How often do you walk to the kitchen and then stop and wonder “what did I want to do here?” Do you sometimes forget what you did the day before, with whom you were, or what you talked about? Are you experiencing burnout and do you find yourself often forgetting small and big things? If this resonates with you, this article teaches you how burnout impacts your brain and memory.
Burnout and the brainDuring an episode of burnout or chronic stress, our brain is metaphorically “burning.” We are overusing it, we are worrying and stressing all day long and do not give it a rest. At some point, our brain burns up and simply cannot take it anymore. So, it decides to switch off and pause. The brain actually sends a message that if you do not slow down and stop, it will take action and stop itself. Scientists have found that burnout impacts several brain areas and cognitive functions; namely, our brain’s fear centre, our executive functions, and our memory.
Fear and the amygdalaAccording to scientific studies, individuals that have been experiencing burnout and stress for a long time present marked changes in their amygdala. The amygdala is a core fear system in our brain which is tasked with processing fearful and threatening stimuli. This brain area is also the one in charge of regulating our fight-or-flight response and our emotions.
Individuals with burnout have been found to possess structural brain abnormalities such as an expanded amygdala. This means that burnt-out individuals are more prone to feeling afraid, stressed, and anxious. They might present dysregulation in their fight-or-flight systems and, therefore, experience even more stress and anxiety. Likewise, if the amygdala is expanded, this leaves less room for other important areas of our brain, such as our memory and cognitive functions.
Memory problems and executive functionsHuman beings are equipped with many executive functions that help us operate in the world. Executive functions are essential and are regulated primarily by the frontal areas of our brain. Some important executive functions include our working memory, attention, self-control and cognitive flexibility. The latter entails the ability to detect mistakes and correct them. Studies have found that individuals with burnout struggle with memory problems and memory loss, due to problematic functioning of the brain areas tasked with regulating our executive functions.
Also, people with decreased cognitive flexibility are not able to spot a mistake and take subsequent corrective actions. This can be tricky, especially during a sensitive period (a.k.a. burnout) where we are trying to change how we deal with failures and foster healthier habits. More alarming, a follow-up study found that people who have recovered from burnout still present executive function problems three years after overcoming burnout, suggesting that our brain needs a lot of time to recover.
Overcoming burnoutOur brain has a great ability for plasticity. That is, it has ingrained tools that help the brain heal itself and recover from setbacks. But, we need to grant it the time to heal and equip it with more helpful tools to recover. We can achieve just this by fostering healthier habits and setting boundaries to achieve a well-balanced life.
When we are burnt out, we tend to focus on one thing: work. However, our brain also wants to have fun, to connect, play, rest, exercise, sleep and sometimes just do nothing. How many of these things do you allow your brain to do? Most of those struggling with burnout neglect these important domains of life, believing that the brain can overcome anything that we impose on it. Sadly, this is not true. We need to allow our brain to recover, to have fun, and to rest.
Overcoming burnout can be a challenging journey. It is not always easy, but it is possible. Recovery depends on many factors and the stage of burnout you are in. Whether you are struggling with work-related burnout, parental burnout, social media burnout, or even compassion fatigue, please remember that you are not alone.