Burnout warning that we have been exerting ourselves for other people's values

Ljubljana, 20 December - A blur line between work and leisure, rapid information flow and pressure for constant growth and connectivity are just some of the characteristics of modern society that bring increasingly many people to the point of complete exhaustion or burnout. According to doctor and psychotherapist Tina Bončina, burnout is a warning that we have been exerting ourselves for other people's values but it is also a chance to make progress in life.

Ljubljana Psychotherapist Tina Bončina. Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Psychotherapist Tina Bončina.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Ljubljana Psychotherapist Tina Bončina. Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Psychotherapist Tina Bončina.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Ljubljana Psychotherapist Tina Bončina. Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Psychotherapist Tina Bončina.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Burnout is a condition of complete exhaustion as a consequence of long-term exposure to chronic stress and is often referred to as the plague of the 21st century. Being a psychosomatic disorder, burnout is caused by psychosomatic factors while its consequences show on the body, in different ways.

Things have to pile up for a long time and treatment also takes long time. Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) does not classify burnout as a disease in its International Classification of Diseases but as a condition this reduces options for treatment.

Noticing that increasingly many people are faced with the disease, that they are in distress not knowing what is happening to them, Bončina decided to write the book Izgorelost: Si Upate Živeti Drugače? (Burnout: Do You Dare to Live Differently?), which was recently issued by Založba Mladinska Knjiga. She hopes it will help people find a link between the psychological reasons for the disease and its physical symptoms, understand what is happening to them, and find a way to a better life.

Bončina stresses that burnout can be cured, it is merely a warning that we have been exerting ourselves for values other than our own, it is a chance to make progress and think about our own values.

"I would like to encourage optimism and that was the purpose of the book - help people see that a stress response is their friend not an enemy, and that burnout is a way to a better life."

The responsibility of the society is to protect individual

At the end of May, the WHO granted burnout the status of a disease but backtracked the very next day, saying a mistake had occurred. Bončina thinks this clearly illustrates how the society will not accept the responsibility for the emergence of a disease.

"We are living in a society in which the system would like to put the blame on individual, say that they are responsible for their condition, and shake off any responsibility. While in the past, society, solidarity, closeness and groups were very important, now we live in an age of individualism, egocentrism and even narcissism," Bončina said.

She is convinced that the society has the responsibility to protect an individual in this system that is forcing them into constant growth, constant presence and constant availability.

Stress is not burnout yet

Every stress response of the body does not mean burnout yet, Benčina explains. Burnout is a disease, while stress is a natural and healthy reaction of the body that allows us to overcome situations that are dangerous to us, that are exhausting and represent an obstacle. The consequence of permanent stress is burnout.

When a person is stressed for a while, our body produces more stress hormones, the most prominent of them being cortisol. This increases the energy capabilities of the body, breathing frequency, raises our blood sugar, makes our heart beat faster, which supplies more blood to the muscles, leaving other body parts behind.

In order to help us save the problem, our brain is focussed only on the problem, while other parts of the brain are left behind such as hippocampus, which is in charge of our memory, and prefrontal cortex, which is the centre for logic and judgement, while amygdala is constantly activated, telling us the whole time that we are in danger.

"As a result we are constantly activated, equipped with energy and focussed on only one thing. Rather than being capable of assessing what is dangerous and what is not, we are making a mountain out of a molehill, think that everything is equally important, which is why we don't know how to tackle the problems that are overwhelming us."

All this leads to a person "who is physically very activated but has very limited cognitive abilities at the same time, which makes them start feeling incompetent", Bončina says. Since they cannot rely on themselves, they are dissatisfied, start complaining, and all this leads to tissue damage, poor response of the immune system, mood swings and plenty of bad habits with which the person tries to offset the negative feelings.

A combination of factors leads to burnout

Initially, burnout was associated with jobs that include contacts with other people, later this was extended to other jobs and also to other aspects of people's lives that are not related to their job.

A combination of factors leads to burnout, but it is clear that "whoever works too much and too eagerly will burn out", Benčina says.

A typical person on their way to burnout is someone who is good at everything, is active and engaged at work and elsewhere, is reliable, always there to help, delivers on their promises, is the best worker. Their friends and family too say that the person is always in a good mood, full of energy and always ready to help."

When such a person becomes ill, it is hard for them to admit that they cannot go on like this, because this was the source of their power. "It is also hard to come back different, not so powerful, and protect your boundaries, and pick your battles in a different way."

Technology can contribute to burnout

The use of technology can contribute to burnout, Bončina says, especially with the group of people that have a strong presence on social media and are strongly connected to their smart phone.

The culture of our society appreciates when someone is available all the time, which is exhausting, but we feel guilty when we allow ourselves to disconnect. Moreover, the information overload creates the fear of missing out, the fear that other people are having a better time than we do. At work, the fear of missing out means we think we have to be informed of everything, involved in everything, fearing we would be left out.

We need to nurture our source of energy

What we can do for our mental health, according to Bončina, is "remind ourselves that we are working to utilise our abilities so that we can have a good time latter, not because we have to, because somebody said so." We should do small things that bring us joy and feed our soul. "We have different roles in life, being an employee is only one of them," Bončina pointed out.

Everyone has an energy tank that needs to be filled or else it is emptied much like a smart phone, Bončina said. But it is up to every individual to find out what is the source of energy for them - it could be sports, family, arts, genuine relationships, tranquillity, countryside etc.

Burnout is stigmatised

More women are turning to Bončina for help with burnout, because women talk about their problems easier and search for help, but Bončina thinks the disease is equally distributed between the sexes.

People have a hard time talking about burnout also because of the stigma that accompanies the disease. A person who experiences burnout is often perceived as weak, which is why those affected by the disease do not want to admit themselves that they cannot go on like this and look for help.

Bončina is stressing in the book how important it is to let go. "To not control everything, but delegate responsibilities, observe, rest, give room to others and enjoy in the fruits of your labour."

The recovery from burnout can take from six months up to five years, but on average it takes a year or two, Bončina said. A person must first face the reality of the disease, find a new way of operation, start implementing it, and then give their body a chance to heal and enjoy the new life.

Bončina advises people who have experienced burnout to seek professional help, first turn to their GP, and then a psychotherapist, physiotherapist and a nutritional therapists. She says a comprehensive treatment is crucial for success.