We’ve all felt it, that exhaustion, that peculiar mix of feeling both depleted and overloaded at the same time, that sense that you have nothing useful left to give. “I’m burnt out” you might say, the flame of your productivity extinguished.
There is a biological explanation for this undesirable state of mind, and understanding may help you avoid it while scientists continue to work on standardized prevention and treatment strategies.
A key factor in “Burnout Syndrome” is a substance found throughout the body called norepinephrine. More commonly called “adrenaline,” this neurochemical is made by the adrenal glands as well as some specialized nerve endings. Stress, any kind of stress, is the stimulus for its production. When excreted even in tiny amounts, adrenaline has dramatic effects on many parts of the body’s function. The part of the brain responsible for attention, the amygdale, starts working better. The blood pressure and heart rate become elevated. Blood sugar rises due to release of stored forms in the liver. The resting tone of skeletal muscles increases. All these events can be life-saving when they occur in a body at risk of imminent harm!
In fact it is felt that episodic activation of this adrenaline system, this “fight or flight” system, is essential to survival!But what about situations in which stress is chronic, rather than episodic? It would be logical to assume the body “gets used to” the stress and either cuts back on adrenaline production or becomes immune to its effects.
That, however, is not the case. Though the human brain can allow the perception of stress response to fade, for most people the actual effect remains undiminished. In fact, persistently elevated adrenaline levels cause a progressive deterioration of the situation by causing the level of an important opposing or “calming” hormone, to drop! This “mellowness inducing” neurochemical is called serotonin. Serotonin is so important to good mental health and a feeling of well-being that current medical treatment for depression focuses on raising and maintaining the patient’s serotonin level.
Unfortunately for chronically stressed humans, persistently elevated adrenaline prompts the body to break down serotonin at an increased rate, thereby decreasing the serotonin level. So a person under chronic stress typically suffers with elevated adrenaline level and a reduced serotonin level. They are prone to hypersensitivity and insomnia (due to their chronically stimulated attention center), high blood pressure and palpitations, as well as fatigue and muscle pains (due to persistently increased muscle tension). Mood disorders, including depression, generalized anxiety and panic attacks, may also occur. Experience all of these symptoms and you’ll feel used up, pessimistic, unhappy–you’ll have burnout.
What can be done to escape burnout? Avoiding chronic stress is an obvious answer, but for many that is not a possibility. For others, the stress source is unrecognized or unacknowledged. If stress is on one’s agenda to stay, simple things, like taking a real break from things at regular intervals, can be enough to allow adrenaline levels to drop and serotonin levels to rise. Also, avoiding substances that provoke further adrenaline increases, such as caffeine and energy drinks, can help. Sleep is an essential interval that allows normalization of this essential body chemistry; regular and abundant sleep can be an important weapon against burnout.
Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that certain practices, such as meditation and yoga, help one develop a limited ability to correct one’s own adrenaline and serotonin levels. Lastly, enjoyable and engaging activities, including music, hobbies, working out — all can raise the serotonin levels and thus limit the negative effect of adrenaline.
Burnout is common and may seem unavoidable. But understanding why and how this condition develops might help you avoid this all-too-common scourge of modern existence. Take regular time off, get a good night’s sleep every night, cut way back on the coffee, and try to have a little fun! Your body chemistry will thank you.
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[audio:http://www.pawlingpublicradio.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/130720_All-Things-Human_Burn-out.mp3|Titles = All Things Human_Burn out]