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9 Signs of Burnout (and What You Can Do About It)

Are you operating on fumes? Fatigue can take a huge toll on your health. Here’s how to recognize the signs of burnout—and what you can do about it.

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Woman exhibiting burnout signsPhoto: Shutterstock

9 Burnout Signs You Should Never Ignore

Geraldine Fitzpatrick, 65, spent 28 years as a front-line child protection worker. It was a consuming profession, and witnessing turmoil took a real toll. “I was helping all these families with their crises, but I could not cope,” she says. Her job was so demanding that she lacked the energy to take care of herself or her family. She was gaining weight, felt easily frustrated, and her emotions spilled over on the weekends—to the alarm of her kids. “Nobody wanted to be with me on Saturdays, because Saturday was a crying day,” she says. Fitzpatrick now recognizes she’d been operating on fumes since at least 1995, when she began having work-related nightmares.

Burnouts can have widespread implications for our health, well-being and ability to function. There’s no official clinical diagnosis for the condition, but it’s typically signalled by three key symptoms, says Robert Paul Juster, a researcher who earned his Ph.D from McGill University: “a loss of professional efficacy, emotional exhaustion and feelings of detachment or cynicism.” The condition doesn’t only affect those in the workforce. Unlike run-of-the-mill fatigue, burning out involves a pattern of overexertion that feels beyond your control, and extreme exhaustion that isn’t helped by sleep.

“Unfortunately, some people don’t seek help for burnout, because they don’t realize they’re suffering from it or they’re worried about the stigma,” Juster says. But there’s no need to soldier on: there are some telltale emotional, physical and behavioural red flags to watch out for. Read on to determine whether you’re running on empty—and learn how to shore up your reserves again.

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Burnout Signs: Memory Problems

Cortisol is our most powerful stress hormone and the fuel that marshals our fight-or-flight-or-freeze response. Burnout, says Juster, is related to low cortisol levels. When a person is overtaxed, their body can’t keep pace with the relentless demand for the hormone; in response, it dramatically reduces production.

That’s bad news for our brains, which require cortisol to form memories. “Think of Bambi running into a bear in the forest,” says Juster. “The deer must mobilize a stress response to flee but also needs its memory system to recall where the bear is in the forest.”

Our hippocampus is the region of the brain that stores our memories, and when individuals are chronically stressed, that area shrinks in size. “When hippocampal volume decrease, our ability to properly encode memories is impaired,” says Juster. One 1998 study out of McGill found that among older adults who showed elevated levels of cortisol, hippocampal volume was decreased by 14 per cent. While scientists don’t yet have concrete evidence about the impacts of low cortisol on hippocampal volume, Juster cautions that too little of the hormone can be just as bad as too much.

Most encouragingly, exercise may help reclaim hippocampal volume. In 2011, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh followed older adults who performed thrice-weekly, moderate-intensity aerobic activity. After a year, the group experienced mean hippocampal growth of two per cent—equivalent to a one- to two year reversal of the typical volume loss in seniors—which could benefit both mood and memory.

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Depressed man on bedPhoto: Shutterstock

Burnout Signs: Depression

Roughly eight per cent of adults will weather depression at some point, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. The condition is hard to separate from burnout: sufferers grapple with several exhaustion; everyday tasks become difficult to manage.

But it’s important to distinguish between depression as a standalone diagnosis and as a symptom of chronic stress, Juster maintains, even if the distinction isn’t always clear. He says the two are marked by physiological differences: depression is typically accompanied by high cortisol levels, for example, while burnout is not. That’s a key nuance, since antidepressants employ serotonin to decrease production of the stress hormone, which may not benefit someone whose supply is already depleted.

Numerous studies have found that when exercise increases, depression dissipates. One easy fix is to hop on a bicycle: as recently as February 2016, research published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that just three sessions of 20-minute stationary bike-riding raised the levels of neurostransmitters that are sapped in patients with mental-health disorders.

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Woman with anxietyPhoto: Shutterstock

Burnout Signs: Anxiety

Burnout can increase your risk of experiencing anxiety: extreme stress saps our resources, contributing to tension, because we feel less equipped to cope with our problems. “After the stressful situation is over, the sensation can stay with you,” explains Melanie Badali, a registered psychologist and a board director at AnxietyBC. “Your reaction can be out of proportion to the situation, as though the volume knob has been turned up.”

Intermittent anxiety is common—we all feel nervous before having an important medical test or a difficult conversation—but for roughly one in 10 Canadians, that sensation will tip into a disorder where one’s ability to function is compromised. “You might feel nausea or a tightness in your chest,” Badall says. In Geraldine Fitzpatrick’s case, symptoms manifested in full-on meltdowns. After her family left the house on Saturdays, she says, “I would just sit there and sob.”

Fitness has been connected to reduced burnout. And according to a 2015 Australian study, different types of activities can have different outcomes. Cardiovascular exercise decreased psychological distress and perceived stress, while resistance training—which involves using weights or bands to build strength—increased subjects’ feelings of well-being and personal accomplishment.

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Woman with insomniaPhoto: Shutterstock

Burnout Signs: Insomnia

When Julie Anderson, 54, started working as a development director at the non-profit anti-defamation organization GLAAD in 1997, she woke constantly during the night, fretting over to-do lists and anticipating imaginary future obstacles. “Those were signs that my body was out of balance and in trouble,” the Los Angeles-based counselling psychologist says.

Stress is associated with emotional upset and physical tension,” Badall explains. Both factors increase arousal, which prepare our body to deal with danger. “If you were a wild animal and you fell asleep when a predator was around, you wouldn’t survive for long,” she says. “But you’re not a wild animal. Sleep’s a resource that helps us manage burnout.”

