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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

Burnout's Effects on the Brain

Burnout: a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. It reduces your productivity, and saps your energy leaving you increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. (

What a grim description that is. If you have ever experienced burnout, this description resonates with you. There are many different areas of our lives where burnout can occur. We may experience it through our job, as a caregiver, a parent, or even in our relationships. If you have been an observer of someone experiencing burnout, it can be frightening. What are the difference between chronic stress and burnout? Stress can involve too much: too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and psychologically. But stressed people can still see a point where they can pull it all together, gain control and be able to feel better. With burnout there are feelings of not enough. Being burned out means feeling empty, with no motivation and, beyond caring. Individuals who experience burnout don’t see any hope of positive change in their futures. When you are under stress you are aware of being in that state. Burnout can slide in without your conscious awareness. It can have a lasting impact on the brain’s physical structure. Severe chronic stress causes the shrinkage or enlargement, thinning and premature aging of the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) – these areas regulate our stress response. There is also a strong relationship between long-term stress and significant loss of grey matter, making our brains more vulnerable to neurotoxins.

Chronic stress

Our brains are hardwired to keep us alive. Passed down from our prehistoric ancestors, our brains are always on alert for threats. The fight-or-flight response is activated far before we are even aware of it. Where as our ancestors recovered from their threat quickly, we live in a very different world. The 24/7 stress response takes a toll on our brains and our bodies. Persistently high levels of cortisol interfere with body function such as sleep, digestion, and the immune system.


If you are burned out, your brain has rewired to the survival mode. Burnout is the state where the body starts to have trouble producing cortisol – this is known as adrenal fatigue.

The following chart is a comparison of stress versus burnout:

Stress Burnout

Characterized by over-engagement Characterized by disengagement

Emotions are over-reactive Emotions are blunted

Produces urgency and hyperactivity Produces helplessness and hopelessness

Loss of energy Loss of motivation, ideals and hope

Leads to anxiety disorders Leads to detachment and depression

Primary damage is physical Primary damage is emotional

May kill you prematurely May make life seem not worth living

Source: Stress and Burnout in Ministry

Burnout symptoms

· Signs of physical exhaustion

o Chronic fatigue

o Insomnia

o Constantly falling ill

o Weight gain

o Loss of appetite

· Signs of emotional exhaustion

o Anxiety

o Depression

o Anger issues

o Tendency toward pessimism, cynicism, detachment

· A drop in productivity

o Start forgetting important tasks on a regular basis

o Inability to concentrate and pay attention

Lifestyle choices that can prevent burnout

You can overcome burnout in much the same way as you would prevent it.

· Play. Stimulate the brain in novel and diverse ways. For example, embrace a hobby that has nothing to do with your work tasks.

· Others. Positive, meaningful social connections are a proven way to keep stress levels down. We are hardwired to connect. Be a part of your 'village'..

· Downtime. This doesn’t necessarily mean a vacation. Our brain needs to unwind and recharge on a daily basis. Go for a short walk on your lunch break. Read a book in the evening instead of surfing the web. Plan for this downtime so that you actually take it. Your brain will reward you for recharging it!


Alini, E. (August 2, 2017). ‘Burnout’ is a thing, doctors say. Here are the symptoms. Retrieved September 6, 2018 from Money/Consumer Online Global News.

Michel,A. (February 16, 2016). Burnout and the brain. Retrieved March 21, 2016 from

Minds for Business, Psychological Science at Work. Burnout leaves its mark on the brain. Retrieved March 21, 2016 from

Preventing Burnout, Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Coping Strategies. Retrieved March 21, 2016 from

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