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May 31, 2022

Chronic stress can often lead to burnout, but there are effective ways to manage it

Staying active, disconnecting from electronics and carving out time for self-care can help you feel in control, experts say

Mental Health Stress
Burnout and your health Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Burnout is a condition that can develop if stress becomes chronic and is left untreated.

Stress is a normal part of life and can even be positive in certain circumstances, like helping you meet a deadline at school or work. However, too much stress can be detrimental to both physical and mental health. 

When stress is left untreated, it can lead to a serious condition called burnout, which can cause depression and feelings of hopelessness. So, how do you know when you are heading towards total burnout? Here is what the experts say.

Stress causes a person's central nervous system to feel overwhelmed and can come on suddenly from physical, mental, emotional or relational factors. It could be a demanding job promotion, financial difficulties or the declining health of a loved one.

Cortisol – the "fight-or-flight" hormone – plays an important role in how the body reacts to stress. High levels of cortisol and other stress hormones are known to raise the risk of depression, anxiety and heart disease, and can cause digestive problems, headaches, memory problems and weight gain, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The most common signs of stress include physical symptoms such as muscle tension, jaw clenching, fatigue, headaches and restlessness, as well as emotional symptoms like feeling overwhelmed, becoming more emotionally reactive, having racing thoughts and experiencing forgetfulness and difficulties with problem-solving.

People under a lot of stress may have trouble sleeping, either eat less or more and have sexual difficulties. They are also at a higher risk for substance abuse.

Siobhan Flowers, a member of the American Counseling Association who specializes in stress management, explains that in most cases, stress is temporary and once the source of the stress is removed the symptoms will lessen.

Burnout is a condition that can develop if stress becomes chronic and is left untreated. When you are stressed, you may be feeling overwhelmed, but when experiencing burnout, you feel completely depleted. Healthcare workers have particularly been facing burnout since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to crowded hospital conditions and the tragic suffering and loss of many of their patients.

Burnout in the workplace manifests itself as exhaustion, cynicism and poor performance, according to verywell mind. Many of the symptoms of chronic stress are also intensified. However, you can experience burnout in other parts of your life as well.

Burnout may also lead to forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating, trouble maintaining relationships and feeling easily frustrated and irritable. Many of the physical symptoms of stress are also the same, including muscle tension, pain, fatigue and insomnia.

When not managed properly, burnout symptoms can prevent you from enjoying the people and activities you usually love and impact your job performance. It also increases your risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, depression and suicide.

Mental health experts say the best way to manage stress is to stay active, disconnect from electronics and carve out time for loved ones and self-care, such as taking a long bath, eating healthier or taking up yoga or meditation.

If you feel you are in danger of developing burnout, a counselor or therapist can help you identify the most serious stressors and ways to manage them.

With burnout, it is especially important to prioritize all the responsibilities you are juggling at work and at home and delegate where possible. 

If work is your main stressor, try for more work-life balance and leave work at work. Be firm about your needs and set boundaries about what people can and cannot expect from you. Being open to a new job or career change should also be considered if that's what is best for your health, experts suggest.

Never be afraid to ask for help. The goal should not be to eliminate stress completely but to feel comfortable and confident enough to manage stressors in a healthy way. The less control you feel, the more stressed you will be.

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