Burnout changes your brain. Here’s what to do


Are you exhausted?

If these three symptoms apply to you — a complete lack of energy, a dwindling sense of belonging, and plummeting self-esteem — you could be experiencing burnout, experts say.

After two years of living in a bubbling pool of pandemic stress, you might feel stretched to the max. Stay in that state long enough – or at a level of intensity such as that faced by doctors and nurses working with the dying on Covid-19 wards – and it can even change your brain.

“You notice things like being more irritable, more destructive, less motivated, less hopeful,” said Amy Arnsten, professor of neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine. who studies the neural mechanisms of burnout.

Understanding how your brain reacts to burnout can be helpful because it shows that many of their reactions are part of a “natural phenomenon,” Arnsten said.

“I’m not a bad person – it’s just the way the brain changes with chronic stress. It does it to try to protect me, even though in this situation it makes it worse,” she said. declared.

“Having that kind of insight and perspective can break the vicious circle where you blame yourself for not being better.”

Chronic stress has long been known to contribute to mental and physical illnesses, and now researchers are able to capture what happens to the brain.

“One of the most striking (effects) is the thinning of gray matter in an area of ​​the brain called the prefrontal cortex,” Arnsten said. “It helps us to act appropriately. It gives us insight into ourselves and others. It gives us perspective. It allows us to make complex decisions and to be able to have thoughtful and abstract reasoning rather than concrete or habitual answers.

By weakening this area, experts say burnout can impact our ability to pay attention and retain memories, making it harder to learn new things and increasing the risk of mistakes.

That’s not all. Burnout can enlarge the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for our “fight or flight” response to danger, researchers have found.

“It’s a double whammy. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex weakens and becomes more primitive, the brain circuits that generate emotions like fear become stronger,” Arnsten said. “You start to see the world as harmful even when it isn’t.”

Can you reverse these changes in the brain once they happen? Studies in mice show it’s possible, and a 2018 study in people found that cognitive behavioral therapy for burnout reduced the size of the amygdala and returned the prefrontal cortex to levels of pre -stress.

People research also shows that we can prevent the damage from happening in the first place – if we feel responsible.

“If you feel like you’re in control of the stressor, then there aren’t these toxic brain changes,” Arnsten said. “If you feel out of control, it leads to chemical changes in the prefrontal cortex that weaken connections and over time erode those connections.”

Burnout has three major symptoms that can intertwine in unique ways for each person, experts say.

“One of them gets the most attention. It’s burnout,” said Kira Schabram, assistant professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.

“You wake up in the morning and you’re like, ‘How am I going to get out of bed and go to work?'”

Many employers attempt to address burnout by providing employees time off to rest and recharge. While absolutely necessary for recovery, Schabram said, it might not be enough.

“The problem is that there are two other dimensions,” she said. “Inefficiency, or the feeling that you are not really getting things done anymore, and cynicism, or a feeling of alienation, either from the work itself or from others.”

Sending employees home to rest without giving them the tools to deal with the other two symptoms can be ineffective, Arnsten said.

“The problem is cynicism as a sense of alienation,” she said. “Now I’m sending you home. You spend even less time feeling connected to your patients or colleagues. So this is where it gets complicated. »

The good news is that studies show you can recover from burnout, experts say. First, give yourself grace.

“If it’s exhaustion, allow yourself to be taken care of, right? Take a nap. Take a day off. Call sick,” Schabram said.

Try to do healthy activities as part of this self-care, like “trying to sleep and eat healthy foods not high in sugar,” Arnsten said.

“Alcohol is what people often seek to relieve stress, but it makes you feel even worse the next day…and the same goes with benzodiazepines like Valium. But healthier physiological activities (like) exercise and meditation that give you perspective can be really helpful,” Arnsten said.

When it comes to dealing with the sense of alienation that accompanies burnout, Schabram said the solution can seem counterintuitive.

“What we find is that having compassion for others helps restore that sense of belonging,” she said. “Becoming someone’s mentor. Start volunteering. What we find is that these acts of doing something nice for someone else really take you out of that feeling of alienation.

And don’t forget to be compassionate with yourself, Schabram added: “We found both compassion for others and self-compassion to combat burnout.”

Taking care of yourself and doing for others can also help build a sense of self-worth, boosting your sense of accomplishment: “I took a cooking class or chose yoga for myself or I mentored someone else,” Schabram said.

And studies show that these activities don’t need to be massive or time-consuming to reduce feelings of burnout, she added.

“Even very small gestures had an effect the next day,” she said. “Giving someone a compliment, taking them for a five-minute walk for coffee, we see that pushing the dial on the next day’s burnout.”


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