On the 6th of April 2007, Arianna Huffington, the founder of HuffPost collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, broke her cheekbone, and woke up in a pool of blood. She wrote about it in her post 10 Years Ago I Collapsed From Burnout and Exhaustion.
I didn’t know about Arianna Huffington’s famous Burnout which led her to quit Hufpost until two weeks ago when I realized something was not right with me.
I had developed a terrible neck ache. My eyes were permanently tired. I had so many articles turning over in my head, but when I sat down to write, the words wouldn’t come out. I was incoherent, apprehensive, and anxious. I lost confidence in myself. Nothing I did was good enough. I questioned the purpose of everything I was doing. I was ready to give up all the work I did for in the past two years. All I wanted to do was to curl up in bed. And when I did lie down in a fetal position, I would get up within minutes, frightened that I was wasting time.
I was on the brink of Burnout.
About 18 months ago, I quit my job to become a full-time writer. One would think, how lucky I was to be able to do that. I thought I would have a lot of time on my hand to devote to writing. But it was hardly the case. There was so much to learn. I enrolled in courses after courses, took on projects after projects, wrote article after article. I was enjoying the journey, up to a point until lockdown restricted my movement.
I took the opportunity to write even more.
I was not socializing, not going to the gym, not even going for walks. I got obsessed with increasing my productivity. It didn’t matter how much I accomplished in a day; what I was not fit in my day haunting me. There was no demarcation where my work-day ended, and off-work time began.
I resisted sleep stay up way past my bedtime, trying to squeeze in a little more. The result was when I manage to get to bed, I wasn’t able to sleep. I was restless, overwhelmed, and anxious all the time.
Thankfully I took the warning signs seriously.
I decided to research Burnout. If it was something that was going to take me down, I wanted to know all about it. I read everything I could find on the topic. Its history. The science behind it, the finding from the new research, other people’s experiences, and coping strategies.
I took notes. And I made my own observations. I am sharing them here so that you can watch out for the symptoms and are aware of some coping strategies.
The article is divided into two parts. Part 1 deals with science and Part 2 with the coping strategies.
PART 1 – What is burnout?
The term “Burnout” was first coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions. Doctors and nurses, for example, who sacrifice themselves for others, would often end up being “Burned out,” exhausted, listless, and unable to cope.
Nowadays, Burnout is experienced not just by those in the helping professions. It can affect anyone, from stressed-out career-driven people and celebrities to overworked employees and homemakers.
Burnout is now recognized as a legitimate medical disorder by much of mainstream medicine and has even been given its own ICD-10 code (Z73.0 — Burn-out state of vital exhaustion).
Is Burnout real?
It’s a mistake to assume that burnout is merely an emotional response to long hours or a challenging job. Mounting scientific evidence shows that Burnout takes a profound physical toll that cascades well beyond our professional lives.
Burnout expert Christina Maslach defines burnout as “a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment.” It creeps up leaving us physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, as well as frustrated, disillusioned, uncaring, and cynical.
Adrienne J. Heinz, a licensed psychologist and research scientist at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder at the Palo Alto VA Health Care System and Stanford University lists the following as the signs of Burnout.
- Reduced efficiency and energy
- Lowered levels of motivation
- Increased errors
- Headaches, muscle tension, GI problems
- Irritability, Increased frustration
- High levels of stress and anxiety
- Suspiciousness, cynicism
- Trouble sleeping
- Feelings trapped — lack of control
- Alcohol, substances to cope
- Feelings worried about work when not at work
- Loss of interest — Apathy
Many of burnout symptoms overlap with that of depression, leading the experts to debate whether burnout is a form of depression.
Could Burnout be a form of depression?
Dr. Grant H. Brenner, a physician-psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, debates that burnout may actually be depression, but calling it “burnout” makes it harder to get treatment where it is sorely needed.
To look at whether burnout is a depression in another guise, Bianchi, Schonfeld, and Verkuilen of the City University of New York and the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland conducted a study of 3,113 individuals across five different samples, measuring both burnout and depression, to determine whether there was any difference between the two.
The researchers found that not only did Burnout correlate strongly with clinical depression, but that individual Burnout factors correlated better with depression symptoms than with any other medical condition.
