woman sitting on the floor


Every stressor provokes thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviour. If we constantly ignore these stressors and the consequences of the thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviour, we push our physical, emotional and mental states to the limit.

Depression and burnout research tells us that, in burnout, there is no doubt that the brain shuts the mind down (cognitively and psychologically) and, in depression, the body shuts the brain down.

Our stress response has three options; fight, flight and freeze. Our freeze response is triggered in situations of extreme emotional and physical trauma, when the system is exhausted, and the only choice is ‘freeze’. Exactly what we have in burnout.

Burnout is driven by the Parasympathetic Nervous System; our braking system that puts the brakes on stress hormone production activated by our stress response system, which, unfortunately, due to the exhaustion phase of our stress response, has been burnt out.

Burnout is the actual ‘burning out’ of our stress response system. We’ve used it up, exhausted it, it cannot do its job, so our brain has no other choice than to shut the whole system down, hence the emotional, physical and mental exhaustion.

This freeze state is a safety precaution that causes a loss of interest and motivation, anxiety, depression, a reduction in productivity, a lack of energy, the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, a cynical and resentful state of mind and the feeling of having nothing more to give.

Think about this for a minute, really think about it. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If we cannot do anything; if we’re ‘frozen’ with no energy, no motivation, no inclination to do anything and we’re totally ‘actionless’, we can’t get ourselves into danger, can we? We won’t be running away or fighting our way out of any stressors.

So, again, our stress response system is amazing and even when we ‘burn it out’ it still protects us. The brain is the body’s computer and, like a computer, it shuts everything down to prevent more danger; and like a computer, a re-boot of the body and mind; the stress response system is the only way to turn everything back on.

There are three types of burnouts: workplace burnout, relationship burnout and carer burnout.

Workplace-related stressors are chronic stressors that can cause lack of motivation, absenteeism, anxiety, depression and more. If these stressors cannot be resolved, it’s essential we find ways to relieve the build-up of chronic stress hormones before they lead to burnout. The key is to let your body ‘rest and repair’.

If you’re in an unstable relationship with re-occurring issues, you may want to examine why these issues keep popping up. You may need to confront the stumbling blocks in the relationship and honestly communicate how these are affecting your health and happiness. Try doing this before you reach the burnout (exhaustion) stage.

If you’re caring for a loved one, examine how you structure your day and when you can schedule ‘rest and repair time’, so you can de-stress and lower stress hormone levels at least three times a day, preferably before you reach burnout stage.

It goes without saying, it’s very possible that problems in work can lead to problems in home relationships and vice versa. It’s also possible that burnouts can overlap; a bad relationship and a stressful workplace.

Burnout recovery

The main priority now is to re-boot the body and brain. We all experience burnout re-boot differently; we all have our own individual set of body and mind issues. Energy levels in burnout recovery are very important and should be carefully monitored. The goal is to ‘spend’ energy to ‘create’ energy, not burn up all the reserved energy.

All psychological signs and symptoms of burnout, such as depression, anxiety, emotional outbursts, hopelessness, helplessness, mood swings, mental and physical fatigue, should be addressed. This process is like taking two steps forward and one step backwards in the beginning; it’s a slow process but eventually we get to where we need to go.

It’s important we commit to the process of getting better and accept its going to take time. After all, it took a few years for us to burn our stress response system out, so it’s going to take up to a year or longer to get it up and running again. This is why I’m so adamant about resolving all stressors, so we can avoid burnout.

Sleep, diet, exercise and enjoyment are the four main categories of burnout recovery. The body and mind heal only when we are asleep. We need a healthy diet to produce the energy we need to help the body and mind heal. When we exercise, we ‘spend’ energy to ‘create energy’; we build up energy reserves and put some in the bank for later.

Without enjoyment, life is a desert of negativity, and this is exactly what we don’t want in burnout recovery, so we plan quality enjoyment time with family and friends we know we will enjoy.

Burnout recovery is all about happy and sad hormones. We focus on the happy hormones and reduce the sad hormones, while building up energy reserves.

A qualified stress and burnout specialist will be necessary to guide burnout recovery.

Some easy ways to prevent burnout:

  • A good night’s sleep
  • A healthy diet
  • A healthy exercise routine
  • Deal directly with stressors; don’t avoid them
  • Communicate: Don’t ruminate or bottle up your emotions; this will lead to burnout
  • Seek support
  • Remove the stressor or take distance while finding a coping strategy
  • Learn to relax by controlling your breathing
  • Have the difficult conversation – not having it is destroying the quality of your life.
  • Take an objective view of the stressor; is talking through an argument with a loved one really that difficult? We need our loved ones in our lives.
  • Accept yourself and others; no one is perfect and there is always room for mistakes.
  • Social support is key!

Always remember our reptilian brain needs to feel safe in a stable environment.

 By Joan Maycock

Joan Maycock MSc Health Psychologist, BSc Psychologist, Counsellor Mediator, Consultant, Researcher, Trainer and Stress and Burnout Programme Developer. After living in the Netherlands, I moved to Portugal last year. My focus is on developing stress education programmes designed to get everyone thinking about reducing, preventing and managing stress and burnout.

915 793 592 | [email protected]