The biology of burnout

Burnout might just be the most universal topic I can present on these days, for perhaps all the obvious reasons. Whether I’m treating a woman facing infertility, coaching a group of female entrepreneurs, or presenting to corporate executives, the resonance of this concept is strong. 

It begs the question — why can so many of us relate to what is considered to be a dysfunctional condition? If the World Health Organization calls it a medical concern, should it be afflicting whole swaths of the population?  

Sure, we’ve been in a global pandemic for the last year and a half, and burnout is rampant in that context. But if we’re honest, most of us were experiencing some level of burnout prior to Covid. 

Let’s break down what it means to feel burnt out — a condition that’s not simple stress, but rather a cluster of feelings and behaviors that become problematic. 

Burnout is generally considered to be made up of three core characteristics of experience —

  1. We feel depleted and emotionally exhausted. 
  2. We feel ineffective in what we are doing. 
  3. We feel negatively toward our responsibilities and even cynical about their importance.

This description can be helpful in distinguishing feeling, for example, overworked from a full-on burnout. We’ve probably all had periods of time where we are putting a lot of time or effort into something, but we didn’t necessarily feel burnt out. We might have even felt energized by the experience. Similarly, we’ve all had times where our work wasn’t getting the result we wanted, but we didn’t feel cynical that success would never come. 

The reason that burnout is different from your average stress or frustration is that it shares some of the neurobiological aspects of depression. Indeed, burnout can lead to depression and often does. But even before that happens, burnout can look a lot like depression where it is happening. 

My own theory is that the mental depletion that comes from perpetual overwork (whether that’s intensive caregiving or pouring over spreadsheets every night ) results in a deficit in our emotional and cognitive resources. When we’re existing in this deficit for too long, we not only feel ineffective, but we also become less effective. We’re operating with less in the tank and we’re not on our game. And because, our self-protective natures want on some level to continue to see ourselves as okay, our minds convince us that there is really no point anyway. We start to diminish the value of our work, writing off its significance.

Again, this can happen in any context. It’s why burned-out postpartum parents start to feel like maybe their babies are better without them anyway. It’s why medical professionals and educators and attorneys flee the field, abandoning their once deeply held conviction that they could make an impact and change their fields. It’s why we give up on a dream or a relationship.

Our brains require resources and nurturing, just like any part of our bodies. When it goes without for too long and the costs are too high, it’s always going to try to preserve the little resources it has left. It’s developed a clever way of doing so by convincing us that we suck or that it doesn’t matter anyway. 

So how do we exit off the burnout highway? I think the depression model is actually a useful framework to use. When we’re experiencing a medical condition, we — ideally — treat it seriously and take a multi-faceted approach. We consider what inputs and outputs need to change and we give ourselves time and space to heal it. We usually work with a professional who is experienced in the condition and can serve as a guide on the path to recovery. And we don’t blame ourselves for our bodies experiencing it.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

Leave a Comment

Get your free Mental Wellness Self-Assessment

For guidance, inspiration, and the scoop on our goings on, join our community list. You'll also get your "Mental Wellness Self-Assessment (+ Our Top Five Tools to Up Your Mental Health Game)" in your inbox right away.

The information and resources contained on this website are for informational purposes only and are not intended to assess, diagnose, or treat any medical and/or mental health disease or condition. The use of this website does not imply nor establish any type of psychologist-patient relationship. Furthermore, the information obtained from this site should not be considered a substitute for a thorough medical and/or mental health evaluation by an appropriately credentialed and licensed professional.