Burnout has become a bit of a buzzword, particularly in the workplace. You hear a lot about the different definitions (which aren’t always all that helpful, quite honestly) but what you don’t hear about is how burnout affects your brain. But once you know how it changes it, and how those changes affect you, you can begin to make sense of what is really happening and take control of the situation. 

In this article, we’ll look at the science of burnout and how it affects our brains. We’ll also look at how it affects how you  think, feel, and act and  finally, we’ll explore some simple, practical ways you can reverse its harmful effects.


Burnout according to science: how it changes you.

Over the last 50 years, scientists have paid close attention to burnout and how it affects you and your brain. The findings are as concerning as they are amazing. Let’s dive in…

Difficulty regulating emotions

A group of psychologists at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute found evidence that burnout can change neural circuits, which are crucial for your understanding of the world,  how you control movement and  your ability to learn from experiences. And when burnout hinders starts messing with those circuits, it becomes harder to control your emotions as well. 

For the study, researchers enlisted the help of 40 people who had been diagnosed with burnout symptoms. All the participants related their condition to two years of continuous work-related stress – not dissimilar to post pandemic life. They also recruited 70 healthy participants with no history of chronic stress to serve as the control group.

They showed participants negative images and asked them to suppress, maintain, or intensify their emotional reactions. While the participants were looking at the pictures, the researchers played loud noises and measured their reactions with electrodes placed on their cheeks – very sciency.

If you have been burned out or living with chronic stress, their findings won’t surprise you; those who had been under stress found it more difficult to regulate their emotions,  especially the negative ones.

So, if you’ve been feeling like your emotions aren’t quite your own recently, know that this is your brain’s natural response to stress and burnout. And if you’re wondering what you can do to get back in control of your emotions, this short test will give you the answers you need.

Heightened perception of stress. 

They also used MRI scans to assess participants’ brain connectivity. They discovered weaker connections between the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex, the two bits of the brain that play important roles in regulating your reactions to threats, such as stress (e.g. deadlines, too many demands, fear of illness, difficult clients or colleagues, sick children etc.).

So if you find that seemingly small things feel much bigger or scarier than they used to, don’t give yourself a hard time. This is your brain doing its job. It’s trying to keep you safe – the only problem is that it’s trying a little bit too hard and actually making things feel worse. 

Reduced Memory, Creativity, & Problem Solving 

And as if feeling extra sensitive to stress and out of sync with your emotions isn’t enough to deal with, scientists also found that burnout reduces your ability to be creative, problem-solve, and memorise or remember information. 

A group of Greek psychologists examined 15 studies on the impact of burnout. They found burnout is closely associated with poor brain performance in 13 of the studies. Out of all the effects, memory impairment was the most strongly linked to burnout.

Forgetting your keys? Missing appointments?Taking hours to complete tasks that used to take minutes? Yep, you guessed it. That’s your brain on burnout. Not you.

Poor Decision Making

Sorry, but there is more. Burnout has also been shown to cause thinning of the grey matter in the prefrontal cortex – which is essentially your brain ageing prematurely.  This can make learning new things, multitasking and remembering details more difficult. 

This part of the brain is also in charge of how you focus your attention, deal with complex decisions and your capacity for abstract reasoning. I.e. how able you are to deal with concepts or problems that are real but not tied to concrete experiences, objects, people, or situations you have experienced – very important in the world of work and big life decisions. 

If you’re feeling particularly stressed or burned out it’s best to postpone making big decisions, especailly those that involve processing a lot of information to make the right choice, until you have started to recover from burnout and reduced internal and external stressors. If you want to know exactly where your stress levels are at and what you can do to reduce them, try this short test

Decreased performance & satisfaction 

Burnout has a negative impact on one’s health, resulting in a wide range of behavioural, cognitive, and physiological issues (aka how you think, feel and act) that can affect everything all as[ects of your life. Work-related consequences of burnout include job dissatisfaction, increased errors, more and longer-term absences and decreased performance. 

Fortunately, there are ways to counteract the negative effects of burnout and live a healthier personal and professional life.

How to reverse the damage of burnout

Burnout develops gradually, and you may not notice symptoms right away. It is the accumulation of stress and, of course, the impact of that differs from person to person. 

To avoid burnout, it’s important to be aware of the early warning signs. You can take this free and simple assessment to identify whether you are experiencing any at the moment. 

Changes you should make right away

When you notice signs of burnout, the first thing you should do is lighten your load. If you’re juggling multiple projects at once, consider what you can delegate, delay or drop all together. 

Being ambitious is good, but there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing!”

You may be tempted to do everything, all the time, but this will almost always come back around to bite you on the backside.

Taking a break, cancelling, or rescheduling a few commitments and tasks will provide you with some instant relief. This is an important first step for burnout prevention and recovery. Without space to time to get back into balance, it’s impossible to have the energy to tackle the true cause of your burnout and break the cycle.

Talk to people you trust about it

Sorting through the causes of your burnout and figuring out ways to reduce stress alone can feel really overwhelming – it’s hard to see the wood for trees.  Involving someone you trust to help you untangle everything can be a brilliant first step.

Sometimes, just admitting that you are feeling burned out can take the pressure off and pave the way to start feeling better.

If the support of your loved ones isn’t quite enough or doesn’t feel right, you can seek professional help from qualified individuals who can give you the guidance you need to implement effective changes. 

Be self-compassionate

As you start to burn out, you may start questioning your worth, your purpose, your direction and even your choices.  And it may feel like there is little you can do improve the situation. 

When this happens, take a step back. Imagine if a loved one was in a similar situation, you’d offer support, empathy, and kindness to help them get through it. Even if it feels difficult, do everything you can to do the same for yourself. Remember you are a human, not a machine. There is no right way to deal with this, only the way that is right for you. 

Practice proper self-care

Face masks, meditation, and exercise are all great ways to relax and unwind. But if you’re dealing with a chaotic or toxic work environment, these things won’t even make a dent.

This means that instead of spending money on high-end face cream or another self-help book that will probably not help you much no matter how many times you read it, you should examine the foundations of your working style.

Your mental health is about prioritising your needs, setting and enforcing boundaries, and realising that your self-worth is not determined by your productivity levels.

Seek professional help

Continuing on from the second point about talking to someone. Confronting burnout is difficult, especially when it has already taken a toll on your professional and personal life.

And sometimes talking to someone you trust – be that a friend, family member or colleague isn’t quite enough. They may be great at listening but helping you take action to feel better is possibly way outside of their skills or knowledge. 

Getting professional guidance from someone who can help you identify your underlying causes of burnout, give you tools to rectify them and support to explore potential coping methods can be a brilliant way to help you get back in balance, quickly and calmly. 

I’m here to help.

As someone who has experienced burnout, I have dedicated myself to helping others  prevent and recover

I’m a certified Mental Health First Aider and an ICF-accredited Executive Coach who has helped hundreds of business owners and professionals in managing stress, increasing productivity, and feeling healthier and happier both inside and outside of the workplace.

Schedule a call with me today to get the help you need to avoid or recover from burnout in your professional and personal life.

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