Avoiding Burnout Syndrome

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This “new” ailment has arisen from the clash that occurs when a survival reaction from ancient days kicks in to combat the accumulated stress of modern times.

One health issue that’s gotten increased attention over the past few years is burnout syndrome. It’s the name for long-term exhaustion and diminished interest.

Those exhibiting this tend to disengage from the actions that provoke this response, which are typically related to work. They also exhibit increased cynicism and withdraw from those around them.

Burnout syndrome may be a modern diagnosis, but the root cause of the problem is a consequence of human evolution. The ways that the cavemen dealt with stress were ideal for their short-term threats, but unsuited for the constant low-level tension and frustration that’s so common today.

The human body evolved to generate a fight-or-flight response to tense situations. If a predator had the caveman in its sights, the responses were either punch it in the nose, run away quickly, or get eaten.

Any hesitation would likely result in Option III being the default, so the adrenal glands activated the adrenaline and cortisol systems.

The body stayed at heightened alertness long enough to exit the situation. It would burn off the excess hormones through the physical nature of the combat or escape and then had a chance to decompress and rebuild before the next head-to-head showdown with a lion or tiger or bear (oh my!).

The problem is that although the response to stress is the same today, the context and frequency are different. Anyone late for a meeting on a Monday morning while dealing with transportation delays, a stuck elevator and a jammed copier reacts the same.

If such situations occur frequently enough—and for a whole lot of people they do, especially at a time when work is so important—the adrenal glands get exhausted, lethargy ensues and disengagement generally occurs.

One way to combat this is to avoid the burnout-causing activities. Taking yourself out of stress-filled situations will give the glands some much needed rest.

Unfortunately, another aspect of modern living is that such avoidance can be very difficult. The bank doesn’t care that someone’s adrenal glands are functioning as designed thousands of years ago; it wants to know why the mortgage isn’t being paid today.

If avoidance is not an option, there are some physical and mental changes that many find helpful. For one, dietary changes, such as eliminating excess sugars and carbohydrates, help the body function at a higher capability.

Also, reducing caffeine can help, particularly if caffeinated drinks such as coffee and soda are replaced with water.

Many have found that eating smaller, more frequent meals instead of the three heartier ones per day is a good way of regulating energy levels. In essense, this is returning to the caveman diet, which is a logical response to solving a caveman problem.

Another important way to train the brain to handle stress better is to learn relaxation techniques, like meditation or focusing on the positive.

The basic idea behind all these countermeasures is to train the body to stop focusing on what’s currently causing stress, so that it can come up with a response that isn’t so counterproductive in the long term.

It’s OK to blame our cave-dwelling ancestors for burnout syndrome. Their bodies were built to respond to their problems, not the ones of today. The key is to employ techniques that can prevent a fight-or-flight response from leading to disengagement and lethargy today.

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