Those suffering from burnout-related insomnia can focus on two things: trying to manage their worries and accepting things that can’t be changed. Doing both during the day may keep them from plaguing you at night. Exercise helps, too, though it won’t magically knock you out a few hours later. A 2013 study from Chicago’s Northwestern University found that it took older women with insomnia four months of 30-minute aerobic sessions, three times a week, to begin clocking an extra 45 minutes or more of shut-eye at night.

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Woman with stomach problemsPhoto: Shutterstock

Burnout Signs: Gastrointestinal Problems

Each year, more than 20 million Canadians suffer from digestive disorders, such as gastric ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome. Our guts are in constant contact with our brains; both regions use neurons and neurotransmitters to communicate with each other. In response to a perceived threat, the stomach halts digestion to conserve energy. But the danger doesn’t have to be deadly for abdominal cramps to result. Stress and burnout are enough to tax your gut and worsen existing inflammation and intestinal pain.

The upside of this brain-stomach connection, according to a 2013 clinical review from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is that psychological treatments have shown terrific promise for treating gastrointestinal disorders. Cognitive behavioural therapy significantly reduces tummy trouble: in one study cited by Chapel Hill researchers, eight weeks of CBT was enough to cut abdominal pain, distension, flatulence and stomach rumbling by 67 per cent; the improvement remained three months later. Hypnosis also helps stomach pain: 52 per cent of patients said their symptoms were “very much better” after completing up to 12 weekly one-hour sessions.

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Man with heart problemsPhoto: Shutterstock

Burnout Signs: Heart Palpitations

According to Dr. Marie-Noelle Langan, an associate professor at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital who specializes in cardiology, it’s pretty common to have heart palpitations, or an irregular or racing pulse, at some point, “but if they’re frequent and last several minutes (rather than few seconds), they need to be assessed.”

Burnout behaviour can trigger this response: when we don’t drink enough water, or we turn to alcohol, we get dehydrated. “When you’re underhydrated, your body may compensate to keep its blood volume the same by increasing your heart rate,” Lagan says.

If you’re concerned about palpitations, drink water and talk to a professional. It took more than a month of her heart pounding in her chest before Anderson consulted a doctor, who had her don a heart monitor for 72 hours. When the physician informed Anderson that there was nothing wrong with her heart—the palpitations resulted from her lifestyle—it sparked a kind of epiphany. “I realized that if I had a heart attack, I was going to fail at both my job and my life,” says Anderson. “It wasn’t too late to fix the situation.”

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Burnout Signs: Substance Abuse

When you’re feeling tense, a quick fix can be highly appealing. “One of the most direct ways to change how you feel in the moment is to consume drugs or alcohol,” says Dr. Anton Schweighofer, a psychologist at the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic in North Vancouver.

As a depressant, booze helps temper the sense of being overwhelmed that comes with burnout. Schweighofer says that retirees and people who lose the structure of a balanced routine can come to see a regular tipple as a replacement.

“Alcohol use can be one of the telltale signs that people are overwhelmed,” Schweighofer says. He recognizes that, in the short term, this strategy is attractive because it mutes feelings of agitation. “But it doesn’t solve the underlying concern of burnout and it creates additional problems,” such as the potential for addiction and, eventually, liver failure.

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Burnout Signs: Withdrawal

While Fitzpatrick was constantly interacting with people through her job, she says, “I didn’t know how to socialize outside of work.” Though she felt compassion towards clients, it was offset by a sense of cynicism about the system that served them. “You start disconnecting from your friends and community.” With the help of a therapist, she eventually realized she’d even fallen out of a touch with herself.

Our overworked defensive mechanisms go into overdrive when we’re burning out; as a result, “you retreat, which can often manifest as hostility,” Juster says. “When aspects of our lives that used to give us professional or personal pleasure no longer do so and we withdraw, that’s usually a sign that something’s up.

When it comes to managing behavioural consequences of burnout, Mathieu acknowledges that “all this self-care stuff” can feel a little wearying. “I’m hesitant to tell people yet again to eat more kale and do more yoga—I believe in it, but people are very tired of being told to breathe.” Instead, she highlights the importance of connecting with peers, which may involve seeking out support through community centres or hospices.

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Woman speaking with therapistPhoto: Shutterstock

Burnout Signs: Compassion Fatigue

As Francoise Mathieu, a mental-health counsellor and registered psychotherapist in Kingston, Ont., explains, compassion fatigue occurs when your ability to feel empathy erodes. “You may become irritable, cynical and desensitized to someone else’s trauma,” she says. People who work in caregiving fields—nurses, first responders, psychologists—can be susceptible to this manifestation of burnout, but the symptom doesn’t just affect professionals; it can hit a child helping their mother with Alzheimer’s or a husband providing his spouse with end-of-life care.

The level of risk rises as more hours are given to caregiving—something to keep in mind for the 28 per cent of Canadians who support relatives or friends with long-term health concerns. The magic number, according to the Statistics Canada 2012 report Portrait of Caregivers, seems to be 20 hours of volunteering or caregiving a week.

Depending on how your suffering manifests, different strategies may help. Recently retired, Fitzpatrick says she is now on a “path of healing.” She takes her friend’s children on outings and writes creative nonfiction as a cathartic release. Anderson, on the other hand, has developed an arsenal of “burnout prevention tools” including a daily run, regular meditation and maintaining reasonable work expectations.

“In social work, we talk a lot about reflective practice, an approach to work where we’re honest about our good days and bad days,” Mathieu says. “It’s important to recognize when the bad days outnumber the good ones.” If you reach that point, remember: with a little help, you can get your days, weeks and months back on track.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada