The warning signals that burnout might be around the corner include a mixture of defined symptoms including “a growing emotional, mental and/or physical exhaustion which isn’t alleviated by sleeping”. Whether at work or at home, doing what we have always done efficiently becomes increasingly difficult, each task becomes Mount Everest to climb. Productivity (and performance) often decreases, together with the pleasure we derive from all things we do.
One of the first and most defining symptoms of burnout is extreme, long-lasting tiredness, combined with an inability to relax and fall asleep. If you do fall asleep, you wake up just as restless, wired and exhausted as you went to bed. A loss of appetite for food, sex, fun often follows. Holidays often do little to alleviate this loss of vitality – especially in a world were constant connectivity means that holidays don’t necessarily equate full respite.
With exhaustion and due to lack of restful sleep, concentration and memory decreasing substantially are the second real signs that something isn’t quite right. You can read why sleep and memory are so tightly linked in my previous article here, but in a nutshell it often has to do with your “hard disk” being overloaded, and the quality of your rest and sleep no longer being enough to consolidate short-term memories into the long-term one. Poor attention, errors at work, decrease in effectiveness and productivity are common symptoms that derive from poor sleep and frontal lobe overload.
Other signs to watch out for are signs of minor addictions, such as an increase in watching TV, playing computer games, shopping excessively, eating junk food, or more worryingly drinking alcohol, using drugs or pursuing casual sex. All of these are coping mechanisms, harmful because excessive, which provide a way to forget the exhaustion, and to escape an increasingly pleasureless reality.
In most burnout cases the body’s immune system will have been significantly weakened and burnout sufferers have often been fighting common colds and flus for much longer (and with much more frequency) than usual. An increase in physical problems ranging from back, neck and shoulders problems, to irritable bowel syndrome or rashes and eczema are typical psycho-somatic signs that the body’s coping mechanisms are overstretched and responses sub-optimal. These can worsen into thyroid problems, heart pains or severe head pains, or even heart attacks. Chronic fatigue/ME often happens as a result of burnout or adrenal fatigue which has gone untreated for too long.
Pre-burnout generally comes together with increasing irritability, self-criticism, irrational bursts of anger, as well as a closing down from close friends and family. Exhaustion and physical pain combine to make the world a much bleaker place – but most burnout candidates dismiss the signs as just more proof that they need to fight harder to come back on top, so they battle on.
One of the main explanations for burnout and the various types of symptoms described above out there is that they are the result of adrenal fatigue, which occurs when the adrenal glands function is disrupted or impeded, usually as a result of stress. Adrenal fatigue is different from adrenal insufficiency or Addison’s disease, which are recognised pathologies and have nothing to do with stress. Adrenal fatigue as a concept is debated among the medical establishment, which doesn’t always recognise it as a textbook pathology (it clearly isn’t advisable to start buying the types of supplements fraudsters might want to sell online to fight such a condition!) There is growing awareness among the medical community, however, that prolonged exposition to intense stress does produce the type of symptoms described above, and the adrenal fatigue explanation does resonate with me in terms of the accuracy of what it describes. I’ll leave it up to you to make up your minds.
The adrenal glands’ main function is to mobilise the body’s responses to stress (whether physical, emotional, or psychological) through hormones that regulate energy production and storage, immune functions, heart rate, muscle and nervous response, and other processes that enable the body to respond appropriately to various causes of stress (by triggering the “fight or flight” mechanism). These mechanisms enable the body to respond effectively to either a single, very intense stressor, or to less intense but chronic stress factors that have a cumulative effect. Problems start to occur when individuals are under very intense but constant stress, often associated with demanding, high-pressured jobs which involve little sleep, stressful hierarchy or responsibilities. If the adrenal glands are no longer able to respond optimally by producing the right amount and kind of regulatory hormones (usually due to over-stimulation), the body will not regain equilibrium (homeostasis) and we become incapacitated. My next article will focus on the various hormone associated with adrenal fatigue and burnout, and how the physical, mental and emotional exhaustion symptoms are all linked.
“Most commonly associated with intense or prolonged stress, adrenal fatigue (burnout) can also arise during or after acute or chronic infections, especially respiratory infections such as influenza, bronchitis or pneumonia”. The condition is unfortunately not as readily identifiable as measles or appendicitis. Adrenal fatigue sufferers will look and act relatively normal and may not have any obvious signs of physical illness, but will live and work through unending days of exhaustion. “People experiencing adrenal fatigue often have to use coffee, colas and other stimulants to get going in the morning and to prop themselves up during the day”.
“In the more serious cases, the activity of the adrenal glands is so diminished that you may have difficulty getting out of bed for more than a few hours per day. With each increment of reduction in adrenal function, every organ and system in your body is more profoundly affected”. Many changes occur at all levels in the body as it tries its best to restore some kind of biochemical- and cellular-level balance and to compensate for the sub-optimal level of regulatory hormones caused by adrenal fatigue. This obviously comes at a price, and cannot go on forever…
In summary, most common burnout signs to watch out for:
- Light-headedness when standing up quickly (one of the major signs)
- Difficulty getting up in the morning (difficulty “waking up” until 10am; afternoon low between 3-4pm; energy upsurge after 6pm and supper)
- Continuing fatigue not relieved by sleep
- Increased time needed to recover from illness, injury or trauma
- Lethargy (lack of energy), increased effort to do everyday tasks
- Decreased productivity
- Craving for salt or salty foods
- Craving for sugar and/or chocolate
- Decreased sex drive
- Mild depression
- Thoughts less focused, more fuzzy
- Memory less accurate, absentmindedness
- Increased irritability
- Decreased ability to handle stress
If you are experiencing more than three of these symptoms, chances are high that you have adrenal fatigue – or burnout. They are warnings that something (and perhaps a bit of a radical something) needs to change if you want to feel like your old self again.
If you want a bit more detail, you can take this online test, which I have found to be helpful in indicating the presence and degree of adrenal fatigue – although it by no means can replace a doctor’s diagnostic. Prepared by Dr Wilson, who seems to be a bit of a burnout guru, it makes you become aware of your predisposing factors, of the usual signs and symptoms, and of your energy and other patterns to rank the severity of your “condition”. If you scored above 130 for men or 132 for women, time to get worried!