all the stressors we face these days, it’s hard to keep our physical and emotional batteries charged enough to do that. When work—or life in general—starts to feel like an endless slog, or if each day seems like a bit more of a battle to fight than the day before, you might be heading down the path to burnout.
The term “burnout” is thrown around a lot in popular culture today, but what is it exactly? Is it a real thing? How does it happen? What are the symptoms? Is it reversible? To get the answers to these questions and more, I turned to a mental health expert who shed light on everything we need to know about burnout.
Read on to learn how to spot burnout and how to get your mental and emotional flames shining brightly again.
Meet the Expert
What is Burnout?
The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Back then, it was used to describe the result of severe stress, especially among those in “helping professions,” such as doctors and nurses, who provide care to others all day. It wasn’t until 2019 that the World Health Organization (WHO) considered burnout to be an official diagnosis. And, under their diagnostic criteria, burnout is a psychological syndrome involving a minimum of a specific triad of symptoms—a feeling of unmanageable exhaustion, cynicism or a lack of emotional engagement in your job, and a decline in performance or efficacy—due to chronic work-related stressors.
Though the official diagnosis only pertains to job-related situations, the term is used in a more generic sense in modern parlance to describe the same feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion, detachment, and reduced performance, but resulting from any causative factors.
What Causes Burnout?
“Many factors can lead to burnout, such as job, parenting, school, relationships—anything with constant demands,” explains Senia. In some cases, one particular factor, like caring for an aging parent or a demanding job, is the primary driving force, especially if the stressfulness of this factor is rather severe or long lasting. But, burnout can also result from the cumulative effects of several less glaringly exhausting or trying factors. The trouble is that we’re all so busy these days—trying to keep an entire banquet table of plates spinning—that so many of us are unknowingly sliding down the slope to burnout.
Your ability to cope with stressors also plays a role in your risk. “Burnout can exacerbate if the person lacks an adequate support system and has poor self-care,” notes Senia. Getting quality sleep, practicing meditation, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly are self-care tools that can help bolster your physical and emotional reserves so you can better tolerate stressors.
Symptoms of Burnout
The symptoms of burnout can vary between individuals and span the gamut from physical manifestations to changes in mood and mental performance.
“Declining performance tends to occur in response to the hormonal system changing when the body is fatigued, which can lead to mood changes and an overall decline in mental and physical health,” says Senia. Feeling more disorganized or less productive at home or work? Missing deadlines or forgetting to pay bills? Struggling to get through workouts that you were crushing just weeks ago? It might be time to make some changes and ease up. “Declining performance can serve as a cue to the individual that stress is present, and burnout is a possibility,” says Senia. “If you notice that your work or performance is starting to slip, this is an indication that exhaustion or fatigue is present, and this is the time to engage some sort of a reset.”
“Emotional exhaustion is triggered by stress and can be recognized by changes in mood such as sadness, irritability or anger, and fatigue,” explains Senia. “When the body carries stress that accumulates and [the individual] does not have a chance to frequently purge the stress energy, this energy manifests in the physical, emotional, and mental body.” So, if you’re noticing that you’re moodier, crying frequently, or are quick to anger, your emotional resilience might be drying up.
Recurring Headaches and Stomachaches
Though the symptoms of burnout can initially be vague and difficult to notice, the physical manifestation of the stress itself are often easier to spot. Stress and anxiety may cause headaches, stomachaches, nausea, and an increased heart rate and blood pressure. If it seems like you’re catching every little cold, stress may also be to blame as it can suppress your immune system. Senia says that these physical manifestations result from the brain and body being in a chronically stressed, fight-or-flight state.
Feeling Numb About Work
“Feeling numb or detached is another symptom of the fight/flight mode, but in this case, it is the third common stress reaction called ‘freeze,’” says Senia. “If you are feeling detached, withdrawn, or emotionally removed from people and activities that you usually enjoy, this reaction could be an indicator of overwhelm and stress.” Senia warns that if this becomes a prolonged emotional state, it can indicate a depressive disorder or a trauma, which should be addressed in a professional therapeutic setting.
Because lack of autonomy or control over your work is frequently cited as the factor that contributes most significantly to the development of burnout, wherever possible, see if there are ways you can take more control at work, like choosing how to manage your time or which projects you take on.
“Excessive tiredness, or fatigue, can be a symptom of stress and can lead to a disrupted sleep pattern,” says Senia. “When a person is constantly dealing with stress, [it] activates your body’s stress response, and the cortisol (stress hormone) levels remain high.” High cortisol levels—especially if they are chronic—are exhausting because the body is in a constant state of fight-or-flight or high alarm. This system serves an evolutionary purpose to protect us in times of danger—for example, to outrun a lion. But, even though we aren’t actually face to face with a lion now (hopefully!), our brains and bodies still perceive modern-day stress the same way: we feel wired and unable to relax. Over time, this becomes extremely tiring. You may find yourself sleeping more and more, struggling to get going in the morning, or falling asleep at your desk by mid-afternoon.
