In this fast-paced world that loves to glorify the #hustle, burnout is one of the biggest threats to our everyday well-being.
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While there isn’t a universal definition of burnout, some experts suggest that “burnout syndrome” be classified as “a combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment caused by chronic occupational stress.” (We’d add to this that burnout can also occur when you’re exhausted from personal demands, like caregiving.)
Basically, it tends to show up when your job demands more of you than you’re able to cope with emotionally, although its impact can be physical too.
Evolutionarily, we weren’t built for the stressors of modern life.
Some experts theorize that burnout is simply a warning sign of other underlying issues, like anxiety or depression, but many others think burnout is its own condition. What we do know: The levels of stress we regularly expose our bodies to aren’t great for us.
“Research is still being done in this area, but it does appear that chronic stress may affect our body and brain in many different ways,” Jo Eckler, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Austin, Texas, explains. The potential downside of chronic stress particularly manifests in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a part of the neuroendocrine system that manages our physical stress response and fuels the fight-or-flight phenomenon.
The HPA is in charge of how much we release of cortisol and other stress hormones. “These hormones naturally rise when we encounter something stressful, then fall once the situation has ended,” Eckler explains. “[Evolutionarily], this system is meant for short-term situations, like running from a stampeding elephant. The problem is that in our modern society, the elephants just keep coming, and eventually our cortisol levels get depleted.”
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All those late-night emails from your boss and endless to-do lists? Those are our modern-day elephants, and they’re causing us way more stress than they’re necessarily worth. And while there is such a thing as positive stress, this isn’t it. “Burnout stress is different from healthy stress,” Sonoma County counselor Cathy Wild explains. “It is the result of ongoing stress that goes unrelieved over a long period of time.”
It’s also a very modern condition. The word first surfaced on a widespread scale in 1976, when social psychologist Christina Maslach published an article about it; when talk of burnout began to spread, letters and calls flooded in to Maslach from around the world—all from people who thought they’d been alone in their symptoms.
Burnout can have real effects on your body and brain.
Scientists believe that the low cortisol you experience in situations of chronic stress can cause inflammation, which can lead to all kinds of health issues. According to Eckler, experts also suspect that there’s a chance that serotonin and dopamine, our “happy hormones,” may be depleted when we experience burnout.
Preliminary research has also found that burnout can inhibit our creativity, problem solving, focus, and memory capabilities—which is a real bummer, because all of those abilities could help us deal with some of our burnout-related stressors in the first place.
How do you identify it?
If you think you’re experiencing burnout, be on the lookout for symptoms like exhaustion, stomach pain, and ineffectiveness in everyday work tasks. “Burnout may be setting in if you find yourself working longer hours but getting less done, having difficulty thinking and remembering things, and generally feeling overwhelmed on a regular basis,” Eckler says.
“The initial response we have to feeling overwhelmed is to do more and work longer hours. The problem here is that we don’t realize we’re becoming much less efficient, so we get less done, falling more behind and becoming burned out.” It’s also important to be aware of any feelings of isolation. If you feel alienated from your friends or detached from things you used to enjoy, you may be experiencing burnout.
“These hormones naturally rise when we encounter something stressful… a system is meant for short-term situations, like running from a stampeding elephant. The problem is that in our modern society, the elephants just keep coming.”
It’s worth noting that many burnout symptoms are similar to those of depression. If you’re facing these symptoms, it can be helpful to talk to a mental health pro who can help you parse through what you’re feeling, determine whether you’re experiencing one condition or both, and help you come up with the best plan to start feeling better.
While only a health professional can tell you for sure what you’re dealing with, one potential sign that you’re experiencing burnout rather than depression is if your symptoms diminish when you take an extended break and really disconnect from work (yeah, that includes not answering emails).
“If somebody has a happy home life, their symptoms of burnout should get better when they’re home, whereas depression is an illness that has specific treatments,” says Mary Morrison, M.D., M.S., vice chair for research development for psychiatry at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine.
You’ve got to take care.
To prevent burnout, old-fashioned self-care can go a long way. “Maintaining a life outside of our work duties, whether our work is in an office or caring for others at home, helps protect us from burnout,” Eckler says. “We need to keep up with hobbies, friends, and physical activity.”
But if burnout is surfacing in your life, the first step to feeling better is to just recognize it for what it is—and not be too hard on yourself about it. For many of us, our first inclination is to blame ourselves or assume we may have “caused” it by working too hard, but the situation is always more complicated than that. We live in a society that often praises 24/7 hustle and makes it very tough to opt out of pushing ourselves to our limits.
So it’s a good idea to pay attention to how burnout plays out for you personally (it’s different for all of us). When you can recognize your own signs, you can then take steps to help yourself as soon as possible.
The condition often creeps up slowly over time, which means that basics like eating well, exercise, getting good sleep, and taking time to disconnect are a huge help in lowering your odds of suffering. Of course, all those habits are easier said than done—especially if you have very little free time to begin with—but they can make a big difference in well-being.
“It can also help to stay connected with why [your work] is important to you, and to try to create a reasonable workload if at all possible,” Eckler suggests. “Or at least accept that it won’t all get done.”
Many people who experience burnout hold themselves to impossibly high standards, so if that describes you, it’s important to be aware of that, and develop healthy coping mechanisms for the next time you’re tempted to beat yourself up.
“Come up with a way of helping to forgive yourself for what are inevitable errors that we all make,” Morrison says. “So that could be religion, it could be therapy, it could be looking at things differently and gaining perspective on the way the world works.”
Whether you’re dealing with burnout or a run-of-the-mill stressful day, the most important thing is to be as kind to yourself as possible. That’s rarely an easy thing to do, but remember: It’s for your health! When you’re feeling burned out, it’s likely more clear than ever to you that you deserve more respect and reasonable expectations from your employer—but you also deserve that from yourself. And if you’re experiencing burnout due to other reasons, such as caregiving, this applies to you too! Don’t forget to give yourself credit.
Claire Hannum is an NYC-based writer, editor, and traveler who has written for SELF, Racked, The Frisky, Brooklyn Magazine, The L Magazine, YouBeauty, CNN, and countless other corners of the internet.