It’s been over a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized burnout in the International Classification of Diseases. The syndrome—which is defined as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”—doesn’t always present in obvious ways. Experts say that the signs of burnout can be just as subtle as they are damaging.
“As psychiatrists, there is not a consensus as to how we define burnout, but I would suggest that it’s a mental or physical state where vitality and hope are impaired—when a person is too tired to make it through the day, or where they start to view life as more of a chore than a purposeful adventure,” says Gregory Scott Brown, MD, founder and director of the Center for Green Psychiatry. “Untreated, burnout may lead to depression, which may have a significant impact on physical and emotional health.”
Dr. Brown and Erin Nicole McGinnis, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles and the owner of East West Holistic Psychotherapy, share four signs of burnout that might just fly under your radar.
Signs of burnout that are anything but obvious
1. Anger and Irritability
“People who are burned out tend to have a short fuse and may find themselves snapping at friends or loved ones,” says Dr. Brown. If you find that your temper starts to flare up more than usual, it may be time to consider the source of that animosity. “Sometimes there is a lot of shame regarding anger and people often feel guilty after they have snapped on a co-worker or taken something out on their spouse. However, instead of beating up on themselves, it might be more productive to ask if burnout could be a possible underlying cause,” says McGinnis.
2. Physical symptoms
According to McGinnis, burnout doesn’t just prey on our mind; it attacks our bodies, too. “People tend to overlook the physical symptoms of burnout. Chronic stress and exhaustion can lead to headaches, stomach, and digestive issues, heart palpitations, dizziness, and insomnia. If left unchecked, these can turn into more serious health concerns,” she says.
3. Carb Cravings
“Burnout, stress, anxiety, and depression has been linked with a deficiency in levels of certain neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Sometimes, burnout reduces appetite, and then we eat more, especially sugary foods, which are thought to boost feel-good chemicals in our brain like dopamine and serotonin,” says Dr. Brown. If you find your palette shifting in favor of sugary foods, talks to your physician.
4. Loss of interest in your favorite activities
One of the most insidious things about burnout is that its effects may permeate every part of your life—including the moments you once found pleasurable. “Spending time with family or friends, enjoying a favorite meal, wanting to stay home instead of going on vacation, and decreased interest in sex may be signs of burnout,” says Dr. Brown. “Even though when we are burned out, our bodies need time for rest and relaxation, and you’d think we crave activities that make us feel better. In many cases, people tend to lose interest in doing things that would do just that. This is why taking time for self-care and rest even before we feel burned out is so important as a preventative measure.”
A bedtime stretch to decompress your mind:
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