By Jezel Rosa
Burnout has become commonplace in today’s society, especially after the COVID pandemic. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that in 2021, 79% of American workers reported work-related stress, and 3 out of 5 of those workers reported negative impacts of this stress on their performance and well-being, which can lead to burnout.
Burnout can lead to chronic disease, inflammation, and mental illness, such as anxiety, depression, and even psychosis! Therefore, it is important to bolster your resilience against burnout. In this article, we will uncover what burnout is, your body’s warning signs of burnout, and what you can do to help prevent the sequelae of burnout, boost your resilience, and improve your overall well-being.
Burnout is a state of chronic stress that is typically related to the work environment; however, it can happen in any aspect of your life (ex., school, and home). This state of chronic stress leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, feeling cynical about your work or detached from your work, and feeling a lack of accomplishment or a sense that you are just not good enough.
External factors that have been shown to lead to burnout are feeling a lack of control, perhaps you're not in control of your schedule, or you can't manage the hours that you're working, which can create stress. Other factors are going to be lack of communication at work, lack of social support, unclear job expectations, and feeling like you work in a dysfunctional or hostile environment. Though anyone can experience these external factors, they tend to be more prevalent in caretaking professions, such as healthcare workers and teachers.
Many people burn the candle at both ends; stress is just a part of life. So how do you know when your stress reaches a level of burnout? The good news is that our body gives us clues that we are going down that slippery slope via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) or our body’s stress response. Our stress response is not necessarily a bad thing; you need it to identify when you are in danger so you can fight or flee. However, when this system is overworked, it leads to compensatory mechanisms as our bodies cannot keep up with the demand of that chronic stress or chronic cortisol production, which leads to many chronic diseases, including mental illness. Therefore, it is important to identify these warning signs of burnout before it becomes a problem.
Decreased cognition or brain fog- chronic levels of cortisol in the brain lead to brain inflammation which can cause word-finding problems, decreased vocabulary, decreased memory, and difficulty learning new information or paying attention. These symptoms sound a lot like ADHD! In fact, many adults who think they have ADHD actually have burnout.
Irritability and anger- Cortisol also has a negative impact on the amygdala or fear center of the brain. This can lead to feeling easily annoyed, being easily irritated, and wanting to be left alone.
Chronic fatigue with insomnia- During states of chronic stress, your adrenal glands will begin to shut down and create a dysregulation of cortisol. Cortisol levels are typically elevated in the morning in response to our circadian rhythm, giving us a sense of alertness and feeling refreshed when we wake up. However, under chronic stress, our cortisol levels are low in the morning, resulting in fatigue, and elevated at night, resulting in insomnia.
Anxiety- As cortisol is activated due to stress, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, which can lead to physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, palpitations, and feeling short of breath with shallow breathing. These physical symptoms often cause anxiety, fear, and panic, which can worsen the symptoms leading to headaches, dizziness, and shaking. Some people will feel like they are going to pass out.
Stomach Discomfort- Activation of our stress response will also cause stomach discomfort. At first, you may feel butterflies in your stomach, cramping and nausea. However, over time, the gastrointestinal system will slow down, which can lead to constipation and appetite changes.
Stress eating- Long-term elevated cortisol levels will lead to dysregulation of blood glucose, causing cravings for carbohydrates and sugars, which will lead to weight gain and insulin resistance.
Decreased libido- Elevated levels of cortisol will suppress hormone production, causing a lack of sexual desire or lack of interest in your partner.
You get sick easily- Chronic cortisol production will also suppress the immune system. When your immune system is suppressed, you become more vulnerable to diseases such as the common cold.
Once you recognize the symptoms of burnout or realize that you are at risk of burnout, it is time to start bolstering your resilience against stress and burnout before it can lead to mental illness or other health conditions. So, here are some actionable steps you can take to decrease your stress and prevent the sequelae of burnout.
Communication- Talk to your family, your friends, and coworkers about the fact that you're experiencing burnout. More importantly, if burnout is happening in the workplace, you need to talk with your manager or someone who can help make some changes to the work environment to help reduce the workload. If you are overburdened with work, perhaps you can delegate tasks to someone else. You can also work on time management. Perhaps some of the things that are impacting your schedule and putting pressure on you are that you may be having difficulty managing your time. Talking with a coworker, family member, or friend can help to evaluate whether this is actually a factor and then come up with ways to manage your time better.
Increase your social interactions- Make meaningful interactions with others, join a club or partake in a hobby that is of interest to you. If faith is an important part of your life, then perhaps join a church group. If you like to play golf, then joining a golf league or club can be a great way to meet new people and increase social interactions. You can also create fun things to do with your family, such as game night or movie night. Improving social interactions by doing positive things with your friends and family can bring work-life balance back into your life.
Get enough sleep- The recommended sleep time for adults is 7-9 hours. Make sure you are setting enough time aside to get enough sleep. Start a sleep hygiene routine, which can include things like turning off your cell phone and electronic devices 30 minutes before bed, taking a warm shower, or doing a sleep meditation or prayer. Find what works for you. The important thing is that you make it a relaxing routine that signals to your body that it is time for rest. For more sleep hygiene tips, check out this video here.
Decrease your caffeine intake- Burnout can make you feel fatigued and tired, but please avoid the pitfall of drinking too much caffeine to compensate. Remember, when you're in the throes of burnout, your cortisol levels are sky high, and caffeine can exacerbate the stress response making it worse. So, limiting your caffeine will have profound results.
Low impact exercise- Low impact exercises, like yoga or walking, can help you heal from burnout and reregulate your stress response. You’ll want to avoid high-impact exercise while healing from burnout, as this can further exacerbate your stress response. Once your stress response is regulated, and you no longer have the physical signs of chronic stress, you can then begin to incorporate high-intensity exercise under the direction of your medical provider.
Eat a healthy and balanced diet- Chronic stress is inflammatory to our body, which is how it leads to illness. Sugar and refined carbohydrates are very inflammatory. Therefore, it is important to eliminate sugars and refined carbohydrates from your diet. Choose complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, instead. Also, focusing your diet on anti-inflammatory foods will be healing for your mental health and help bolster resilience. Anti-inflammatory foods include foods such as avocados, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, omega-three fatty acids (found in fatty fish, such as salmon), green tea, curcumin, turmeric, ginger, and pumpkin seeds are all really good foods to decrease inflammation.
Meditation and/or deep breathing- Both meditation and deep breathing are shown to be anti-inflammatory. Furthermore, they decrease the stress response and help to elicit the relaxation response, turning off the sympathetic activation and turning on our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us to be in a place of rest.
Decrease negative thoughts- Burnout can begin to make you feel cynical at work, seeing the world through a pessimistic lens. Therefore, practicing some cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) skills can actually help to minimize your negative thinking to see both sides of the picture. CBT helps you to look at the positive and the negative and make a realistic impression of the circumstances instead of going for the negative all the time. You can also decrease negative thoughts with positive affirmations, thought journaling, and gratitude journaling. All of these practices have been shown to boost positive thinking.
Burnout is commonplace these days. However, there are actionable steps you can take now to help mitigate the impact of stress and burnout, which will reduce your risk of chronic disease. If you need help with taking these steps, call Halcyon Therapy Group at 210-245-7523 for a consultation to see how we can help you build resilience against stress and burnout.
About the author:
Jezel Rosa is a psychiatric nurse practitioner licensed in the state of FL. She focuses on an integrative approach to mental health treatment, which includes building resilience. You can learn more about Jezel at Levelheaded Mind.
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