Burnout and Stress in People with a Sensitive Nervous System: The Signs and Symptoms
Burnout is a state of chronic overwhelm and exhaustion that can lead to health problems if not addressed. People with a sensitive nervous system are more prone to experiencing burnout because they feel everything more intensely. If you identify with this, it’s essential to be aware of the signs of burnout and take steps to recover from it.
1. What is Burnout?
Burnout is a constellation of symptoms that develop in response to chronic stressors and the emotional and physical exhaustion they cause.
You probably noticed I used the word stressors, not stress, which is an important distinction. Stressors are forces that create a demand, or pose a challenge, and stress is our biological response to stressors.
People with a sensitive nervous system are more prone to experiencing burnout because they feel everything more intensely, and their response to stressors is heightened. If you identify with this, it is crucial to be aware of the signs of burnout and take steps to recover from it.
The World Health Organization identifies three critical symptoms of burnout:
- energy depletion and physical exhaustion
- negative feelings and cynism related to work
- reduced performance
But different studies have expanded this definition, exploring the physical symptoms and experiences of people who are experiencing burnout, and its impact on their physical health and wellbeing.
2. Signs of Burnout
Burnout is not simply exhaustion. A wide range of symptoms tends to emerge with burnout and develop in stages. These symptoms can overlap with other conditions related to the impact of chronic or overwhelming physical and emotional stressors. Typically, these conditions present a “fuzzy” symptom pattern and unclear boundaries. In medicine, we say that it’s hard to make a differential diagnosis between burnout, a relatively new diagnosis, and other conditions that present with similar symptoms.
Typically, people report they experience a combination of these symptoms:
- low energy levels throughout the day; reduced physical activity
- feeling drained emotionally; emotional exhaustion
- a reduced sense of satisfaction and fulfillment
- chronic stress; feeling like they cannot stop carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders
- reduced ability to concentrate and keep focus
- feeling irritable, constantly reactive, and having frequent meltdowns
- lowered self-worth, constant self-doubt, hopelessness
- unable to relax and switch off, constant ruminating thoughts, and a general sense of restlessness and mental exhaustion
- lack of motivation and passion; things and people don’t matter anymore. Disconnection.
- poor sleep quality, feelings of extreme tiredness
So, as you can see, burnout can be quite debilitating and can have many consequences on your life, mental health, physical well-being, and relationships. It’s essential to identify the signs of burnout early on so that you can take steps to recover from it before it becomes too much.
If you start feeling fatigued every day, or you often feel run down and exhausted, you may be in the early stages of burnout. It’s important to pay attention to the signs of physical exhaustion as this is typically the first indication that you are burning out.
Other signs to pay attention to are if you feel emotionally drained from overthinking, or you tend to be extremely frustrated and disappointed with yourself for not being able to handle all your responsibilities at work or home.
You may feel irritable toward others and struggle with managing your anger.
You may lack the motivation to do things you used to be very passionate about.
Other signs are when you start retreating and avoiding social interactions, and avoid engaging in activities you previously enjoyed.
3. How to Tell if it’s Burnout or Something Else
I mentioned that it’s hard to differentiate burnout from other conditions, so let’s dive more in-depth and see what steps are appropriate if you suspect you are burning out.
The first step is to rule out physical conditions that may be at the root of your symptoms. Go to your doctor and ask them to evaluate your symptoms and give you a check-up. If your examination doesn’t show anything of concern, your labs are OK, and your doctor says you’re OK, the next step is to figure out if you’re experiencing burnout or another mind/body condition, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, anxiety, etc.
It’s important to say that this is a relatively new field, and there’s not a lot of data yet to distinguish between many of these conditions.
For example, chronic fatigue syndrome and burnout have a lot of symptoms in common, like physical exhaustion and compromised performance at work.
Some studies have found that the difference may be mainly in the cause, what triggered the reaction, or, we could say, the chronic stressor. In chronic fatigue syndrome, there seems to be a physical cause like a viral infection. In burnout, it seems that the stressor is more often a strong emotional stressor, for example, excessive demands and long hours at work.
To add a layer of complexity, we know from clinical observation and some studies that burnout can look a lot like PTSD, and the two conditions can be associated. While PTSD is caused by traumatic experiences, burnout is caused by the characteristics of a job or caretaking role, like the workload, the structure, and the support that surrounds the job or caretaking role.
Anxiety and depression can also be associated with burnout. Without getting into very complicated discussions on topics that are still very debated, we can take away the message that these conditions can often occur and present together but are not the same.
Ignoring the warning signs of burnout can lead to extreme fatigue, a weakened immune system, unstable blood sugar levels, high blood pressure, sleep disorders, joint pain and other health conditions.
So, in your journey toward a healthy nervous system, it will be essential to discuss and assess all these different aspects with the health professional or practitioner you have chosen, so they can get a thorough understanding of how and why you are feeling this way and can fine-tune your path to recovery accordingly.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, it’s essential to take a step back and assess what may be causing these symptoms. In many cases, burnout can be mistaken for physical exhaustion or other conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, anxiety, or PTSD. However, if you can rule out any physical causes and determine that you may be experiencing burnout, there are steps you can take to recover. Be sure to discuss your symptoms and stressors with an experienced practitioner so they can help you develop a plan to heal your nervous system.
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Dr. Linnea Passaler
Dr. Linnea Passaler has dedicated 20+ years to serving patients, first to a small number of individuals as a successful surgeon and then to thousands of people worldwide as the CEO of a digital health startup. After overcoming her own struggles with a dysregulated nervous system, she created Heal Your Nervous System (HYNS) to empower others in their healing journey. Her combination of neuroscience and somatic work helps those struggling with overwhelm, trauma, burnout, and anxiety to heal their dysregulated nervous systems and thrive.