Understanding Burnout

“Oh yeah, that happened to me too. I had to take a 10-day vacation, then I was fine.”

That’s the response I got from the first colleague I told I was burned out.

Another one said, “Yeah, I’m tired too.”

Both of these leaders exhibited common misconceptions about burnout – that’s it’s synonymous with feeling stressed or tired.

But burnout is way more than that.

Burnout is when a 10-day vacation doesn’t leave you feeling “fine.”

Burnout is when no amount of sleep or vacation leaves you feeling rested.

Burnout occurs when prolonged stress and chronic fatigue lead you to a place of complete physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion.

Your gas tank is on “E” and nothing fills it.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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What caught me completely off guard was that just weeks before I crashed, I was feeling the best I had in years. One moment I was soaring higher than I’d ever gone and the next moment I has sinking lower than I’d ever been. How did I go from the highest-of-highs to the lowest-of-lows in just a few short weeks? I couldn’t comprehend. But once I understood what happens physiologically when you burnout, those weeks made perfect sense.*

Serotonin is a powerful neurotransmitter that is essential to some of our body’s major functions. It helps regulate emotions, sleep, appetite, and digestion, among other things. Depression, anxiety, sleep and eating disorders can all be attributed to a serotonin deficiency.

Our bodies use serotonin every day for regulating mood, digesting food, aiding sleep, and basic motor skills. Our nerve cells produce serotonin and make “daily deposits.” When our cells don’t produce enough daily serotonin, we suffer from a deficiency. However, if we regularly withdraw more than has been deposited, our serotonin reserves will eventually be depleted. Once they are depleted, it takes months of daily deposits to restore serotonin levels to normal.

Here’s the kicker: Once your serotonin is depleted, your body starts drawing on adrenaline to perform tasks normally reserved for serotonin. Adrenaline is a “feel-good drug” our body normally produces in short bursts to help us through a brief situation. It’s meant for periodic emergencies, not daily routines. If we keep making daily withdrawals of adrenaline, we will quickly end up depleting it, as well.

That’s when the CRASH happens.

BURNOUT occurs when we have depleted both our serotonin and adrenaline, leaving us feeling physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually drained.

This explains why I was feeling so good just weeks before I crashed. I was “high” on adrenaline! But once it’s gone, it’s gone!

You come crashing down hard and fast.

It’s not unlike a car accident. Your driving along as normal, when suddenly, you get hit head-on. You never saw it coming. And although the accident happened in just seconds, anyone who’s ever survived one will tell you, the recovery takes months, or even years.

See also:

7 Warning Sign You may be Suffering from Burnout

6 Things to do When You’re Burned Out


* I am not a doctor or psychologist. What follows is my own understanding based on conversations with and readings from medical professionals.

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