If you’re feeling burnout at work or in life in general, it will not go away on its own. Neuroscientists discovered that Burnout has a physical impact on your brain.
Does Burnout have a physical impact on the brain?
New research is showing burnout can be devastating to the brain.
A team of psychologists at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden provided striking evidence that Burnout can alter neural circuits, ultimately causing a vicious cycle of neurological dysfunction.
- A study by Armita Golkar and her colleagues reported that the work-related chronic stress enlarges the amygdala — the part of the brain that controls emotional reactions. This can increase moodiness. It also causes a stronger stress response when startled.
- In a separate study by Ivanka Savic, a neurologist in the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health at the Karolinska Institutet reported that the Burnout causes the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for cognitive functioning, to go thin. This normally happens with aging, but in people who are stressed for prolonged periods of time, it occurs much more rapidly.
- A team of Greek psychological scientists led by Pavlos Deligkaris conducted a comprehensive review of the burnout literature and concluded the parts of the brain that control memory and attention spans are weakened. This makes it more difficult to learn.
- The brains of people who are chronically Burntout show similar damage as people who have experienced trauma.
- Burnout reduces the connectivity between different parts of the brain, which can lead to decreased creativity, working memory, and problem-solving skills.
To sum up, the emerging research is showing that the chronic psychosocial stress that characterizes burnout not only impairs people’s personal and social functioning, it also can overwhelm their cognitive skills and neuroendocrine systems — eventually leading to distinctive changes in the anatomy and functioning of the brain.
APS Fellow Christina Maslach, professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the foremost researchers on Burnout, published an article “Burned-Out,” in the magazine Human Behavior in 1976 that generated a huge public response. The impact of that article was huge leading to more research, more books, and more attention from academic journals.
Maslach and APS Fellow Susan E. Jackson (Rutgers University) collaborated on what would become the most influential framework for defining and assessing burnout.
At its core, burnout emerges when the demands of a job (or home) outstrip a person’s ability to cope with the stress.
Is stress the root cause of Burnout?
It’s a common misconception that the culprit behind Burnout is merely working too long or too hard. Research indicates that other factors, both individual and organizational, can be just as detrimental.
A comprehensive report on psychosocial stress in the workplace published by the World Health Organization identified consistent evidence that “high job demands, low control, and effort-reward imbalance are risk factors for mental and physical health problems.”
Ultimately, burnout results when the balance of deadlines, demands, working hours, and other stressors outstrips rewards, recognition, and relaxation.
Neuroimaging studies are showing that the brains of people suffering from clinical burnout show similar patterns to the brains of people who have experienced severe early-life trauma.
The symptoms of accumulated stress are well known.
- Behavioral — avoidance, irritability, sleep problems
- Cognitive — easily distracted, confused, thoughts of dread
- Emotional — anger, worry, depression
- Cardiovascular — chest pain, palpitations, cold extremities
- Muscular — tension headache, neck/back pain, shaky/strained voice
- Skin — flushing, hives/rashes/ psoriasis, perspiration
With these kinds of extreme effects, burnout is no joke. It can lead to anxiety, panic, anger, and breakdown.
Can Burnout be reversed?
Bruce S. McEwen (The Rockefeller University) along with BJ Casey (Department of Psychology, Yale University) Conor Liston, (Associate Professor Weill Cornell Medicin) found promising initial evidence that the adverse effects of chronic stress may be reversible.
In a study, they took a group of stressed-out medical students who were preparing to take their licensing exam and found that their brains showed many of the impairments described above. However, after four weeks of relaxation, many of the changes in the brain were reversed. They also stopped experiencing side effects, such as having a short attention span and mood swings.
But four weeks of exam prep is not equivalent to the years of stress that many people endure at their jobs.
However, this study does suggest that interventions and recovery at the neurological level are possible for people suffering from burnout.
Experiences of people who suffered from burnout.
Many of the Medium writers spoke of their experience of burnout.
Lara McPherson suffered for six years before being correctly diagnosed
She had been experiencing continued fatigue or exhaustion, muscle weakness, sleep disturbance, decreased ability to handle stress, Hypertension, hypoglycemia, unusual food cravings, weight gain, inability to lose weight, estrogen/progesterone imbalance, chronic anemia, trouble sleeping, depression for over six years. In that time she saw no less than seven professionals trying to get a correct diagnosis.
