If you're reading this, you've likely experienced the common effects of burnout. The familiar loss of motivation, emotional exhaustion, and physical fatigue can be extremely frustrating. While our employee burnout blog addressed tips to combat burnout, along with its symptoms and causes, this post will delve deep into the effects of burnout on the brain. What happens in your brain when you no longer have the motivation to complete your regular tasks?
Since burnout can be a result and cause of chronic psychosocial stress, it can overwhelm the brain, causing noticeable changes in its anatomy and functioning. These changes result from the repeated activation of specific neural activity patterns associated with the buildup of stress over time.
CHRONIC STRESS AND THE BRAIN
Experiencing burnout is a sign that the brain has rewired to survival mode. This means it's prioritizing the activation of reactive networks over more reflective ones. Several studies have shown that prolonged periods of stress ranging from several weeks to months are associated with the thinning of the gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain helps us with logical reasoning, complex decision-making, and conscious processing. It helps us reflect, gives us perspective, and allows us to store long-term memories. Without sufficient activation in the prefrontal cortex, we lose important neural connections and become more vulnerable to experiencing mood swings, losing focus, and making mistakes.
In contrast, areas like the amygdala show increased gray matter with chronic stress. The amygdala is part of the emotion-driven reactive neuronal network in the lower part of the brain, which becomes activated during our fight-or-flight response and helps us look for threats. Having an overactivation in this part of the brain may lead to negative, fearful, and hopeless thought patterns.
With continual disappointments and stressors, the frequent activation of the amygdala’s neural pathways causes them to become stronger. Because the brain rewires for better efficiency and adapts to protect us, the calm, reflective, and logical higher-order processing in the prefrontal cortex becomes weaker, as the connections are not actively being prioritized. This makes one lose touch with their reflective brain and start finding difficulty in overcoming challenges. Feelings of self-doubt tend to emerge, along with hopelessness, which further activates the brain’s reactive neural networks tied to the amygdala and leads to a vicious cycle of stress. The brain’s fight-or-flight system is always on while the prefrontal cortex, which is meant to counteract the amygdala with logic, perspective, reappraisal, and other coping mechanisms, is weakened. The brain’s stress-reactive pathways overcome those responsible for emotional self-management and controlling behavior, eventually leading to burnout.
Interestingly, decreased activity of the prefrontal cortex and increased activity in the amygdala are thought to be the two main reasons depressed patients perceive neutral faces as sad or threatening. They start seeing the world around them as harmful even when it is not. Burnout can cause one to feel a similar way, without consciously realizing that this is the brain’s way of reacting to chronic stress and disappointment. Although the brain has this as a natural response to protect us, it can be maladaptive in our current society.
Additionally, a systematic review of 13 studies found an overall decrease in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in burnt-out individuals. BDNF is a key molecule involved in the growth, maturation, protection, and maintenance of neurons. Its decrease could disrupt the formation of new connections and speed up neuronal death. This explains the common difficulty experienced in learning new information and in solving problems in creative new ways while being burnt out; new connections are difficult to form, and old ones are difficult to retrieve.
But how is burnout an indication that you have been chronically stressed? Chronic stress may be unnoticeable as unhealthy behaviors become habits and minor disappointments get ignored, which all accumulate over time. Signs and symptoms of chronic stress can vary considerably from person to person. Burnout alerts you that you’ve been under chronic stress for too long. It is a sign that something must be changed. It is a chance for growth. Finding the root cause of the stress and addressing it can help the burnt-out brain return sharper, better, and happier than before.
We can start by reflecting on Christina Maslach’s six key components that contribute to burnout: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. Maslach is an American social psychologist and the creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, one of the leading assessment tools for occupational burnout. She explains that a persistent imbalance in any of these factors can lead to chronic stress.
Having a sustainable workload, with enough time to complete tasks given one’s available resources, skill set, and ability is essential for long-term success. This helps one feel capable and in control without the common feeling of being ‘drained.’ Generally, feeling in control (which can also come through gaining knowledge, training, and being proactive) also helps decrease the activity of the amygdala’s stress response.
Not only is the quantity of the workload important, but its difficulty and emotionality must be considered as well. A sustainable workload looks different for everybody. I like to remember David Allen’s quotation, “you can do anything, but not everything,” which helps me remain realistic while working to reach my full potential.
What about tight deadlines? And overwork seasons? With a sustainable workload, frequent check-ins with oneself, and sufficient time for breaks, tight deadlines shouldn’t lead to burnout. Taking mental and physical breaks when appropriate reassures the brain that it does not need a constant activation of the fight-or-flight response. If you don’t account time for a break, your brain will take it for you and it may not be at a convenient time. The brain and body need periods of recovery. They can only wait for us for so long to give them some rest until they take it on their own (through burnout, fatigue, lack of concentration, etc). So might as well schedule a break at a time that works best for you!
However, while it may be easy to think that taking on less work and taking more breaks would solve the problem, we may have to dig a little deeper to solve the issue. Perhaps your workload is manageable, but you no longer get the dopamine that comes with feeling rewarded. In this case, solutions may involve requesting external rewards, such as a raise, adjusting your expectations, or celebrating every little win. The reward can also come from feeling personally connected to the work you do and finding purpose in it. This helps you remain true to your values and authentic self. It will also make finding a sense of community easier, as it provides you with an opportunity to be surrounded by like-minded individuals. These positive social interactions act as a buffer during times of stress and are shown to be the most consistent predictor of happiness.
I encourage you to view Maslach’s six factors using a reflective lens. One of the most effective ways we can combat burnout is through reflection. This will ultimately lead us to identify the root cause of burnout and move forward from there. Reflecting allows you to tap into your prefrontal cortex and activate it again to promote the strengthening of its connections and override the amygdala’s response. In fact, some studies suggest that we can reverse burnout-related activity and size changes in the brain. We can tap into our brain’s ability to adapt in a way that works for us, not against us.
Give yourself permission to pause, zoom out, and re-evaluate. Do you enjoy the work you do? Why are you doing it? Do you have opportunities to rest and recover? Would starting a system of rewarding yourself help you? Which part of your day drains you the most? Why? What kind of support do you need? It may take a few tries until you find what it is you need to address. But once you find it, take action!
It can be difficult to reflect without taking responsibility for your situation. Blaming others, resisting change or vulnerability, and staying in your comfort zone will not make the recovery process any easier. To begin a journey to where you want to be, you must know where you are. Accepting your situation and holding yourself accountable can help start this journey. To speed up the burnout recovery process, be sure to also listen to your body, talk to people often, spend time in nature, and exercise.
We don’t have to wait until we're burnt out to reflect! We can keep strengthening our prefrontal cortex connections by regularly reflecting on the work we are doing. What drives our lives? What is it looking like? And where are we heading? What visualizations can we come up with to help us? This can be done through short daydreaming breaks, which improve our cognitive functioning and working memory, calm our brain, and help us think in a state without stress.
The effects of burnout are not only limited to our mental state but extend to our physical state as well. We may be too hard on ourselves if we consider only one aspect of our burnout, as there is an entire network of brain cells working to generate our behavior. The brain and body constantly provide us with clues for opportunities for growth and improvement. Sometimes, all we need to do is pause and listen.
For further details on the points mentioned above, check out some informative resources below.
Let Us Know What You Thought about this Post.
Put your Comment Below.