How to deal with burnout in everyday life
Overcoming exhaustion and burnout is a challenge three-fifths of the world face. Here’s everything you need to know.
Until 1973, burnout didn’t exist. Or rather, we had no word for it. But there’s ongoing debate about how long it’s actually been around, with some scholars pointing to Moses in the Old Testament as a textbook case.
An estimated three in five people globally show symptoms of burnout syndrome, which was recognised by the World Health Organisation in 2019. Feeling exhausted and increasingly cynical? Like your becoming less efficient? There’s a chance you’re part of that 60%.
But what exactly is burnout?
Detachment and alienation. Cynicism and fatigue. Many people accept these as part and parcel of modern life. Pressure to produce more simply by working more is common in the workplace, and these are the effects. They leave us feeling, for want of a better term, burnt out.
But like every other feeling we can experience, there’s something chemical going on in your brain. Burnout is, in essence, a series of responses to nerves. The amygdala, a part of your brain responsible for ‘fight-or-flight’ responses, becomes overactive. This overstimulation reduces the connection and modulation of the prefrontal cortex—responsible for executive functions like decision-making, planning, and social behaviour—which leads to more stimulation of the amygdala. You can see how that quickly spirals out of control.
Like many conditions, burnout isn’t binary. It’s not as simple as saying you’re burnt out or you aren’t. As tension continues to build, the symptoms of burnout escalate if left unchecked. These can later manifest as acute nerves, cognitive impairment, and mental illness. And we’re guessing that’s not what you want.
How to recognise burnout, and how to avoid it
Dr. Thomas Curran is a psychologist and lecturer at LSE's Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, His research focuses on the societal triggers of personality traits and their impacts on our mental health.
We spoke to him on an episode of the Braincare podcast about what’s contributed to the apparent rise in burnout across the world, and how to spot the signs before it’s too late.
He also shares some great tips about preemptive self-care—simple things you can do to lower the likelihood of suffering from burnout—along with what you can do if you’re already experiencing it.
How to deal with burnout
Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus said it back in 1500, but it’s still the case today: prevention will forever be the better option. It’s a fundamental principle in healthcare, and is as true for braincare as it is for any other field. David Chorlton, a Positive Psychology Practitioner and the founder of online wellness platform Meaningful Paths, recently shared his ideas for recognising the warning signs of burnout, and preventing it from taking hold in the first place.
His career has also led him to work extensively with people who have suffered from burnout. Given this experience, he wrote about some of the best, most effective ways to recover.
How nutrition can help
So burnout is a scary prospect. But once we can recognise something, we can take steps to control it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nutrition can play an important role in overcoming burnout and its associated symptoms. Getting the right nutrients can make a huge difference to the way your brain handles panic, so making sure that you aren’t missing anything from your diet is a great first step. And as a fully balanced diet is quite hard to come by, supplements can be a really good way to make sure that everything is accounted for.
What the pandemic has done to your brain
Recently, something in particular has contributed to higher levels of nerves and exhaustion across the population. No prizes for guessing what.
It can be hard to recognise in the heat of the moment, but the Covid-19 pandemic has been a collective trauma, both socially and economically. That has serious effects on our mental well-being. And as well as contributing directly to burnout, it also exacerbates problems that make it harder to stave off burnout, like a lack of sleep. We talked about the effects of the pandemic with Cristina Escallon, an independent consultant in leadership development and culture, on the Braincare club.
There’s a stigma around the pressures of parenthood. Pressure to be the perfect parents, and guilt if for one moment you prioritise your mental health. Of course, anyone who would judge the work that parents have been doing didn’t have to look after children during the pandemic.
But it’s important to realise that this isn’t just a function of the pandemic. Parenthood is difficult, and it’s a good idea to take the time to ensure that you’re looking after yourself.
The 5 stages of panic
These days, nerves is often used as a catchall term. And that can be very useful. It’s helpful to be able to express the range of feelings associated with nerves. But it’s also important to remember that nerves are real, specific process that’s happening in your brain. Hormones like cortisol play an integral role in brain chemistry, but the science goes even further than that. This is what your brain looks like when it's panicked.