Unfortunately for me, it looks like the unresolved stress of the original trauma meant my tolerance for new stress was already greatly reduced. This, combined with too-big ambitions and expectations (my own) and an uninformed willingness to subscribe to “the cult of busy” led to chronically elevated stress hormone levels (cortisol), which gradually corroded my body’s ability to regulate adrenal and other hormones and started greatly affecting my ability to function, let alone thrive. When my adrenal system could no longer deal with the pressure it started to give way, disrupting my body’s whole eco-system in the process.
Imogen Roy couldn’t imagine one could burn out while doing something one loves.
Imogen Roy had just started her consultancy when she started experiencing the warning signs of burnout. She couldn’t understand it. She loved her work and she was working just thirty hours a week. But she was wrong.
At first, I felt like a failure. And I was confused. But I’m not even working that hard or that long! — I’d think to myself. I have a great life! I love my work! I’m doing what I love! I felt guilty. I felt week.
Burnout manifests itself differently for everyone. But feeling constantly drained, irritable and unproductive are the most common early-warning symptoms.
In her article How to manage burnout when you can’t take time off, suggests to “just stop and take a break.” But if that is not possible, these seven coping strategies helped her survive.
- Only do the essentials
- Reduce your hours
- Tell someone
- Organize something to look forward to.
- Get our of the house (or office)
- Reduce additional emotional stress
- See every challenge as an opportunity to grow.
Richie Crowley suggests a contentment approach to avoid burnout.
In his article, The Fear of Complacency Drives “Burnout” — Here’s The Solution Richie Crowley writes that the root cause of Burnout is trying to accomplish too much in a day out of the fear of complacency. He says (and I paraphrase) that each day we set out to accomplish a day’s worth of tasks. Some days we finish them all, other days, we get distracted, and we don’t. When this happens, we have two choices: finish the tasks of the day at any cost or be content with what you have been able to accomplish. If we chose the former, that leads to “Burn-out.”
That is the reason he chooses the latter. He chooses to admire himself for his flexibility and ability to be able to be content with what he accomplishes. He reckons this attitude towards work is sold as being competitive and hardworking, but truly it is a fear of complacency.
This fear of complacency is what then drives the unhealthy behaviors and unhealthy decisions to continue working while ignoring balance and our wellness.
Tom Kuegler suggest choosing between two complete extremes
Katy Velvet recommends exercising your flexibility to prioritize your projects.
Katy Velvet, who works 12–15 hours a day and is seriously sleep-deprived points out that the great thing about working for yourself is that you have the flexibility to prioritize your projects. She has four tips in her article The Truth About Burn Out, to avoid turning into a zombie.
- Learn to take breaks.
- Relaxation should be a priority.
- Let your loved ones know about your burnout.
- Promise to check in with yourself.
Here is what I figured out from my burnout.
My burnout meant something had to change. It was a warning sign. And I am glad I took it seriously. I did a series of things.
- I took a two-week break. I put my daily schedule on hold and freed up my day.
- I talked about what I was going through with my friends and family members. The more I tried to explain to them, the more I became aware of the issues I was facing.
- I culled several projects. I put some on the back-burner and abandoned some altogether.
- I scheduled breaks on my calendar. Daily breaks, weekly breaks, and yearly breaks.
Burnout is a medical condition very closely related to depression.
Burnout is not just experienced by those in stressful jobs or those in the helping professions. It can affect anyone, from stressed-out career-driven people and celebrities to overworked employees and homemakers.
Burnout can physically alter your brain.
The jury is still out on the reversal of Burnout symptoms.
Early detection and intervention can help the long term detrimental effects.
What can you do?
Try and figure out what your Burnout is trying to tell you. It might be a sign that something has to change.
Rather than a catastrophe, Arianna Huffington says burnout was The Best Thing That Could Have Happened To Her. It literally changed her life. She wrote two books, Thrive and The Sleep Revolution, and launch a new business, Thrive Global, which is helping people navigate through challenging times with less stress and greater resilience.