Our Brain in Burnout

It’s easy to convince yourself that you can push through the physical symptoms that accompany burnout, whether you’re a busy mom or entrepreneur. With people relying on us and endless problems to solve, many of us feel we don’t have the time or space to pause and deal with our stress and exhaustion. Of course, long vacations and less intense schedules would be nice, but many of us endure until the significant effects of not managing our stress affect our bodies, including our brains.


Burnout, often thought of as an emotional or mental condition, certainly has emotional and mental effects on our brains and body. But all that we feel or think comes from our brain, so mood swings, foggy thinking, or an extra quick temper are all reflected in the physical functioning of the brain somewhere. Research shows that those brain changes are anything but minor when it comes to burnout.

Recent research out of Sweden compared 40 study subjects who all had worked more than 60 hours a week for multiple years and received a formal diagnosis of burnout with a matched control group of people with the same demographic profile who weren’t suffering from burnout.

Tests revealed that the burned-out volunteers were much worse at controlling or suppressing negative emotions. That was no surprise. Overreacting and a tendency toward negativity are classic symptoms of burnout. What may be more surprising is what the researchers observed when they conducted brain scans of the two groups.

“The two groups showed key differences in the amygdala — a brain structure critical in emotional reactions including fear and aggression. Participants in the burnout group had relatively enlarged amygdalae. Also, they appeared to have significantly weaker connections between the amygdala and brain areas linked to emotional distress, specifically the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The more stressed an individual reported feeling, the weaker the connectivity between these brain regions appeared on the R-fMRI,” reports the Association for Psychological Science. The burnout sufferers also had weaker connections between the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in executive function or the ability to stifle impulses, make long-term plans, and control our behavior to carry them out.

Translated into everyday language, the amygdala, which works like your brain’s alarm system – responsible for signaling when there’s something in your environment you need to be upset about – is overactive. Meanwhile, our logic, perspective, and coping mechanisms, which counteract the amygdala, are weakened. It’s as if an emergency siren keeps blaring for every little thing, and the off switch is sticky.

Unsurprisingly, that’s not just deeply unpleasant but bad for performance. An independent research review that looked at 15 high-quality studies on the cognitive effects of burnout found “executive attentional and memory systems appear to suffer in association with burnout, and cognitive functioning is impaired in burned-out individuals,” APS also notes. Burnout officially does a number on your brain.

Can your brain recover from burnout? Absolutely! But you must take action and DO SOMETHING to start the process. You can send an email, message, or DM me with questions about how to reverse the effects of burnout.


How Burnout Physically Changes Your Brain (It’s Not Pretty) – Sukha Wellness Institute. https://sukhawellnessinstitute.com/how-burnout-physically-changes-your-brain-its-not-pretty/


Burnout and the Brain – Association for Psychological Science – APS. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/burnout-and-the-brain

5 Ways To Adjust Your Work Style To Be Productive In A Hybrid Office. https://nickwolny.com/hybrid-work-tips/

Some information was gathered from INC.com.

Dr. Kimberly VanBuren

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