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Cortisol and Burnout

How Chronic Stress Leads to Total Exhaustion

Cortisol and Burnout

How Chronic Stress Leads to Total Exhaustion

We all know how it feels to be stressed. Stress, after all, is part of our everyday lives. It’s that feeling we get whenever we face a new demand and our body goes into high alert. It’s why we often think of stressed people as tense or on edge.

But did you know that overstressed people don’t always appear wired? In fact, sometimes they seem tired, detached. They may struggle to get up in the morning or feel apathetic about things they once loved.

Those are still symptoms of stress, but they speak to a dangerous brand of chronic stress called burnout. And unfortunately, burnout is becoming more and more prevalent. In fact, Indeed surveyed 1,500 U.S. workers in 2021, and 52% admitted to feeling symptoms. Simply put: People are overstressed. A chemical storm is raging in their bodies, sending the main stress hormone cortisol flooding into their bloodstream. And over time, it’s damaging their health.

So what is burnout, why is it so dangerous and what can you do to avoid it?

The Dangers of Burnout

First, it needs to be said: There’s no shame in being concerned about burnout. The World Health Organization (WHO) labeled stress “the health epidemic of the 21st century.” It’s everywhere. And while burnout is often associated with the “helping” professions (like doctors or nurses) or parenting, it can affect anyone struggling with chronic stress.

Surprisingly, experts don’t completely agree on what causes burnout. Or even how they should define it. But generally, burnout is accepted as a form of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion.

The WHO defines burnout as chronic stress that has not been successfully managed. The three main symptoms are:

1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion. That could include:

  • Insomnia.

  • Chronic fatigue.

  • Increased illnesses, such as colds.

2. Increased mental distance from one's role or feeling negative toward it. That could include:

  • Depression or general feelings of hopelessness.

  • Increased anxiety, cynicism or anger.

  • Apathy or detachment.

3. Reduced effectiveness. That could include:

  • Decreased motivation and productivity.

  • Trouble focusing.

  • Sense of failure and self-doubt.

There are a wide range of symptoms that fall into these categories, and it varies from person to person. So what’s happening in our bodies that’s causing all this?

The Hormone Behind Chronic Stress

In the end, burnout is a severe form of chronic stress. That’s important because chronic stress causes a key hormone, cortisol, to surge in your body. And that plays a critical role in your health. Cortisol regulates vital functions, such as sleep, digestion and your immune system. As part of your body’s flight-or-fight-or-freeze response, it also keeps you alert and ready to face threats. That’s why we produce more when stressed.

Cortisol also regulates your sleep-wake cycle, waking you up when levels naturally increase every morning and allowing you to fall (and stay) asleep when levels drop at night. This is where we find a connection to burnout symptoms. See, when chronic stress elevates your cortisol levels, your sleep is put at risk. Suddenly, you might toss and turn at night, or you might not sleep at all.

In fact, one study of 2,316 people revealed that those suffering from a higher number of stressful incidents were at a significantly higher risk of insomnia. Sleeplessness can then lead to a host of issues, including fatigue, mood swings and lack of focus.

But sleep isn’t the only casualty. Chronic stress has also been linked to brain shrinkage and memory loss. In one study, high cortisol levels were linked to smaller total brain volumes, changes in the brain white matter, and substandard performance on some memory and cognitive assignments. In another study, researchers looked at 1,225 individuals and found those with higher cortisol levels had a more difficult time remembering specific events.

Clearly, cortisol plays a vital role in our body’s chemistry. Because of this, chronically high levels can affect a number of different important functions. And it fuels the mental, emotional and physical exhaustion that comes with burnout. With that in mind, we need to address something called adrenal fatigue.

What to Know About Adrenal Fatigue

You may have heard of the term adrenal fatigue, which was used for some time in natural medicine to refer to the adrenals “burning out” from producing too much cortisol. The more accurate term is HPA axis dysfunction. The HPA, or “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal” axis, represents your central stress response system. When there’s a dysfunction anywhere along this axis, it causes hormone imbalances and symptoms.

In actuality, your body doesn’t ever “burn” out or run out of hormones. It’s much more complex than that. If the system is constantly pumping out cortisol, even when threats are minor, the system gets desensitized to the stress signals. The result is a stress response that isn’t functioning properly. And that's when burnout symptoms can develop. That’s why it’s crucial to interrupt the cycle of stress and put your health back on track.

Reduce Stress and Prevent Burnout

The most obvious way to prevent burnout is to remove the stressor. To run far away from the issue that’s overloading your system. However, let’s be honest. Most of us can’t do that. At least not right away.

Most of our stress is tied to things we associate with long-term stability: our jobs, our health, our finances, our relationships. We worry about these issues because conflicts there threaten our safety. So what should you do when you have to meet your stress head-on?

  1. First, acknowledge that you’re stressed. That’s, perhaps, the most important step.

  2. Next, pinpoint the source of your stress.

  3. Then talk about it with someone. Reach out to friends or family. Or seek professional help by consulting your general physician or a therapist.

All of that can help get you on the road to recovery. There are also a number of small lifestyle changes you can start making today that will reduce your cortisol levels immediately. Read about scientifically backed stress-reduction techniques here.

Before you go, we have one more question for you: How can we get better? Here at, our goal is to gather the best information to help you understand the science of stress. If you think we missed anything in our research, please let us know. You can reach us here.

Related Research:

This article has been Medically Reviewed by Ioana A. Bina, M.D., Ph.D.

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Jessica Cohn-Kleinberg

Written by

Jessica Cohn-Kleinberg

Written on:

November 29, 2021 at 10:54:54 PM


February 1, 2022 at 10:16:49 AM

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