What Causes a Sensitive Nervous System to Develop Burnout?

Do you feel like you can't keep up with the demands of life? Are you constantly feeling overwhelmed and stressed out?

If so, you may be suffering from burnout.

Burnout is a condition that develops when someone has been under chronic stressors for too long. Sensitivity plays a significant role in creating the conditions for burnout.

Because they experience things more deeply and their response to stressors is heightened, people with a sensitive nervous system are more likely to experience burnout.

In this blog post, we will discuss what causes the sensitive nervous system to develop burnout and how to protect yourself from it.

1. Causes of Burnout

To understand how burnout happens, we will use the analogy of a cup.

why is burnout common in sensitive people_infographic01

Imagine you had two identical cups, but one of them contained some marble balls. If you pour water into the two cups, the one with the marble balls will spill over earlier than the one without marble balls.

The cup analogy demonstrates how different people have different predispositions, and respond differently to the same stressor. In one case, the cup spills over; in the other, it doesn't.

So we know that people who have high sensitivity, or sensory processing sensitivity, have a biologically increased response at the nervous system level and deeper processing of stimuli. They have greater sensitivity to subtle stimuli and heightened emotional reactivity.

When the physical or emotional stressor is added to the cup,  it is easier for the cup to spill over than another cup that doesn't have that same increased sensitivity.

There are specific personality traits that predispose people to develop burnout, like perfectionism, being sensitive to judgment by others, and being introverted, all of which are frequent when people have a sensitive nervous system. 

2. The Biology of Burnout

What happens on a biological level when you experience burnout?

Without getting into very complex explanations, we can distinguish between what happens in the periphery, the body, and what happens at the brain level.

The autonomic nervous system in the body is so overstimulated that the sympathetic branch – which controls the adrenaline release and the so-called fight or flight response – is constantly activated.

The other branch of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic, is designed to allow our body to rest and act as a brake on the sympathetic branch. It is trying so hard to control things that it reaches a point where  it cannot work correctly anymore.

This process becomes self-sustaining, and it can be tough to turn it off. You often hear the term “adrenal fatigue” to describe a state where supposedly your adrenal glands cannot match your body's demands anymore. It is somewhat controversial in the medical field because we don't have clinical or lab data that say the adrenal glands aren't working correctly when you experience burnout.

There isn't a clear clinical definition of the condition, so while it's a popular term, I prefer not to use it.

3. The Burnout Cycle

This is the biological basis of what I refer to as the “burnout cycle,” or in some other cases, it is referred to as residual burnout.

the burnout cycle infographic_01
  • You have reached a certain degree of burnout, and let's say you withdraw or take a short vacation.
  • Things start getting better – maybe you do some meditation, some yoga, some journaling.
  • You feel like your nervous system is in a better place. But as soon as you start engaging again in your activities, you fall back into that state of burnout, this time quicker than the last time.
  • You start feeling like you're caught on a wheel and don't know how to get out of it. In this phase, you're still in the “burning out” stage, which means your system has retained a capacity to bounce back; it still has some flexibility. 

But from here, if the exposure to the stressors continues without any intervention to change or mitigate them, things can quickly spiral into an extreme condition, which is when you have burned out. Your system has lost all of its flexibility and ability to bounce back.

4. Brain Changes in Burnout

The brain is also heavily involved in this process, and some of the early symptoms are a reduced ability to regulate emotions, to regulate your response to stressors, so you become more and more reactive to things, and it takes longer for you to return to a state of calm when you're triggered.

So if something happens, say someone has done something that made you mad, you can go on replaying that episode and ruminating on all its implications for the entire day.

Other symptoms are reduced ability to remember, your memory is negatively impacted, and your ability to concentrate and keep attention, so a lot of the so-called ADHD brains that we hear about, especially in sensitive people, in reality, are overwhelmed brains that are burning out.

The brain is undergoing some structural and functional changes that can be seen in an MRI, but the good news is that all these changes are reversible and can be resolved with the right approach.

5. Body Changes in Burnout

Other significant consequences of burnout in the body are sleep problems,  reduced immunity, and increased inflammation.

Overall, you can probably understand now why burnout is an often overseen process through which people become prone to chronic diseases, increased weight, and eventually a reduced quality of life and reduced lifespan.

We sometimes tend to focus on the symptoms, like poor sleep or weight gain, or hormonal imbalance, but it's essential to understand how and why that symptom is showing up in our life.

It's crucial to identify it while we're still going through that burnout cycle that we mentioned before because that's really where we can more quickly reap the benefits of working on healing our nervous system, 

It's essential to address it before it starts accelerating into that heightened phase, which lasts roughly six months for most people, where you become burned-out. 

That doesn't mean we cannot heal the last phase, where you're completely burned out, we know that we can be successful, but it takes much longer.

Conclusion

If there's one thing I want you to take away from this, it is to inform yourself and understand and evaluate how depleted you are.

Make sure you check in with your doctor for health conditions; check out what resources are available for you, and do it as early as possible because the earlier you do it, the quicker and easier it will be to get your body and brain back on track.

Talking about resources, in my next posts, I'll discuss the key elements of a comprehensive approach to recovering from burnout.

Nervous System Regulation - Best Resources to Get Started

Dr. Linnea Passaler

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About the Author

Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea has dedicated 20+ years serving patients, first to a small number of individuals and then to thousands of people all over the world through digital technology. As a highly sensitive person, she understands the challenges faced by those with a sensitive nervous system and created HYNS with them in mind.