Everyone has felt burnt out at least once. The all-familiar dread of getting out of bed. the slow movement towards e-mails, the lack of creativity, and the overall exhaustion even when the day has not begun. Don’t get us started on how it feels like when you’re actually on the job and all you can think about is how tired you are.
And when working feels almost impossible because of the exhaustion and detachment from the job, someone or something is going to remind you: Hard work doesn’t hurt anyone.
But here’s the thing. Burnout actually changes your brain, and it’s not pretty.
That sounds familiar
It’s perfectly understandable that people think of burnout as an emotional or mental condition. Some think you can fight it if only you could just stop thinking about how tired you are, or maybe you could do a little prayer. But then you have to remember that the brain is the control system of everything.
Your mood swings? Your lackluster ideas? Your fatigue? There’s going to be some mark of that in your brain somewhere. And yes, a physical mark. One that’s as real as it can get.
One 2014 study compared the brain scans of those suffering from burnout and those who weren’t. The two groups showed major differences in their amygdala — a part of the brain that triggers everyone’s fight-or-flight response. Those who were burnt out had larger amygdalae, and they also had weaker connections with other parts of the brain.
To those who downplay burnout, wanting scientific evidence? There you have it. This is not what you want in a regular-functioning brain.
In a burnt-out brain, the parts that do the thinking, coping, and protecting are weaker. But while that’s happening, the brain’s alarms are constantly blaring. They’re loud and everything begins to feel like a threat. And there isn’t a switch to turn it off.
As one could guess, this doesn’t just make a person easily triggered and antsy. It also means they can’t stifle their impulses as well as others can. To make things worse, this affects how people cope as well.
The connections are broken
But burnout doesn’t just affect the amygdala.
The study cited earlier also shows that the brain’s very structure could change because of burnout. They tested the subjects’ degree of burnout and measured the thickness of their brain cortices—the outer layers of the brain.
Unfortunately, the turmoil caused by burnout left its marks on these structures. This was specifically noticeable in their prefrontal cortex, which is important for cognitive functions like problem-solving and abstract reasoning. It was thinning out.
Take note that it’s normal for the cortices to thin out, but it usually comes with old age. Such changes also weaken the connections within the brain, and over time, they could erode away.
Road to recovery
The good news is that you can recover from burnout, as long as you properly address it.
If burnout is making you feel exhausted, it’s important to get even a little bit of rest. Take a nap. Or if you can afford to do so, take a day off! Treat yourself to healthy food that would nurture your brain, such as those that aren’t rich in sugar. And don’t forget about staying hydrated!
It’s always a good idea to take some time for exercise and physical activity as well. And the good news is, it doesn’t have to be that long or extensive. You’d be surprised by how a minute or two of stretching every day could change how you’re feeling.
All in all, it’s important to be compassionate with yourself. And in extension, be compassionate with those around you, too!
The big picture
Burnout is going to be difficult to manage when society doesn’t see it as a real problem.
But as we’ve learned, burnout does, in fact, physically change our brains. That’s why it’s important to remember that every little step towards a more balanced life is one step forward for your mental health.
The brain is a body part, and it’s about time we treat it like one.