Tracey Sullivan Pharmacy Features Writer

Burnout is a term that is cropping up more and more. The World Health Organisation (WHO) formally acknowledged burnout in the International Classification of Diseases in 2019. While it hasn’t been classified as a medical condition, WHO considers it a syndrome that results from “chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed”. However, it is becoming common to see the term ‘burnout’ applied to describe the exhaustion and fatigue caused by unrelenting stress and pressure in our non-work lives as well.

Speaking from my own recent personal experience of burnout – you don’t want to get there! The ripple effect from suffering from burnout can be overwhelming and affect all areas of your life from sleep, relationships, the ability to perform daily tasks, performance at work, and basic quality of life.

The WHO considers that work burnout is made of three parts:

  • a feeling of exhaustion and being depleted of energy
  • feeling negative about your job and increasingly distanced from it
  • feeling less efficient professionally.

Regardless of whether these feelings originate from work or home pressures they need to be acted upon before they manifest as disease in your body. Burnout is the result of ongoing chronic stress. The long-term effects of chronic stress can range from irritable bowel syndrome, increased blood pressure and heart disease, strokes, headaches, weight gain, memory and concentration impairment, sleep issues, anxiety, to panic attacks and depression.

When our body is under stress it produces adrenaline and cortisol, which are our primary stress hormones. Adrenaline is our “fight or flight” hormone and jumpstarts us if we are exposed to danger (think of a tiger chasing you or in our modern world this might be a car accident for example). Adrenaline makes our heart and thoughts race and stops our digestion working.

Cortisol increases blood glucose in the bloodstream and increases the brain’s ability to absorb glucose as well as stopping any functions of the body that aren’t essential to being in fight or flight mode.

While these hormones are great to get us out of immediate danger they are not good for our body if they are produced constantly. Usually once the body figures out that the danger has passed, the levels of adrenaline and cortisol drop to normal. If stress is always present it can lead to long-term activation of the fight or flight stress response and put you at increased risk of all the health problems that come from overexposure to adrenaline and cortisol.

There is a lot you can do to help yourself if you are on the path to burnout, or actually suffering from it:

  • Breathe deeply and slowly. This is the only way we can consciously influence the fight or flight response that our body goes into when we are under stress. When we are stressed we tend to take short, rapid, shallow breaths. Taking long, slow, deep breaths (ideally with the exhalation being longer than your inhalation) regularly throughout the day can dramatically improve your ability to handle stress.
  • Put yourself and your health first – so difficult when you are a parent or a carer, but as a wise friend told me, you cannot pour from an empty cup.
  • Rest, rest, rest. Or if you can’t rest, slow down.
  • Get some sunlight before 11am – don’t wear sunglasses either, as direct sunlight into your eyes helps the body to make serotonin. Serotonin lifts our mood and later breaks down into melatonin at the end of our day to help us sleep.
  • Do more of what you love or what you do to relax.
  • Schedule alone time or nature time.
  • Have strict boundaries on your time. Don’t be afraid to say a big loud no to more work or responsibilities.
  • Make exercise an absolute priority, at least three to four times a week.
  • Try yoga, meditation or mindfulness to slow an overactive mind.

All of these things help our body switch from fight or flight mode to our ‘relax and digest’ mode where we experience the benefits of our relaxing hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.

Do talk to a health professional if you feel overwhelmed or your mental health is suffering. Medication can be extremely helpful and is often only needed for a short time while you put strategies in place in your life to reduce your stress.

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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