Written by Lauren Geall
Burnout is becoming an increasing problem among our generation, with women more likely to suffer than men. Here, Stylist investigates the symptoms of burnout – and discovers the impact prolonged chronic stress can have on our bodies.
Burnout became a bit of a buzzword in 2019, and for good reason. The “occupational phenomenon”, as it is described by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is becoming increasingly prevalent thanks to the pressure of our “always on” culture, which tells us to work harder, keeps us switched on at all times and means our brains rarely get a break. It’s a recipe for disaster.
As conversation around the subject continues, more and more of us are becoming aware of the emotional symptoms of burnout, and how to avoid getting burnt out in the first place. From feelings of exhaustion and depression to insomnia and forgetfulness, the psychological and emotional side effects of burnout can be extremely distressing and become debilitating without intervention.
But underneath all of this discussion, there is another side of burnout we’re less likely to talk about: the physical symptoms of burnout.
As with all forms of stress, our body reacts when we’re put in a stressful or anxiety-inducing situation, so it’s to be assumed that burnout has an impact on our body, too. And while short-term symptoms of stress may be annoying and inconvenient, longer-term, chronic stress such as the kind which leads to burnout is bound to take its toll.
As Sherrie Bourg Carter writes for Psychology Today, “burnout doesn’t happen suddenly… its nature is much more insidious, creeping up on us over time like a slow leak, which makes it harder to recognise. Still, our bodies and minds do give us warnings, and if you know what to look for, you can recognise it before it’s too late.”
How does burnout affect us?
As we’ve already established, the symptoms of burnout are similar to those experienced during stress, but there are a few additional symptoms which arise from the continued, chronic nature of the stress which causes burnout.
“Burnout is caused by prolonged or excessive stress which manifests as a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, combined with doubts about competence and the value of your work,” explains Eugene Farrell, mental health lead for AXA PPP healthcare. “It can be described as a persistent and severely unmanaged reaction to stress in the workplace.”
The majority of burnout symptoms, confirms Farrell, are similar to those we experience due to stress: inability to concentrate, racing thoughts, tiredness, an upset stomach, irritability, trouble sleeping and craving substances like alcohol or cigarettes more often.
But alongside those issues, Farrell adds, people dealing with burnout may experience any one of these symptoms:
- Feeling exhausted
- Lack of drive and motivation
- Inability to cope
- Feeling emotionally drained
- Feeling argumentative
- Feeling alone or isolated
- Increased mental distance from one’s job
These are the fundamental signs of burnout, and are evidence of what happens when we push our bodies into a state of exhaustion – both physically and mentally.
In extreme conditions, burnout can even take a toll on our hearts. According to a new study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, burnout can lead to a heart rhythm disturbance called atrial fibrillation – a common form of heart arrhythmia which it is estimated will affect 17 million people in Europe by next year.
Can burnout delay periods?
The simple answer is yes. When we put our bodies under a prolonged state of stress, our bodies response is to begin shutting down/deprioritising the non-essential systems in the body, and this includes the reproductive system.
“When you are under severe emotional or physical stress, periods often become irregular or even stop altogether,” explains Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan and author of Cut Your Stress. “This is related to a lack of ovulation and is thought to be nature’s way of reducing the chance of pregnancy when you are already under a lot of pressure. In the same way, excessive stress can trigger an early menopause – although this is uncommon and poorly understood.”
Farrell points out that the state of exhaustion associated with burnout can also disrupt or interfere with the body’s hormonal levels, which can also delay or interrupt periods.
“The nature of burnout means the body is overtired and exhausted, which can interfere with the body’s hormonal balance. As the menstrual cycle is governed by hormones, some women may experience a delay in their menstrual period.
“In addition, an accompanying stress response can disturb the reproductive system as blood is diverted to muscles to prepare for a ‘fight or flight’ response.”
Can burnout make us more susceptible to illness?
As Richard Holmes, director of wellbeing at Westfield Health has previously explained, when we put our bodies under high levels of stress, the ‘fight or flight’ response which is triggered causes certain bodily systems to be ‘deprioritised’ and work less effectively, and it’s this which can make us more vulnerable to illness.
“When we feel stressed our body goes into fight or flight mode, releasing the same hormones as when we’re under attack,” he explains. “These hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, prioritise what we need to get out of that situation, raising our heart rate, blood pressure and increasing the amount of sugar in the bloodstream.
“While it’s doing this, the body then deprioritises things like the digestive, reproductive and immune systems.”
In this way, our body becomes more vulnerable to illness when we’re stressed for prolonged periods of time, as our immune system is ‘deprioritised’ for an extended period. Additionally, the high levels of both adrenaline and cortisol can cause problems if they stay like that for a while, as occurs when we’re experiencing the periods of chronic stress which lead to burnout.
“Neither adrenaline nor cortisol are beneficial if they are present at high levels for prolonged periods, as we’re not designed to be in this state constantly,” says Farrell. “This is why burnout can result in our immune system being undermined, which can lead to an increased susceptibility with both minor and more severe illness. It may also exacerbate any current or underlying illnesses that a person may have.”
What are the other physical symptoms of burnout?
Because our body deprioritises unessential systems during periods of stress, burnout can have wide ranging effects on our bodily functions.
“People can experience other symptoms such as gastrointestinal issues, because our body turns off the systems that are not essential as part of this response,” explains Farrell. “You don’t need to digest food if you’re about to run away from a tiger.”
The short-term nature of the situations these stress responses are designed to react to – such as running away from a tiger, for example – mean they can have a serious impact when they are prolonged and extended.
The problem with burnout, then, is that our bodily systems become deprioritised for too long, and as a result we can experience additional physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, fainting, heart palpitations and chest and muscle pain, among other things.
Dr Brewer also points out that burnout can lead to, among other things, a low sex drive, recurrent colds, migraines and high blood pressure.
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