People have been experiencing burnout for ages, but the first research papers on the stress-induced state started to appear around the 1970s and 1980s from two pioneering psychologists and researchers, Dr. Herbert Freudenberger and Dr. Christina Maslach. Their articles and books made burnout a household term.
New research has continued to look at its effects, specifically on the brain. In Sweden, Armita Golkar and a team of psychological scientists studied participants who had been formally diagnosed with burnout. They compared MRIs between this group and a control group of healthy volunteers with no history of chronic stress or other illnesses. Their findings showed that workplace burnout can alter neural circuits and structure, “ultimately causing a vicious cycle of neurological dysfunction.”
How Burnout Changes Your Brain
People in the burnout group had more difficulty controlling their strong negative emotional responses, which could be explained by a relatively enlarged amygdala in their brains. The amygdala is the older part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions including fear and aggression. This same research also showed that the burnout group had weaker connections between some brain regions. Another study showed that long-term work stress was linked with reduced gray-matter in the brain, which interestingly is the matter that increases with consistent meditation.
Burnout Impairs Cognitive Function
In addition, recent research suggests that being burned out can affect people’s cognitive function. Impaired creativity, problem solving, attention and memory were all noticed. In Greece, a team of psychological scientists reviewed 15 different burnout studies and found that in 13 of the 15, burnout was associated with cognitive deficit.
Serious Health Effects
Lastly, there is research that shows effects on the neuroendocrine system. Due to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, the cardiovascular system, immune system, and memory can all suffer.
Can These Effects Be Reversed?
All of this research demonstrates how important it is to take steps to reduce stress as soon as possible. One big silver lining is that these effects seem to be reversible, based on research so far. Our brains have the ability to recover, change, and form new connections due to neuroplasticity. So, if you’re feeling burned out, don’t give up hope. The first step is just recognizing when you’re there.