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  • Writer's pictureTom Cowan

The how & why of Burnout and what we can do when life takes a toll on us.

Updated: Feb 20, 2023



Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that occurs when individuals feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.


Why has it become so common?

  1. Workload and job demands: When individuals are overworked, have too many responsibilities, or feel like they have little control over their work, they are more likely to experience burnout.

  2. Lack of support: When individuals feel unsupported by their colleagues, managers, or company culture, they are more likely to experience burnout.

  3. Poor work-life balance: When individuals are unable to balance their work and personal life, it can lead to burnout.

  4. Values and purpose misalignment: When individuals feel that their values and purpose are not in line with their work, they may experience burnout.

  5. Poor workplace culture: When individuals work in a toxic or negative environment, it can lead to burnout.


The Science behind the burnout


Burnout is a complex phenomenon that involves multiple interacting factors, including psychological, social, and organisational aspects. Neurobiological factors also play a role in the development of burnout.


  • One of the main neurobiological factors involved in burnout is chronic stress. Chronic stress can lead to a dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is responsible for the body's stress response. Over time, this dysregulation can lead to a state of chronic hyperarousal and decreased resilience to stress. Chronic stress can also lead to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. This activation can lead to a range of physiological and psychological symptoms, including fatigue, anxiety, and depression.


  • Another neurobiological factor involved in burnout is inflammation. Chronic stress can lead to a state of low-grade inflammation, which has been linked to a range of physical and mental health problems, including burnout. Inflammation can lead to changes in the brain, including reduced gray matter volume and decreased connectivity between brain regions. These changes can contribute to cognitive and emotional deficits, including impaired memory and attention, and increased anxiety and depression


  • Neurotransmitter imbalances may also play a role in burnout. Chronic stress can lead to changes in the levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which are important for regulating mood and motivation. These changes can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and fatigue.


Cultural context


It's worth remembering that burnout is often the result of the times we live in and the social and cultural pressures that we are subjected to. It's more than likely not your fault!


Capitalism and the cost of living crisis can contribute to feelings of despair, anxiety, and hopelessness. The constant pressure to work longer hours, increase productivity, and the fear of job loss can lead to a cycle of stress and burnout. The high cost of living can also contribute to financial stress, which can exacerbate feelings of burnout.


Indigenous Wisdom


Indigenous communities have a unique perspective on burnout and stress, and they offer a wealth of wisdom and knowledge that can be applied to managing these issues.

  1. Take time to connect with nature - Indigenous people often have a strong connection to the natural world and recognise the healing power of spending time in nature. Research has shown that spending time in nature can reduce stress and improve mental health (Bratman, Hamilton, & Daily, 2012).

  2. Engage in mindfulness and meditation - Many Indigenous cultures have traditions of mindfulness and meditation, which can help to reduce stress and promote inner peace. Mindfulness-based interventions have been shown to be effective in reducing burnout in healthcare professionals (Shanafelt et al., 2015), and this approach is often recommended for managing burnout in other contexts as well.

  3. Connect with community - Indigenous people often emphasise the importance of community and relationships in maintaining well-being. Social support has been shown to be an important protective factor against burnout (Schaufeli, Leiter, & Maslach, 2009).

  4. Remember your purpose and values - Indigenous people often have a strong sense of purpose and connection to their values. Reconnecting with what is most important to you and setting goals that are aligned with your values can help to restore a sense of meaning and purpose (Maslach & Leiter, 2016).

  5. Practice self-care and self-compassion - Indigenous people often have a tradition of self-care and self-compassion. Being gentle with yourself, taking time to rest, and engaging in activities that bring you joy and pleasure can help to reduce burnout and promote a sense of well-being. Self-compassion has been shown to be an important protective factor against burnout (Neff, 2011).


Here are five things that you can do to bounce back from burnout:

  1. Take time off: Take time to rest, recharge, and focus on self-care.

  2. Seek support: Connect with loved ones, a therapist, or a support group to help you cope with burnout. There is evidence a humanistic approach to therapy is effective in reducing symptoms of burnout and improving overall well-being (Baldwin et al., 2015).

  3. Practice stress-reducing techniques: Practice techniques like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing to help manage stress and reduce burnout.

  4. Re-evaluate your priorities: Take a step back and consider what is most important to you. Realign your priorities to help reduce stress and burnout.

  5. Set boundaries: Learn to say no and set boundaries around your time and energy to avoid becoming overwhelmed.


Is it time to talk?

If you'd like to talk about anxiety or any other issues then please do contact me by email on hello@tomcowan.info


References:

Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., & Daily, G. C. (2012). The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1249(1), 118-136.

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), 103-111.

Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-compassion, self-esteem, and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(1), 1-12.

Schaufeli, W. B., Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2009). Burnout: 35 years of research and practice. Career Development International, 14(3), 204-220.

Shanafelt, T. D., Boone, S., Tan, L., Dyrbye, L. N., Sotile, W., Satele, D., ... & West, C. P. (2015). Burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance among US physicians relative to the general US population. Archives of Internal Medicine, 175(2), 187-193.

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