What True Burnout Really Is

Burnout is a dangerous illness which can result in death in extreme cases, if the signals are ignored. A definite medical definition does not exist, and as a result there are as many definitions as there are researchers. In general, burnout is often compared to being tired or fatigued. In general, most psychiatrists agree that burnout is something different. They often define burnout as being extreme exhaustion because somebody lives long-term in a harmful way which is fundamentally against their nature.

Being Happy 

Life joy or contentment protects us against negative stress. By being happy, we are create a type ‘immunity’ or protection from negative stress. Thankfully, life developed certain parts of our brain to be responsible for happy thoughts and feelings (particularly our left prefrontal cortex). It is similar to muscle training: the more you use a muscle, the better it develops.


Stress is, in itself, something positive in nature. Stress helps us respond quickly and adequately in life-threatening situations so that we can survive. If a bear plans to eat you, stress will help you to flee more quickly or to fight for your life. Acute stress at certain points during a week or month is a good thing. When the ‘triggers’ which cause stress to happen too frequently (e.g. every text message, phone call, e-mail, communication which can focus our attention on something negative) our stressed system becomes exhausted and inefficient.


Our memory for negative situations will be activated (as a side effect of excess adrenalin).

Cortisol Kills Cells In The Hippocampus

A long-term overdose of cortisol (a hormone produced in our adrenal glands) has a toxic effect on our hippocampus, which is a region in the brain. Up to 9% of our neurons or brain cells in the hippocampus can be killed by long-term negative stress. The hippocampus is responsible for our memory and our ability to focus. Brain cells dying there explains the concentration and memory problems that are found after long-term stress. The hippocampus makes it so that we can link the information from the past to the information in the present in order to make decisions in the future.

Brain Cells Die 

The zone in your brain which helps us to make decisions and plan things in the future is the prefrontal cortex. Brain cells here, too, will slowly die. The left prefrontal cortex which is responsible for positive thoughts and feelings dies first. That is how pessimism presents at the start of depression. The right prefrontal cortex (negative thoughts ad feelings) follows later on when a person slides deeper into depression.

There are many different ways that we can avoid burnout but they all start with being intentional about looking after our mental and physical health. Warning signs happen for a reason and if we ignore them for too long it is at our peril.

Depression, Anxiety and Stress

If stress is chronic, we end up in a vicious cycle of negativity and exhaustion. This cycle if left untreated can lead to depression, anxiety or fatigue.

On their own, they can be  useful functions in our body: Depression helps us to do less, to take a break. Anxiety is the typical feeling which helps us create a distance from something which instills fear in us. Fatigue, too, makes us slow down, at least it does when we listen to our body and do not force ourselves through it.

These days however with the hectic pace of our work and lives, we are more often forcing ourselves through our daily tasks and no longer listen to these useful (but sometimes unclear) signals. Instead, we use willpower, caffeine, nicotine or pills to force ourselves to go on, and if we continue with this for a long enough period of time, we are punished by real, medical burnout.


In this stage, our complaints become chronic and have been present for months. We have ignored past warnings and completely collapse. Our memory and focus (hippocampus) have given up and our ability to plan the future and organize ourselves to reach our goals (prefrontal cortex) has also been affected. This stage should be the ultimate warning signal to put us to a definite halt and make us think about what is happening to our minds and body.


The same mechanism which caused a chronic overproduction of cortisol and adrenalin, is unfortunately also responsible for our immune system, our response to infections and our general immunity. After long-term overloading of our immune system, it becomes deregulated and we are more vulnerable to outside attacks by, for example, bacteria, viruses or cancer cells.


If we have not taken any action even in the previous stage, we can die. Indirectly, because we have not listened to our body during any of the stages.  Most causes of death are part of a group which is sometimes called ailments due to civilization. These can generally be prevented by living happily and healthily, and by learning how to reduce negative stress.


I have suffered from ‘real’ burnout and it completely side-line me for nearly a year. Like many others, I thought my stress and fatigue would just pass so I pushed on to a point where I could no longer function.  Recovering from my burnout took real effort and discipline to change my daily activities and work processes. I am now much healthier, productive and happier for the changes I made. I am also on the alert for any signs or symptoms that would let me know if I am heading to the danger zone again.  I help many of my clients to recognize the warning signs of burnout as well as the steps to recover from burnout and move to breakthrough.https://jennifergrantinternati...  I encourage you to contact me anytime at https://jennifergrantinternati...

Research credit:Paul Koeck, MD




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