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What is a Burnout?

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An affliction of our modern world

Burnout has become a bit of a buzzword in today's world.


To the point that it, as with every buzzword, is raising suspicion from many people. Some of the concerns that I hear:

How can everyone suddenly be suffering from a burnout?

People today are weak or too sensitive.

Isn't a burnout the same thing as depression?

Is burnout even a real medical condition?

We live in a an uncertain, ambiguous, fast-changing and 'constantly-on' world. This is activating our stress response constantly. Many of us are chronically 'triggered' by what life throws at us. Our education system teaches us Math and Biology and History, but it does not teach us how to deal with stress and uncertainty and emotions. And this is a real shame.

Burnout is real. It is not a made-up concept by weak and overly sensitive people. It is the product of a modern world that has just become too fast, too loud and too uncertain for many.

Chronic stress leads to burnout

A burnout can be defined as a 'a state of complete emotional and physical exhaustion brought on by stress.'


A burnout is the logical progression to chronic stress and constant nervous system over-activation.


Occasionally, it can also be brought on by a traumatic one-off event.


But normally, it is the result of a chronic assault on the nervous system that results in your body deciding to 'shut down'.


This is a safety mechanism designed to 'protect' you.

It may sound strange to think that our body is trying to protect us when we feel so poorly, but a burnout is indeed a signal and a chance to remedy an unhealthy situation.

A message from your body

While stress can sometimes be positive, chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system results in all kinds of serious health issues.


A burnout is also a very serious condition. But my opinion is that this shutdown state is your body/immune system telling you that 'you have one more chance to correct your situation'.


Thus, even though it is very difficult to do so when experiencing suffering, try to look at this situation as your body working with you, rather than against you. 

I have often been in this situation. My body was sending me all kinds of messages but I was too pre-occupied with 'fixing my symptoms' that I could not understand what my body was telling me. When we focus on the symptoms, we are not truly listening. We are only in 'fixing' mode, and we usually try to do this with our head, rationally and cognitively. Sometimes, it works. Often, it does not.


Your body wants you to listen. There is a message for you.

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Is a Burnout only work related?

Yes, according to a statement by the World Health Organisation in 2019:

Burn-out is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition.


“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and

  • reduced professional efficacy.'


Despite the message from WHO, I believe that one can also experience a 'life burnout'.


There are countless examples of people, and I am one of them, who experienced a burnout as a result of a life crisis.


Work may have played a role, but it is not the only factor in these situations.

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Am I at risk?

It depends.


It depends on your personality and on the triggers in your life and work. Each person is different.


Each person's internal landscape and external triggers are different. One person will react differently to a stressful situation than another.


There are three different categories that impact your ability to deal with stress and to avoid or manage a burnout:

  • Your personal history, beliefs and nervous system sensitivity

  • Your resources such as your values, how much support you have and how connected you are with others in your life, and your overall health

  • The intensity and regularity of your external life and work triggers

Venn Diagram of Stress & burnout Model
Burnout Coach Eric Mahleb

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