Burnout Part 2 – Learning

Let me start here assuming that you did not read my last post about burnout and reiterate that I am not a medical professional and these posts are meant to describe my personal experience with burnout in the hopes that if you feel you are experiencing something similar, you will reach out and get the help you need. In other words, don’t take this as medical advice. But I encourage you to ask for help if you feel overwhelmed and are unsure.

“Burnout” is a complicated term because it’s thrown around casually and is used in a variety of ways. What I’m talking about in my posts here is occupational burnout, because that’s what I have experienced. From my perspective, calling it occupational burnout makes it sound as though you’re only suffering at work, when in reality, you don’t get to turn off the effects of burnout when you go home. It’s not like at work you’re suffering but outside the office you’re living life free of symptoms. But let’s dive into what I learned about burnout.

Burnout in Sweden – what I learned while living abroad

The use of the term burnout to describe the occupational condition I’m writing about here dates back to the 1970’s, more specifically to psychologist and psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenburger’s first publication discussing professional burnout. [Heinemann, L. & Heinemann, T. (2017) Burnout Research]. Since then, there have been more studies and research done on the topic, but attention to this condition has grown significantly in the last ten years. Id.

There are two terms used in the medical world for what we colloquially refer to as burnout: exhaustion disorder and fatigue syndrome. Exhaustion disorder is the term used in Sweden by medical professionals since 2010 to diagnose work-related burnout. [Adamsson, A. & Bernhardsson, S. (2018) Symptoms that may be stress-related and and lead to exhaustion disorder]. The diagnostic criteria include physical and mental exhaustion, cognitive dysfunction, sleep disturbance, and physical symptoms. Id. Fatigue syndrome has been defined in Sweden as is when a person has different physical and mental disorders resulting from prolonged exposure to stress. [https://www.1177.se/Skane/Fakta-och-rad/Sjukdomar/Utmattningssyndrom/?ar=True

The World Health Organization earlier this year recognized burnout as a medical condition, and defined it like this:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

World Health Organization (2019) Burnout-out as an occupational phenomenon.

Once again, for the kids in the back: I’m not a doctor, I don’t have medical training, but here is some of what I learned about stress and the effect it has on the body.

How mental stress translates into physical stress on the body

The hypothalamus in the brain is in charge our body’s stress response. So when you’re under stress, the hypothalamus sends a message to two other parts of the brain: the pituitary gland, and the adrenal medulla. I’m not here to teach a biology lesson (and I’m certainly not qualified to do so). If you want to know more, simplypsychology.org has an article on stress biology. I found it to be a fascinating and informative read.

Boiled down significantly: stressors trigger a physical response in the brain and our bodies respond with what most people know as the Fight or Flight response, which is meant to save us from short-term stress and is an automatic response. [McLeod, S. A. (2010). What is the stress response.]

What’s the fight or flight response look like? You might feel an increased heart-rate as adrenaline is released to help you either fight or flee from whatever the perceived danger is.

Okay, but you’re not being physically attacked at work (I hope), so why does your body respond this way?

Let’s just assume we aren’t working a job where we fear for our lives for this next part. The physical response our bodies have to our mental strain is the same, even if that perceived threat is something as non-life threatening as missing a deadline.

Over time, we not only have this quick immediate adrenal response, but we have a suppression of our immune system as well. A stress hormone called cortisol is also released, which actually suppresses our immune system as a result of several other functions that are good, but if triggered and sustained over time, not so good. Id.

All of this will, over time, if constantly triggered, exhaust you. Your body is functioning in a very specific mode meant to help you out in the short-term, and it does so by ignoring other functions.

So maybe you end up fatigued and begin to have memory problems. Or trouble concentrating. Maybe you become frustrated faster and small things make you angry. And perhaps you feel like you’re failing at everything you do. Other physical symptoms might include shortness of breath, feeling light-headed, panic-attacks, racing heart-rate, trouble sleeping, sounds are aggravating…oh wait, this is the list of my symptoms, if you recall, that I gave in my last post. You might not have these symptoms, and again, I’m not a doctor. But this is what I experienced in burnout, and my doctor informed me that these were typical for the condition.

Now, webmd gives a list of symptoms for depression which includes: Trouble concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions; Fatigue; Pessimism and hopelessness; Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or sleeping too much; Irritability; Restlessness; Loss of interest in things once pleasurable; Aches, pains, headaches; Digestive problems that don’t get better, even with treatment; Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings. [ https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/depression-symptoms-and-types]

Reading through that list, you might see why I thought I was headed for depression instead of considering that I was experiencing something else, something new: burnout.

Recognizing burnout

For me, I was finally able to recognize that what I was experiencing wasn’t depression or my usual anxiety for a couple of reasons:

  1. Old techniques did not work;
  2. My symptoms were worse when I was at work and continued to get worse the longer I was at work; and
  3. My final tip-off: I experienced a panic attack on my way to work. My body physically responded to the actual location.

These reasons when combined with having a co-worker remind me that he’d been through burnout and his symptoms were similar gave me what I needed to question my assumption that I was depressed.  

I’ve included links throughout from the research I did outside of my sessions with a doctor if you’d like to read up on more of the science behind all of this.

In Part 3, I’ll discuss what I did to manage my burnout, regain my creative drive, and move on.

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