Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m exhausted”, or “I’m dead tired”? This is often how people unknowingly express the sensation of burnout. It’s widely known that burnout is closely linked with stress, but it is much more than just being tired and it is often the case that the seriousness of burnout is overlooked.

But what are the different kinds of stress in relation to burnout? What are the early warning signs of burnout we need to spot? What are the five distinct phases of burnout? And is it time we revaluate what we deem success to mean in our modern world?

+ vs. –

There are two types of stress: positive and negative. Most know and have a basic understanding of negative stress, or distress, through being intimately familiar with our own primitive fight or flight reaction mechanism. When some kind of event is perceived as overwhelming and impossible to “win” our subconscious chooses to mobilize the body to flight mode – this is what is often called “negative” stress. When a person relies on their inner autopilot to live, then the subconscious is in charge of decisions. Subconscious is a substitute driving mechanism until a person starts to deliberately apply awareness. Until that transition is made, the secondary mechanism (the subconscious) “decides”. Its utmost task is to keep the physical organism alive and it fulfills that task by activating automatic reactions. One of these reactions is fleeing the situation – all living beings are equipped with this primitive “solution”. Negative stress can cause a decrease in our performance and prolonged suffering can lead to physical and mental health problems.

While if we perceive a situation to be under our control or we see it as an interesting challenge or exciting opportunity to develop ourselves further, this leads to mobilizing the body via “fight” mode – this is what is meant by positive stress. It motivates and compels us to cross perceived boundaries and exit our comfort zones to better our lives. It is highly exhausting and creates a pleasant association between the adrenaline rush and achievement, leading to an addiction to adrenaline on top of depleting the adrenal glands.

Fight and flight reactions are both a last resort option for the subconscious to keep an organism alive. But humans differ from other living beings in one highly unique aspect – humans have the potential to use their awareness and consciousness deliberately and at will. From the perspective of this potential, the subconscious is seen as a secondary substitute, functioning based on automation. A person who starts to apply more of their awareness diminishes their tendency to rely on autopilot and is presented with many other, more advanced and healthier options to regulate life than only “fight” or “flight”.

Early Warning Signs

Positive stress is a double-edged sword. It releases energy for you to float high on the tides of life, but can just as quickly turn against you. The most dangerous aspect to this is the fact that we are often unable to make a “pit stop” because it feels likes “everything is going so well”.

Noticing new or unusual patterns of behavior in yourself, a friend, a loved one, a work colleague, or even your boss, can make all the difference in spotting burnout in order to take the necessary action and prevent its escalation.

Examples of early signs include an increase in consumption in things like alcohol, caffeine, or cigarettes. Uncharacteristic behaviors might emerge, drinking or taking recreational drugs, gambling or unnecessary exposure to high risk or dangerous situations. All of these signs are subconscious compensative mechanisms and need to be taken seriously. They can also be interpreted as cries for help that may not be so obvious to the person going through them. When you are feeling really good and “going at high speed” reminders about pit stops are often unwelcome and ignored.

Burnout symptoms include, but are not limited to fatigue that is not cured by taking a vacation or having quality downtime, sleep difficulties or insomnia, back pains, headaches and aching joints that don’t seem to go away. Agitation, anger, anxiety, dissatisfaction, hopelessness or even apathy with things that used to bring joy, are all symptoms, as well as the low mood that has lasted for longer than two weeks. Depression related to loss, loss of energy, or self-esteem, ability to function, etc. all have to do with more frequent sub-threshold signals of adrenaline and energy depletion. Weakened immune system or frequent illnesses are directly linked to the stress hormone cortisol, an immune-suppressant, being constantly released and results in the need for time off work.

A study conducted by Kronos Incorporated and Future Workplace, as a part of their Employee Engagement Series, found 95 percent of human resource leaders say employee burnout impairs their workforce retention rates, admitting there is no obvious current solution to the problem.

The Five Phases of Burnout

Burnout doesn’t just happen overnight, it has five distinctive phases. Phase one; the so-called “honeymoon” stage where you are functioning under the constant flow of positive stress and are content with yourself. As long as this is under control and you take regular downtime to relax, then positive stress can be seen as a good thing.

The flip side of this is the “fireworks” phase. Because you haven’t been looking after yourself and you push to be ever more competitive, not relaxing regularly, and not getting enough quality sleep, etc. consumerist compulsive behaviors emerge. Increased alcohol consumption, comfort eating, compulsive shopping, smoking, reckless behavior, etc. You become sensitive to criticism, and snappy, more nervous and irritable. Put plainly, you aren’t very nice to be around anymore.

The third phase sees the chronic symptoms setting in. You can’t stop; you’re tired, but you can’t sleep. You want peace but constantly experience conflict. These are the first signs that illnesses caused by long-lasting stress are beginning to take root. Bursts of anger become frequent which further drains you emotionally, allowing chronic fatigue to set in. Previous chronic health issues intensify – allergies, intolerances, headaches and so on.

Phase four is the crisis phase. Deep pessimism, lowered self-esteem, further weakening of the immune system causes even more physical problems including digestive pains and heart problems. This is serious. Something needs to be done before it’s too late.

The final phase, burnout. You are totally exhausted in every sense of the word, physically, emotionally and mentally. You have nothing left. It goes far beyond merely a bad mood; it has now become impossible for you to get out of the bed or to take care of yourself. This phase sees a deep and continuous state of depression take hold. In this phase, it is quite common to experience suicidal thoughts. The Journal of Clinical Psychology has stated that the overlap between burnout and depression is a staggering 86 percent. This means that a large number of depression cases in modern society are primed by burnout and the seemingly innocent positive stress.

Success: Time for a Rethink?

Society often measures success in terms of money, possessions, power, influence, and prestige. This is a much too narrow spectrum that reflects competitive priorities. Of course, these things are important and valuable, but they should not be the only criteria when it comes to measuring success. Real success is hidden in the ability to broaden our horizons of happiness and fulfillment. Nobody would give up his or her ambitions or chances of a successful career in order to avoid burnout because the main issue is not about being overly physically active, but about having a solid strategy when it comes to racing and “pit stop” modes between emotional arousal and a sense of relaxed peacefulness.

Therefore the inner balance for better harmony is not so different from the success strategies of Formula One drives or top-level athletes. It all comes down to a prolonged inner strategy for success in its wider definition and depends on the skills to manage inner states and reactions.