What is a burn-out and how to prevent it from happening

7 years ago when I returned from my pregnancy leave to my workplace, everything seemed fine the first weeks. After a while I did not recognize my `professional me` as at the end of the workday I forgot what I had been doing in the morning. I noticed that I found it difficult to focus and I was much more emotional than I used to be.

I thought that it was due to breastfeeding my baby of 5 months old, the sleep deprivation and the hormones that were still running through my body as I was still in this post- recovery phase.

So I did not pay much attention to the symptoms, accepted them and just mentioned my "state of being" to my manager and we both expected that it would pass by. She seemed to understand, so I just went on and tried the best out of my role at a busy project.

Several months past and there was still not much improvement. When I got my appraisal I received a bad review. Never before in my professional life I experienced something like that: receiving such negative feedback about my work due to the lack of concentration and focus. It was such a shocking moment that I decided that I needed to find out what was happening to me. As I am normally very focussed and clear in my head and now there was just a fog the whole time. So I found a career coach and after doing some tests the diagnosis was that I was suffering from a burn-out.

What is a burn-out?

A burn-out is a physical disruption in the body that first needs to be turned around to gain a normal recovery ability.  So what do I mean by that. As we get up in the morning and we are well rested, we have an amount of energy that we can spend during our working day. When this energy is spent, the body gives a signal of tiredness and we calm down, go home and rest or do some other activity that relax us.

When we have used our energy and we do not rest, because we have to meet a deadline or we have other activities to do and have no time to relax or rest, then our body switches over to our stress-system. This is like an extra battery that we can use in "emergency situations".

10.000 years ago we used the stress system when we had to run away from a lion, now we use the stress system when we continue working even when we are tired. So the stress trigger is not the lion anymore but our tiredness.  There is no problem in using the stress system incidentally as it is built to offer short-term energy. But if we do it often and for a longer period of time, then you need to recover extra to be able to build up the emergency energy that you have been using.

So if you have your stress system switched on the whole time then you are suffering from chronic stress and your body is not able to recover anymore. When the body is not able to recover we call that a physical disruption and that is when we are burn-out.

Physical mechanisms

Chronic stress influences the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis so that the levels of stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are disrupted. These hormones have a strong effect on the autonomous processes like our heart rate, digestion, respiration, perspiration and blood circulation. Chronic stressinfluences these processes also neurally through our nervous system. We feel a rush because the body produces much more adrenaline then in a normal situation because it thinks that it has to perform under extroardinary circumstances like fleeing from a lion.

Influencing our autonomic nervous system

I would like to explain a bit more about what happens physically in your body as many believe that a burn-out is something merely psychological. But it is not, it is a physical condition with psychological reasons. Therefore I would like to explain something about our nervous system.

Our nervous system has two parts: a sympathetic nervous system and a parasympathetic nervous system. The symphatic nervous system promotes activities and the parasymphatic system promotes recovery. It is like a car where the symphatic part of the nervous system is like the accelarator and the parasymphaticus is the brake. When we suffer form chronic stress the symphatic part of our nervous system is continously switched on and the parasymphatic is our of order. The nervous system does not work properly and is out of order and the body is unable to recover.

When somebody suffers from chronic stress they tend not to feel it in the first place. What people feel is tension in the skeletal muscles, a higher blood pressure, higher breath frequency and being very lert. The pain sensation is flattened en people do not feel tired. After a long period of chronic stress  the body flips to a default parasympatetic state where people are so tired that they cannot come out of bed, are feeling exhausted and empty. A long period of chronic stress has preceded this with exhaustion as result.

What to do to avoid a burn-out

When the body is unable to automatically rest we need to promote activities that stimulate the parasymphatic part of our body. That's why only lying down on the coach is not an effective way of recovering from a burn-out. When you are having chronic stress and are still able to work, the golden rule is to rest after activity and stop working on time. During our work activity it is important to take breaks. And when we come home we need to do activities that relax us.

To activate the parasymphatic part of our body we need to do things that relax us, that we like and enjoy doing. Here are some examples:

  • Go out and walk in nature
  • Have a massage
  • Work in the garden
  • Listen to music
  • Start a hobby where you need to work with your hands
  • Meditate
  • Take a long bath or a hot shower
  • Cook a healthy meal
  • Get social! Get out with a friend to vent and have fun!
  • Have a nap on the couch
  • Draw or paint

And no, watching television or using your tablet or smart phone is not a relaxing activity for your body even if you think that you enjoy it. It activates the symphatic part of our body and "activates" you. So have a smart phone diet.

After the burn-out diagnosis I was on a sick leave of 7 months and then slowly i re-integrated to my workplace. For me it was a period of extraordinary personal growth as i was not only recovering physically but i needed to change my attitude and way of working to prevent it from happening again.

When you suspect that you are suffering from burn-out, First step is go to to your health Practitioner. I am not a doctor and you have to figure out what is causing these symptoms as other things can trigger it. If you have done your blood tests and it point out you suffer from chronic stress and you would like to receive practical and in depth support, we can have an introductory call so that I can explain what I can do to help you recover from the chronic stress and build a life that is aligned with you. To schedule your call click here

Posted on September 8, 2015 and filed under Burn-Out.