An increasingly common phenomenon seems to be people who are experiencing complete burnout. They are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, and often unable to deal with even the smallest difficulties on a daily basis. The burnout is often accompanied by physical ailments and some symptoms of depression.
How does this occur? Just as people develop degenerative diseases over a period of time, and there are generally lots of warning signs along the way, people develop burn-out over an extended period of time, with lots of signals that things should change.
Dr. Hans Selye, M.D., originally wrote about a process called General Adaptation Syndrome in the 1930’s, describing how the body adapts and changes in response to stress in stages.
Stage 1 is the alarm reaction, which consists of reacting immediately to a stressor.
This reaction is generally known as the fight or flight response, and is appropriate when there is an immediate threat to safety. When people live in a state of constant stress, however, the body is often weakened. Signs that this may be occurring include alternating periods of feeling hyped up and tired; trouble falling asleep, immune suppression resulting in more frequent illness, headaches, general aches and pains, and gastrointestinal irregularities.
Stage 2 involves resistance followed by adaptation.
When stress continues, the body is forced to adapt in order to survive. The body figures out how to deal with increased levels of stress hormones without incurring damage, and the symptoms described in stage one may actually start to go away. People then conclude that they are actually doing quite well in spite of the stress, and feel like they can continue on with the status quo
Stage 3 is exhaustion.
The body’s resistance to the stress may gradually be reduced, or the body may collapse quickly. Symptoms of stage one may return with increased severity, with the addition of other symptoms such as irritability, weight gain, low sex drive, high blood pressure and heart palpitations. Adrenal burnout is common at this stage, and is characterized by fatigue, falling asleep easily with difficulty staying asleep, hormonal imbalances, and other symptoms. The HPA axis is a signaling system involving the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. The hypothalamus continually evaluates the status of hormone and organ function and directs the release of hormones. When the adrenal glands cannot respond, the system breaks down and the thyroid, digestive system, blood sugar and sex hormone regulation are all impaired.
Resolving burnout and adrenal exhaustion requires time and effort, and a willingness to examine many aspects of diet and lifestyle. Of course, dietary excellence and optimal habits are important. The elimination of sugar and caffeine are important, as many exhausted, burned-out people have managed to keep themselves going at top speed with artificial stimulation. This creates many problems, including an inability to determine when rest and sleep are needed, continual damage to the adrenal glands through constant stimulation, and an inability to experience quality sleep. Additionally, the individual must be open to changing many things, ranging from the way in which many circumstances are viewed (an effective way to do this is through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to life circumstances (changing jobs, ending damaging relationships, etc.).
Dr. Selye recommended an approach to stress that he described as “living wisely in accordance with natural laws.” In his book The Stress of Life (1956), he discussed the following as important aspects of living well and reducing stress:
- Adopting an attitude of gratitude toward life rather than seeking revenge for injuries or slights.
- Acting toward others from altruistic rather than self-centered motives.
- Retaining a capacity for wonder and delight in the genuinely good and beautiful things in life.
- Finding a purpose for one’s life and expressing one’s individuality in fulfilling that purpose.
- Keeping a healthy sense of modesty about one’s goals or achievements.
Changes in diet, lifestyle, attitude, and other aspects of life will almost always result in restoration of the adrenal glands and overall health. In a minority of cases, additional treatment in the form of herbal or homeopathic remedies may be required, but the use of these products should be reserved for those situations in which diet, lifestyle, therapy and life change have not completely resolved the problem.
Take a look at your own life and perform a quick evaluation to determine if you are experiencing some stage of exhaustion or burnout, and begin to make appropriate changes before your body completely breaks down.