Your body knows you’re exhausted
ST. LOUIS — Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, knows she’s on the verge of burnout when she wakes up, feels instantly mad at her inbox, and doesn’t want to not get out of bed.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that a mental health professional trying to stem the rising tide of burnout can sometimes burn out too. After all, the phenomenon has become practically ubiquitous in our culture.
In a 2021 survey of 1,500 American workers, more than half said they felt burnt out due to job demands, and 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in December in what is became 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 also lead to physical symptoms, and experts say it can be wise to watch for the signs and take action when you notice them.
Burnout, as defined, is not a medical condition – it is “a manifestation of chronic unmitigated stress”, explained Dr Lotte Dyrbye, a medical scientist who studies burnout at the Mayo Clinic. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes burnout as a workplace phenomenon characterized by feelings of exhaustion, cynicism and reduced efficiency.
“You start not performing as well, you miss deadlines, you get frustrated, maybe you get irritable with your colleagues,” said Dr. Jeanette M. Bennett, a researcher who studies the effects of stress on health. at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
But stress can have wearing effects on the body, especially when it doesn’t subside after a while – so it makes sense that it could also cause physical symptoms, Dr Bennett said. When people are stressed, their bodies go through changes that include the production of 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 get through tough situations – but over time they start to harm the body.
Our bodies were “not designed for the kinds of stressors we face today,” said Dr. Christina Maslach, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has spent her career studying the ‘burnout.
Here’s how to recognize burnout in your body and what to do about it.
WHAT TO BE CAREFUL OF
Insomnia is a common symptom of burnout, Dr. Dyrbye said. When Italian researchers surveyed frontline health workers suffering from burnout during the first peak of the pandemic, they found that 55% said they had difficulty falling asleep, while nearly 40% had has nightmares.
Research suggests that chronic stress interferes with the complex neurological and hormonal system that regulates sleep. It’s a vicious circle, because not sleeping disrupts this system even more. If you’ve noticed you’re unable to sleep at night, that could be a sign you’re suffering from burnout, Dr. Dyrbye said — and your insomnia could be making the problem worse.
Physical exhaustion is another common sign. Dr. Gold said one of his main symptoms of burnout was fatigue. “I realized that I slept every day after work – and I was like, ‘What’s wrong with me? but it was actually exhaustion,” she said.
Changes in eating habits – eating more or less than usual – can also be a sign of burnout: In the study of Italian health workers, 56% reported changes in their eating habits. People may eat less because they’re too busy or distracted, or they may crave “those comfort foods we all like to go to when we need something to feel better,” Dr. Bennett said.
Research also suggests that stress hormones can affect appetite, making people less hungry than usual when under a lot of stress, and hungrier than usual when that stress subsides.
Headaches and stomach aches can also be brought on by burnout, Dr. Gold said. A study in Sweden of people with burnout disorder – a medical condition similar to burnout – found that 67% said they had nausea, gas or indigestion, and 65% had headache.
It’s also important to note that burnout can develop alongside depression or anxiety, both of which can cause physical symptoms. Depression can cause muscle pain, upset stomach, sleep problems and changes in appetite. Anxiety is linked to headaches, nausea and shortness of breath.
WHAT TO DO
If you’re experiencing physical symptoms that could indicate burnout, consider seeing your primary care physician or mental health professional to determine if they’re stress-motivated or rooted in other physical conditions, the report said. Dr Dyrbye. Don’t just ignore the symptoms and assume they don’t matter.
“It’s really easy to get rid of your own symptoms, especially in our culture, where we’re taught to work hard,” Dr. Gold said.
If it’s burnout, the best solution is to get to the root of the problem. Burnout is generally recognized when it is work-related, but chronic stress can have a variety of causes – financial issues, relationship issues, and care burdens, among others.
Think about the “pebbles in your shoe all the time that you have to deal with,” Dr. Maslach said, and think of ways to get some of them out, at least once in a while. Perhaps you can ask your partner to help you more with your toddler’s bedtime routine, or get takeout when you’re especially busy so you don’t have to plan dinner as well.
Despite popular cultural coverage of the problem, burnout cannot be “fixed” with better self-care, Dr Maslach said – in fact, this involvement only makes the problem worse, as it shifts blame responsibility on those who suffer from burnout and implies that they should do more to feel better, which is not the case, she says.
However, certain lifestyle choices can make burnout less likely. Social support, for example, can help, Dr. Gold said. This can include talking to a therapist or meeting friends (even via Zoom). It may also be helpful to take advantage of mental health or exercise benefits offered by your employer.
Getting more sleep can also help — so if you have insomnia, talk to a doctor about possible treatments, Dr. Bennett suggested.
When burnout stems from work-related issues, it can help to ask for better working conditions. Dr. Maslach suggested brainstorming with colleagues and pitching ideas to your employer that might help — like providing quiet areas for breaks and personal phone calls, creating “no meeting” days so employees can have more time to concentrate, or make sure there is always coffee in the break room.
Even small changes like these can reduce the risk of burnout if they solve a problem people face at work every day. “It’s the chronic stressors at work that really drive people crazy after a while – they don’t have the right equipment, they don’t have the things they need, they don’t have enough people to get the job done,” Dr. Maslach said. .
Taking time off from work could also help, but it’s probably only a temporary band-aid, Dr. Gold said. She likens it to using a bucket to empty water from a sinking ship. “It’s still flowing, isn’t it?” You have to do more than just pull the water out once in a while,” she said. Still, it’s important to take time off regularly, Dr. Dyrbye said.
Ultimately, you want to make sure you have some freedom and autonomy in your work, Dr. Gold said. “Anything you can do to find an element of control can be really helpful,” she said.
This could mean doing your least favorite work activity right before your break, so you have something to look forward to during the task and time to recover from it afterwards. Or it could be swapping a dreaded task with a colleague and, in return, taking over their most hated task, which might not be so difficult for you.
Finally, while you may not want to add more to your plate, try to dedicate some time each day to something you enjoy, Dr. Dyrbye says. His work found that surgeons who devote time to hobbies and hobbies — even just 15 to 20 minutes a day — are less likely to suffer from burnout than surgeons who don’t.
“You need to have something outside of work that helps you relax, that helps you focus and relax,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.