Learn / Burnout is a Serious Mental Health Condition That May Require Rehab: Here’s Why
Burnout is more than exhaustion. This term gets tossed around a lot—so much that you might not realize it’s a serious mental health issue. People with burnout may feel exhausted and negative, for a longer time than usual.
Stress serves a purpose. In the short term, it keeps us safe from danger. It can also be motivating. But long-term stress leads to burnout, and burnout can damage your health. It can even cause physical side effects. Fortunately, burnout doesn’t have to be permanent. When you reach your limit—or even before then—you can ask for help. And you can even attend residential rehab for burnout.
Burnout is a mental health issue caused by ongoing stress. People with burnout feel chronically tired, apathetic, and detached. Over time, those feelings can get in the way of living a healthy life.
Rates of burnout and stress are on the rise. The WHO now classifies burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.”1 In other words, burnout is a very serious concern,2 but not a disease. The results of a recent survey paint a clear picture:
Scientists measure these feelings with the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI).5 This scale was first developed by psychologist Christina Maslach in 1981. And while the MBI focuses on work-related burnout,6 that’s not the whole picture. “Sometimes the problem of work overload turns out not to be the most important,” Maslach said in an interview with the New York Times. Familial or financial issues can be equally stressful.
Burnout is associated with stress.7 The term usually refers to job-related stress, but not always. More than most other mental health conditions, burnout is a behavioral issue. That doesn’t mean it’s your fault. But it does mean that you can recover by changing your daily habits.
In modern-day “hustle culture,” the pressure to work harder can be overwhelming. And even if you love what you do, working too much can drain the joy right out of your life. But there’s a bright side—burnout doesn’t have to be permanent. With the right treatment, you can find a healthy balance.
Burnout is a complex condition8 that can affect all areas of your life. To get to the root of the issue, you may need to combine a few treatment methods. In rehab, you can start to restructure your life in a healthy way. Your providers may teach you some of the following strategies.
In MBSR, patients use mindfulness techniques to manage stress.9 Mindfulness involves purposeful and nonjudgmental focus on the present moment. In this practice, you might meditate, do yoga, or do focused breathing exercises.
Studies show that mindfulness can treat burnout and improve emotion regulation.10 These practices are a core value in many holistic rehab programs. You can also learn these strategies in several types of therapy. Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) both teach these techniques.
There may be a link between burnout and diet.11 One study found that people with better nutrition were less likely to show signs of burnout. This research is still in its very early stages, but you don’t have to wait to improve your eating habits.
Getting good sleep, exercising, and eating well reduces exhaustion. This lowers your stress levels, and fights the effects of burnout.3 Improving your physical health can also build confidence. And that confidence can empower you to make lasting changes.
If you have a strong community, you’re less likely to burn out. That’s because people with more social support are better at handling stress.12
This is an emotional issue, but it’s also a chemical one. Neurotransmitters play a role in decreasing stress. When you’re around trusted friends and family, your brain releases oxytocin. This hormone has a calming effect. These relationships are crucial for your ongoing mental health.
Healthy socializing can also help you change your behavior. Preliminary research has linked peer accountability with better mental health outcomes.13 One study even linked social support with “gainful employment, housing, and psychiatric stability.”
If you can change your schedule, that’s a great place to start. Research shows that working fewer hours can boost job satisfaction. Of course, not everyone can afford to take time off. But you can still make big changes. And you have the legal right to alter your work habits for the sake of your mental health.14
In the U.S., workers are protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Under their regulations, you have “a legal right to get reasonable accommodations.” For example, you can change your break schedule, get written feedback from your boss, or ask to work from home.
Companies are not required to employ someone who can’t actually do their work. If you can’t lift 50 pounds, you might lose your job at a warehouse. But you can likely ask for time off for recovery. And you don’t have to tell your boss the details. The EEOC recommends saying “that you need a change at work because of a medical condition.”
If you don’t find ways to mitigate stress, burnout will undermine your physical and mental health.3
Burnout often follows a cyclical pattern. It leads to an unhealthy lifestyle, and an unhealthy lifestyle worsens burnout. These are some of the physical effects associated with that spiral:
These symptoms can be very severe. In one 10-year study, burnout predicted industrial workers’ hospital visits. And chronic physical ailments can damage your mental health.15
Burnout can cause long-term mental health issues.3 For example, burnout is commonly associated with depression. According to one study, the two issues can come in cycles. When this happens, a depressive episode predicts burnout, and vice versa. Despite this connection, burnout and depression have very different causes. Specifically, “burnout is job-related and situation-specific,” while depression is “context-free.” The two should be treated as two separate issues, with a complex interplay.
Burnout is also related to higher levels of anxiety.16 Data shows that high anxiety increases emotional exhaustion, which is a primary symptom of burnout. This suggests that burnout and anxiety may have a reciprocal relationship, much like depression and burnout. Anxiety causes burnout, and in turn, burnout causes more anxiety.
There’s a clear neurological reason for this. Both excessive stress and drug abuse can damage the brain’s reward system.18 This makes it hard to feel a sense of achievement. And drug use can seem like a simple way to change that.
Like burnout, addiction is a vicious cycle. Maybe you’re working harder and harder to try and finish your to-do list. Or maybe you’re taking drugs to try and feel better, and then feeling worse instead. In either case, you can only break free by changing your behavior. For many people, inpatient rehab is the best place to start that process.
By definition, burnout is overwhelming. And the idea of recovery might feel like yet another burden. But healing can be joyful. With the right treatment, you can learn how to live a fulfilling and sustainable life.
After chronic stress, rehab can be a welcome respite. Break free of this stressful cycle by connecting with a treatment center. Visit our directory of burnout recovery programs to learn about their amenities, specialties, available types of treatment, and more.
Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod
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