Image: Unsplash

What does burnout do to the brain?

As we are approaching the end of term, some of us are certainly feeling the effects of weeks of battling assignments with applications, money issues, and a social life. But have you now reached a point where you are falling behind and lacking motivation and focus? In the first week, you were attending everything and more, and now you are struggling to stay focused on a task for more than 10 minutes. Hit a brick wall?

Feeling burnt out is recognised in the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases) where it is defined as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Ultimately, it is exhaustion caused by the inability to cope with excessive stress. The stress of looming deadlines, an endless to-do list, weeks’ worth of lectures to catch up on, and work for seminars that you haven’t attended begin to outweigh rewards and relaxation – including sleep, socialisation, and nutrition.

Burnout can take a huge physical toll on our brains especially, with studies associating it with an enlarged amygdala

But why do we feel unmotivated to start tasks when we have so many to do? The strong connection between mental and physical health has been known for some time, and many studies have been conducted into the science behind burnout. Neuroimaging studies have even found similarity in the brains of those that experience burnout with those suffering from severe early-life trauma. And that goes to show just how big of a part our mental health can play, since both damage our neural circuits. Burnout can take a huge physical toll on our brains especially, with studies associating it with an enlarged amygdala (the part of the brain involved with processing threats). Overactivation of this part of our brain over time has a wear-and-tear effect leading to memory, emotional, and attention difficulties. This larger-volumed and overstimulated amygdala means that anxiousness will outweigh our logical thinking, so we become consumed by our stress.

The independent nature of university […] can be a breeding ground for stress and burnout

It’s not just brain functioning that’s dysregulated, burnout also causes issues with our neuroendocrine system (which is involved in the release of hormones into the blood). Cortisol is our stress hormone; it triggers reactions all over the body including those associated with our immune system and cardiovascular activity. However, the issues arise when a person is stressed for a prolonged period, meaning cortisol levels are too high for too long because our body fails to restore normal conditions due to constant stress. Our body attempts to resolve this by downregulating the cortisol being produced, however, this then means that the levels of the hormone produced are abnormally low. Therefore, when we are stressed for a long period, our stress system essentially feels the effects of burnout just as we do. But don’t worry, there’s good news too! Managing burnout and removing stressors can keep it at bay.

The independent nature of university makes it very easy to fall behind when lacking motivation and can be a breeding ground for stress and burnout, which is why recognising the signs and identifying burnout is essential for not letting it completely rule your life and making you feel miserable. No one wants to be too exhausted to function, so recognising that you feel irritable, unmotivated, emotional, or anxious, is vital to start putting changes in place to avoid being consumed.

The main way to tackle burnout is to establish a healthy work-life balance, identify what projects need to be completed, and which ones can be dropped for the time being as mental health should be the priority. Disengage with activities that trigger the stress if possible, or if not, then sharing responsibilities by seeking help from family or friends may be useful. You could also rank tasks and write regular to-do lists to help manage your workload without it becoming too overwhelming. Living a life with exercise, good nutrition, and healthy relationships is important for overall mental health, so a good start may be establishing a regular sleeping pattern and getting out and participating in activities that will release endorphins. This can even include a simple short walk around campus – which is particularly nice in this season!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.