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How Experiencing Burnout Can Be Toxic to Your Brain

Author:NeuroGym Team

The Toxic Impact of Burnout

After running around all day, working hard, and trying to do all that we need to do without slowing down, suddenly—bam! We hit hard into a brick wall. There comes a time where we just need to stop because we can’t do any more. This is what happens when we are experiencing burnout.

It’s not just a made up excuse to take an hour to yourself either. There’s a scientific basis behind being burnt out. There are chemical reactions in our brain that result in us losing focus, making mistakes, and making our energy levels plummet.

In this article, we’re going to look at what burnout is, how we can deal with it, and, better yet, how we can avoid it!

Why We Hit a Wall

First off, how does burnout occur? It happens when we get a little overloaded.

Think about a typical week for you. It probably involves work or studying, socializing, and chores. And then there’s extra stuff we end up doing because we think we should or because we want to, like doing extra jobs while at work, helping out friends or family members, anything superfluous that adds something to our lives. This is all part of our normal week, and it’s usually manageable—as long as we have enough time to do it all and aren’t burning the candle at both ends.

Burnout usually occurs toward the end of our day or week. When we’ve had a day full of tasks that demand high levels of energy, we will feel burnt out after some time. But what actually happens inside our brains when we experience the feeling of being burnt out? 

It turns out burnout can literally have toxic effects on our brains. A new study has shown that when we have to do a lot of work that is highly demanding of our cognitive capabilities, our brains show higher levels of a chemical called glutamate. This chemical is a neurotransmitter released by nerve cells in our brains and is important to our memory and our ability to learn. Glutamate is the most commonly found neurotransmitter in the brain, and it’s a vital substance in the right amount. If we don’t have enough glutamate, the communication between our nerve cells will suffer.

On the other hand, if our brains produce too much glutamate, the overstimulation can do damage to our nerve cells, which could result in brain damage. For instance, producing too much glutamate can lead to Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, fibromyalgia, and has been linked to depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Further studies have shown that burnout can cause us to make poorer decisions. If the brain becomes exhausted and runs out of nutrients, it can be detrimental to the overall health of the brain, and in turn, the body.

Experiencing Burnout

So that’s what happens in our brains, but if we can’t see the chemicals moving around up there, how do we know when we’re getting close to burnout?

It’s important to remember that we may not see obvious signs of burnout until we are truly exhausted. It could take a few weeks of intense cognitive function before we notice we need a rest. There are some signs you can spot early on, however, to help you know when to slow down.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that your motivation and levels of interest will drop. You’ll find it hard to gather the energy to do things, even things you previously enjoyed. You may just be going through the motions during your day and not really putting much effort in. As burnout continues to drain your energy, you may feel a sense of hopelessness.

When it comes to physical signs of burnout, you’ll likely find you aren’t sleeping enough or are sleeping too much, and you may experience a change in appetite. You’re also very likely to feel drained. You could even experience physical muscle pains and headaches as a sign of burnout. As well, you may notice yourself becoming more prone to sickness.

Your behavior will change when you feel burnt out too. You may notice you’re more irritable, and with lower energy levels, you may find yourself taking an unnecessarily long time to do things. You may avoid tasks you should do and end up neglecting your responsibilities. 

If you notice these signs, you’re likely heading toward burnout.

How to Deal With Burnout

All of those things sound pretty bad, right? Thankfully, there are ways of dealing with burnout.

First things first, it’s important to find out what’s causing your feelings of burnout to help yourself work through it. Oftentimes, burnout comes from a stressful work life. It can also come from academic pressure, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and having to spend long periods of time caring for someone. Keeping a journal and reflecting on what you spend your time doing each week may help in identifying the source of your burnout.

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Once you have identified what the source of your burnout is, you can rework your schedule. Obviously, you can’t just drop all of your commitments, but it may be possible to step back from certain things. If you’re feeling burnt out, take a break from any unnecessary stressful activities. You will instantly feel relieved from not having as much on your plate.

For the things you can’t just walk away from, it’s important to take other steps. For one, see if you can delegate anything. Can somebody help you with housework? It’s something to consider. You could also compartmentalize certain things in your life. If work is causing you stress, make sure you don’t take it home with you. Try not to carry around your outside burdens into your alone time.

A big step to take when you’re burnt out is setting boundaries. It’s possible you’re the person others come to when they need help or advice, but you need to be firm in saying no sometimes when you can’t realistically do something. Recognize your own limits and work within them.

Burnout is a difficult feeling. You’re likely to be down on yourself and may feel guilty for taking a step back from work you feel you need to do. Remember to practice self-compassion and be kind to yourself. This is a good time to incorporate positive self-affirmations into your daily routine.

Preventing Burnout

A big part of avoiding burnout is ensuring you get enough rest. You may feel like you need constant stimulation, but it actually benefits your brain if you allow yourself to be bored. Feeling bored stimulates the brain and helps you engage different parts of your creativity. You don’t have to go overboard with emptying your schedule but allow yourself a short amount of time in which you aren’t doing anything in particular.

An important part of rest is getting enough good quality sleep. Sleep is when our bodies recharge and clear out toxins. For most people, it’s recommended to get at least seven hours of sleep. When it comes to getting to sleep, it’s helpful to be consistent with the time you go to bed and the time you get up. This allows your body to get into a good routine. Stay away from screens before you go to bed, too. Avoid eating big meals late in the day and don’t drink caffeine too late. When you start sleeping better, you’ll find yourself with more energy to face the day.

On top of sleep, remember to take breaks. We can’t maintain our focus forever, so we need to step away from what we’re doing at times. If you have a long day at work, take at least a couple of five-minute breaks throughout the day to keep yourself from getting fatigued.

Experiencing Burnout

Boost Your Energy Levels

One way to keep your mind sharp and give your energy levels a boost is to get up early and stay active throughout the day. Staying consistently active improves your cognitive function.

Regular exercise is also important for maintaining good levels of energy. Our brains are only as healthy as our bodies, and a healthy body requires work. Make sure you fuel your body with plenty of vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and, importantly, water. You need to be putting the right stuff in your body to keep your energy up.

Final Words

Burnout happens to us all at some point and it really does have toxic effects on the brain. If you experience burnout, take a step back and evaluate what you’re doing on a daily basis. Make sure you’re getting enough time for yourself and not overstretching. You can boost your energy by staying active and eating right. We’ll end the article here before you get burnout from reading!

About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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