Despite being more exhausted, you might actually be staring at the ceiling and counting sheep at night instead of blissfully sleeping. “Disrupted sleep pattern and insomnia are indicators of stress and occur due to tension in the body, [which] makes it difficult to sleep,” says Senia. Elevated cortisol, anxiety, and an inability to shut your brain off can also play a disruptive role.
“Irritability is another common stress response and occurs due to hormonal changes in the brain leading to a mood dysregulation,” explains Senia, who notes that anger and sadness are other examples of mood disturbances. But, your testiness or crankiness isn’t just unpleasant for others; it might a warning sign that you need to seek professional help. “Any response that is unusual to the person’s regular behavior pattern should be discussed with medical or a mental health professional,” advises Senia. Mood irregularities can escalate quickly, and it’s better to address them in their nascent stages.
Loss of Motivation
Has it been harder to get yourself to the gym? Do you keep finding excuses to delay starting your next work assignment? Is your laundry piling up and are dirty dishes taking over the sink? Lack of motivation is another common response to stress and a symptom of burnout. “It results from hormonal changes in the brain,” says Senia. And, it can be compounded by fatigue and exhaustion from poor sleep.
“Anxiety is typically characterized as excessive worry, or apprehensive expectation where the individual finds it difficult to control the worry,” notes Senia. “Unlike stress, anxiety will persist even after the concern or worry has passed.” Anxious thoughts can also spiral, or you may notice yourself catastrophizing and imagining worse-case scenarios. You may also feel edgy, tense, jittery, and have difficulty sitting still. The stressors causing burnout can inherently cause anxiety in their own right. But, anxiety can also be borne from burnout itself. For example, if burnout is negatively affecting your work performance, you may worry and become anxious about your job security.
A review of research studies identified depression to be one of the most commonly experienced psychological consequences of job-related burnout. And, workers with higher levels of burnout were more likely to enter treatment for depression and take antidepressant medications to manage their symptoms. This strong association may be due to the fact that many of the symptoms of burnout and depression overlap. In fact, a recent study found that there’s such a significant overlap between the two that they often feed into one another.
How to Recover From Burnout
Taking a vacation or time away from the situation that causes stress, regulating your sleep schedule, exercising, and talking to people you trust are all methods Senia recommends to help you recover from burnout. “It is helpful to evaluate how much you have on your plate, and see if something can be taken off, or if someone is able to help you with a certain task so you don’t feel burdened by having to complete too many tasks,” advises Senia. In other words, delegate, delegate, delegate. You don’t have to do everything yourself. “Yoga, meditation, and breathwork have been significant catalysts in decreasing stress and helping the mental and physical system recover from stress,” adds Senia. The therapeutic, stress-busting effects of moving your body and producing endorphins through exercise also should not be overlooked. From walking, to lifting weights, to streaming a HIIT class from your own living room, any type of physical activity is helpful.
With exercise, the key is consistency—try to adopt a routine that has you moving your body for at least 20-30 minutes most days of the week.
What Can You Learn From Burnout?
If you have to deal with something as unpleasant and challenging as burnout, you might as well get something out of it. ”I believe that you can learn some healthy and effective ways to cope with stress as a result of dealing with burnout,” offers Senia. Whether you decide to take up journaling, tai chi, tapping, or running, or find a way to ask for help and offload some responsibilities, the key is cultivating a better work-life balance and respecting your needs. Listen to your body, embrace the “self-care craze,” and try to do life at your speed, even if that means pushing up against the overachieving, competitive culture we live in today. After all, remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare or the flight safety instructions to affix your mask before helping your child: it’s better to go a little slower, do a little less, and attend to your needs first than to go guns blazing and give, give, give. Doing the latter can render you ineffective, exhausted, and burned out, and then no one will be able to benefit from all the beautiful things you have to offer. And, we definitely don’t want that.
Salvagioni, D., Melanda, F. N., Mesas, A. E., González, A. D., Gabani, F. L., & Andrade, S. M. (2017). Physical, Psychological and Occupational Consequences of Job bBurnout: A Systematic Review of Prospective Studies. PloS One, 12(10), e0185781.
Rotenstein, L.S., Zhao, Z., Mata, D.A. et al. (2021). Substantial Overlap Between Factors Predicting Symptoms of Depression and Burnout Among Medical Interns. J GEN INTERN MED :36, 240–242.