Preventing Burnout For Brain Health

Burnout can result from over-exerting the brain and over-training. Here we review the basis of stress and burnout, and give advice on preventing burnout or brain health.


What is Stress?

Stressors come in the form of monthly bills, job insecurity, relationship problems, project deadlines, traffic jams, family commitments, and countless other pressures. And many of these stressors are not temporary – they seem to keep coming back again and again.

As a result, many people are chronically locked-in to the ‘fight-or-flight’ phase of the body’s natural stress response cycle. Because this response cycle does not have an opportunity to run its course and return to ‘relax and recovery’,  people’s stress hormones remain continuously elevated.


What is Burnout?

The ongoing elevation of stress hormones with chronic stressors  slowly leads people down the path to loss of vigor, anxiety, frustration, helplessness, low immunity and toward poor long-term health. This may culminate in loss of functionality at work and even a ‘nervous breakdown’ with panic attacks, severe insomnia and loss of functionality in life more generally.


Where Burnout Happens: The Autonomic Nervous System

The stress response begins in the brain (see illustration). When someone confronts an oncoming car or other danger, the eyes or ears (or both) send the information to the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. The amygdala interprets the images and sounds. When it perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.


illustration of brain showing areas activated by stress

When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.


The hypothalamus is a bit like a command center. This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls such involuntary body functions as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and small airways in the lungs called bronchioles. The autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes the “rest and digest” response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.

After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As epinephrine circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes. The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.


Burnout and the Parasympathetic Nervous System



All of these changes happen so quickly that people aren’t aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain’s visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That’s why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.

As the initial surge of epinephrine subsides, the hypothalamus activates the second component of the stress response system — known as the HPA axis. This network consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.

The HPA axis relies on a series of hormonal signals to keep the sympathetic nervous system — the “gas pedal” — pressed down. If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which travels to the pituitary gland, triggering the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone travels to the adrenal glands, prompting them to release cortisol. The body thus stays revved up and on high alert. When the threat passes, cortisol levels fall. The parasympathetic nervous system — the “brake” — then dampens the stress response.


Burnout and the Adaptive Cellular Stress Response

The adaptive cellular stress response is something that we want to harness for improved brain health and performance, as well as increased health, longevity and resilience in general. However, if the hormesis response (reviewed here) overshoots then chronic stress and burnout can result – precisely the opposite of what you want by tapping this response.



Preventing burnout

Hormesis response and preventing burnout



Preventing Burnout

General principles for preventing burnout for brain health include the following: