Tick tock: How your body knows that you’re burned out

Research suggests that chronic stress interferes with the complicated neurological and hormonal system that regulates sleep. It’s a vicious cycle, because not sleeping throws this system even more out of whack. If you’ve noticed you’re unable to sleep at night, that could be a sign that you’re experiencing burnout, Dr. Dyrbye said — and your sleeplessness could exacerbate the problem.
Illustration (Representative image)
Illustration (Representative image)

New York

Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, knows she’s edging toward burnout when she wakes up, feels instantly angry at her email inbox and doesn’t want to get out of bed. It’s perhaps not surprising that a mental health professional who is trying to stem the rising tide of burnout could burn out sometimes, too. After all, the phenomenon has practically become ubiquitous in our culture.
In a 2021 survey of 1,500 U.S. workers, more than half said they were feeling burned out as a result of their job demands, and a whopping 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in December in what has come to be known as the “great resignation.” 
When people think of burnout, mental and emotional symptoms such as feelings of helplessness and cynicism often come to mind. But burnout can lead to physical symptoms as well, and experts say it can be wise to look out for the signs and take steps when you notice them.
Burnout, as it is defined, is not a medical condition — it’s “a manifestation of chronic unmitigated stress,” explained Dr. Lotte Dyrbye, a physician-scientist who studies burnout at the Mayo Clinic. The World Health Organization describes burnout as a workplace phenomenon characterized by feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy.
“You start not functioning as well, you’re missing deadlines, you’re frustrated, you’re maybe irritable with your colleagues,” said Jeanette M. Bennett, a researcher who studies the effects of stress on health at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
But stress can have wear and tear effects on the body, especially when it doesn’t ease up after a while — so it makes sense that it can incite physical symptoms, too, Dr. Bennett said. 
When people are under stress, their bodies undergo changes that include making higher than normal levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These changes are helpful in the short term — they give us the energy to power through difficult situations — but over time, they start harming the body.
Our bodies were “not designed for the kinds of stressors that we face today,” said Christina Maslach, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has spent her career studying burnout. Here’s how to recognize burnout in your body and what to do about it:
One common burnout symptom is insomnia, Dr. Dyrbye said. When researchers in Italy surveyed frontline health care workers with burnout during the first peak of the pandemic, they found that 55 percent reported having difficulty falling asleep, while nearly 40 percent had nightmares. 
Research suggests that chronic stress interferes with the complicated neurological and hormonal system that regulates sleep. It’s a vicious cycle, because not sleeping throws this system even more out of whack. If you’ve noticed you’re unable to sleep at night, that could be a sign that you’re experiencing burnout, Dr. Dyrbye said — and your sleeplessness could exacerbate the problem.
If you’re experiencing physical symptoms that could be indicative of burnout, consider seeing your primary care doctor or a mental health professional to determine whether they are driven by stress or rooted in other physical conditions, Dr. Dyrbye said. Don’t just ignore the symptoms and assume they don’t matter.

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