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Three Early Signs of Burnout & What to Do About Them

March 16, 2023

Burnout has become an increasingly common topic of conversation over the last decade. While being overworked and overwhelmed are nothing new, the digital landscape has made it easier to discuss the issues around doing too much without taking time to recover.

Although we are more likely to recognize burnout as a real issue, many of us still don't recognize the symptoms until we become almost unable to function. If we truly want to combat burnout, we need to learn to recognize it in its earliest stages. 

Let's explore 3 of the most common signs of heading into burnout and what you can do to protect yourself.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a term used to describe extreme mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion that develops due to severe or ongoing stress. 

Burnout can be triggered by a specific part of your life (like work), or it can develop due to the combined pressures of work, school, family life, romantic relationships, and more. 

Is Burnout a Psychological Disorder?

While it’s easy to dismiss burnout as just feeling “a little worn down,” it can be much more serious than that. The World Health Organization doesn’t classify burnout as a stand-alone health condition, but it does consider it as a “factor influencing health status.”

All of this to say that burnout is a syndrome with the potential to make a significant impact on your health. 

Is Burnout the Same as a Nervous Breakdown?

The symptoms of burnout are quite similar to other symptoms that might be experienced in the context of a psychological illness. However, it is not currently recognized as a “medical term” or a formal psychological disorder. 

You might have heard the term “nervous breakdown” and wondered if that is the same as burnout. However, “nervous breakdown” is not a medical term and carries with it a stigmatizing negative connotation. Instead, mental health professionals try to contextualize the symptoms and help people recognize that burnout is very real and can lead to impaired functioning in terms of work, relationships, and quality of life. 

Getting help for burnout may reduce the risk of impaired functioning in the future, which is why learning to recognize burnout symptoms is so important. Recognizing the symptoms early is always preferable and helps us move towards feeling better sooner.   


3 Common Symptoms of Burnout

1. Reduced Productivity & Concentration

When you’re overworked and overwhelmed, you may feel like you’re just spinning your wheels—like you want to check things off your list, but you can’t seem to stay on task or even get started in the first place. 

Research indicates that burnout negatively impacts the way your brain process information, including a set of skills called executive function

The phrase “executive function” describes a set of skills humans rely on to accomplish tasks. These skills include:

  • Impulse control
  • Emotional regulation
  • Working memory
  • Task initiation
  • Planning & time management
  • Organization
  • Mental flexibility
  • Self-monitoring

When these processes don’t work properly, it can be difficult to start tasks, stay focused on tasks, or hit deadlines. 

It’s also worth mentioning that executive function impacts your ability to manage your emotions. People struggling with burnout may often feel irritable or are generally more emotional than they're used to being.

Some people feel compelled to “push through” the symptoms related to these executive function skills. But that push can just contribute to burnout and exacerbate executive function challenges. 

2. Getting Sick More Often

The link between chronic stress and immune function is well documented. In fact, there’s an entire field of study about the interaction of the central nervous and immune systems called psychoneuroimmunology

The chronic stress on your immune system in burnout can make us more vulnerable to developing new, or exacerbating current, physical and/or mental health issues.

Mitigating and preventing burnout is crucial to improving outcomes for your overall health. 

3. Digestive Issues

It’s a common trope in storytelling that stress causes an upset stomach or some other kind of gastrointestinal distress. But that’s not just a gag for comedy or dramatic effect. Science indicates that stress can have a serious impact on your gut and digestive health.

Some common gastrointestinal issues linked to stress, include:

  • Ulcers
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Frequent upset stomach (functional dyspepsia)

These issues can range from being inconvenient to extremely painful. It’s far more effective to prevent these issues before they start than it is to treat them reactively.


You Can Get Support for Burnout

Whether you’re just starting to experience burnout or your symptoms have gotten extreme, it’s never too late to seek help. Different facets of life can trigger burnout for different people, so there isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution. The good news is connecting with a trained professional is always an option.

The right psychologist can help you identify what areas of your life are contributing most to your burnout and help you develop a plan to recover from there.

No matter how subtle or severe your symptoms are, it’s important to remember that you are never alone, and your situation is never hopeless. 

Get the support you need and deserve today.