Burnouts are experienced by everyone at some point in their lives but are especially prominent amongst high-achieving and ambitious individuals.
High-demanding jobs in administration, education, healthcare, social work, and virtually every field can lead to a burnout (1).
Individuals that over-work themselves and those that take on too much responsibility are more likely to experience a burnout. This is not to say that other individuals can’t, nor that you are a perfectionist if you experience a burnout.
Why are Burnouts more Common in High-Achievers?
High-achievers are used to succeeding and seeing results. They are typically confident in their ability to handle and execute tasks due to previous successes and praise on those successes. But can we be too confident? Yes! It is more likely for high-achievers to take on noble tasks never done before. And while this is good, there is such a thing as too much.
Taking on too much without acknowledging its effect on health can lead to a burnout. There needs to be a balance between goals and personal well-being. Excessive responsibility can lead to negative thinking, frustration, isolation, low self-esteem, and cynicism (2).
Defining a “Burnout”:
The current scientific and psychological literature has no specific definition for what many of us call a “burnout” (1). Most of us would describe the symptoms of a burnout as being low energy, anxious, irritable, forgetful, detached, and self-sacrificing. All of which are true and reflect on a state of chronic stress.
There is no one way to define a “burnout,” but if we think in simple terms—it means running out of something. This “something” can include aspects of mental, physical, and spiritual health. For example—running out of time, patience, creativity, energy, sympathy, libido, confidence, motivation, and even friends.
What makes a burnout so complicated is that it can begin with disrupting one aspect of health (mind, body, or spirit), and affect the rest. For example, an individual with chronic pain (a form of physical stress) may find it hard to concentrate, exercise, and stay positive. The original stress can now negatively affect work performance, social interaction, self-esteem, and sense of purpose.
What Causes a Burnout:
Many experience burnouts in response to different stresses. This is because stress and response to stress are very subjective, that is, it depends on individual perception and readiness. For example, finding a balance between class, homework, a job, and social relationships might be very stressful for a freshman in college. Yet, this same situation might not be as stressful for a college senior. The senior has probably developed strategies to avoid a burnout.
How we perceive and approach a problem has a deep effect on stress levels and burnouts. Negative thoughts, for example, can greatly affect motivation levels, consistency, and the likelihood of success in a new endeavor.
In the college student example, the new student might think “doing school and work is hard,” and engage in negative approaches such as cramming schedules, working long hours, or trying to do it all at once.
The experienced college student, on the other hand, might think “school and work are manageable.” This will lead to engagement in positive approaches such as learning time-management skills and planning ahead.
How ready we are to take on a new task or if we have done it before has a big impact on the stress it elicits. One is more likely to be stressed with a never-before-experienced endeavor and this, in turn, will affect response. If we take the time to learn and get familiar with the new endeavor, it takes away from stress.
In the college student example, individual readiness will translate into confidence. The new student is likely to experience higher levels of stress because he/she has never done it before.
The senior, however, has done it and is likely to experience less stress in the same scenario.
Detecting a Burnout:
A burnout will result in the deterioration of physical, mental, and spiritual health. Therefore, deteriorating health in any of these three categories can act as a signal of a burnout.
Deteriorating physical health can be a sign of a burnout. This is because the stress has effects on physiology as seen in the sympathetic nervous system. Sympathetic response symptoms include elevated heart rate, unstable blood sugar, sleeping problems, indigestion, and immunosuppression. Other physical symptoms of a burnout include headaches, exhaustion, and chronic pain.
Mental health is greatly affected by burnout. This could make us very irritable, dismissive of others, and demanding. Our cognitive ability such as memory, attention span, and creativity may also suffer. Self-sacrificing behavior and a lack of self-care may be present.
Our spiritual health and our sense of purpose can also suffer from a burnout. Chronic stress and overwhelming responsibility could make us forget the joys of everyday life and lose connection to people and nature. A person might become more isolated, detached, and lose a sense of direction in life.
What can we do about it?
First, it is important to realize that many of the symptoms of a burnout may overlap with other psychological problems such as major depression. How can we tell it apart? When depression is present there might be overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, emptiness, and even suicidal thoughts. If such thoughts are present, then one should seek out help; sometimes it takes a team to beat depression.
For the most part, one can correct the negative effects of a burnout by slowing down, taking time to enjoy the moment, and practicing positive behaviors. Learning ways to control stress and plan ahead appropriately will also help. Exercise, group exercise, classes, meditation, hikes, tai chi, and massages can all help the body relax and reenergize.
The key to treating and preventing a burnout is balance and mindfulness. Living a balanced lifestyle can prevent many of the stresses that will lead to a burnout.
Many of Santa Cruz CORE’s services help relieve not only physical stress but mental stress as well. Massage therapy is well-known for producing a relaxed state, but did you know that acupuncture, fitness, and even nutrition can reduce stress? If you’re feeling burned out, visit CORE and let us help you into a better state of mind!
“Depression: What Is Burnout?” PubMed Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 12 Jan. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072470/.
Maslach, Christina, and Michael P. Leiter. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, World Psychiatry, June 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4911781/.