More and more people are experiencing burnout. I do not need to point to the contributing factors, you just have to turn on the news, but I do need to point out the significance of burnout to the way your brain functions.
You can recognize burnout via a whole range of symptoms, and these are just some for you to think about: An apathy for the things that you once cared about, a sense of exhaustion, and an overall negative outlook.
Why you should care about burnout
There is a worrying trend amongst some to wear burnout as a badge of honor. They confuse the terms ‘grit and resilience’ with ‘burnout’, and so they shut off the warning signs that tell you that you need to rest. Eventually, you will cause harm to your mind and body, and ultimately this has a negative impact on all the things that you hold dear.
Burnout should be taken more seriously because research shows that it can thin the gray matter of your prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain that is responsible for important functions such as reasoning and decision-making), and it can enlarge the amygdala (the brain’s alarm system). As a result, our alarm system goes into overdrive, sensing threat when there is none, and we are less able to mediate this heightened state with cool, calming reason.
When our amygdala is in overdrive, this activates the sympathetic nervous system, our ‘fight-or-flight’ response, and this can lead to excess production of cortisol (the stress hormone). There is plenty of research to show the health implications for excessive cortisol levels, including increased blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.
What you can do
Any attempts to calm the amygdala will help to reduce burnout. This can be tackled on a couple of different fronts – your body, by activating your parasympathetic nervous system (your natural rest and digest state), and your thought process, by challenging the short-circuited thought patterns that lead to these heightened states of stress.
In terms of your parasympathetic nervous system, you can activate this through various different methods, including simple breathing exercises or calming visualizations. I have set out some exercises on this page, so try each and start to repeat (on a daily basis) the ones you enjoy.
In terms of your short-circuited thought patterns, try to watch for assumptions or beliefs that might trigger the amygdala. For example, you have been working late and you see your boss talking to HR. By assuming that they are talking about you, you are personalizing the situations and jumping to conclusions. They could be talking about a whole range of issues other than you. You are also catastrophizing, because even if they are talking about you, you are assuming it will lead to something bad, such as losing your job. You need to calm your mind by looking for evidence against this, such as a recent positive performance review, or the fact that the Great Resignation has left companies currently desperate to keep their employees.
A key component to all of this is to adopt a compassionate tone to your self-talk. Throughout my years as a psychotherapist, I have found this to be one of the most underrated factors in recovery from burnout. When we judge ourselves, we end up feeling even more alienated, and this serves to worsen the symptoms of burnout. The first step to recovery is to recognize how much pressure we have been experiencing, and adopt a kind, compassionate voice, talking to ourselves as if we were talking to a young child. When we can direct compassion inwards, we are in a better position to then direct that compassion outwards, and learn to connect with, and help, other people.
There is no better antidote to the cynicism and apathy that burnout can create than recognizing some sort of good that we have thrown out into this challenging world.
Chris Warren-Dickins LLB MA LPC
Psychotherapist in Ridgewood (NJ), and author of Beyond the Blue
+1 (201) 779-6917