Spotting the Signs and Healing From Burnout

a relaxing beach, symbolising healing from burnout

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress or excessive workload, particularly in professional or caregiving roles. It causes feelings of cynicism and detachment, which can lead to intense overwhelm and a sense of feeling depleted.

Burnout manifests as fatigue, reduced motivation, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and physical pain. It often results from chronic workplace stress, but it can also occur in other areas of life where there is a persistent imbalance between demands and resources. If left unaddressed, burnout can significantly impact a person’s health, job or academic performance, and overall well-being.[1]

Feeling burnt out can cause physical and mental health issues such as fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and a weakened immune system. It’s therefore important to address burnout promptly, through treatment approaches that recognise the chronic dysregulation that burnout can cause. Approaches that offer strategies for coping, address the root cause, and consider the need to stimulate the parasympathetic or sympathetic nervous system – depending on the stage and presenting symptoms – are most effective for long-term healing.

What Are The Signs of Burnout?

Burnout can manifest in many ways, often depending on the cause. Ranging from physical symptoms to psychological or neurological challenges, the signs and symptoms affect all areas of life. For many, these symptoms develop gradually, against a backdrop of chaos and stress, making it difficult to recognise the change and general decline in well-being.

To stay alert to burnout in yourself and others, know these common signs:

Persistent exhaustion and fatigue

Individuals experiencing burnout often feel constantly drained, both physically and mentally, despite getting adequate rest. This exhaustion may persist even after a good night’s sleep or a weekend off.

Decreased performance and productivity

Burnout can lead to a notable decline in work performance and productivity. Once manageable tasks may become increasingly challenging to complete, and there may be a noticeable drop in the quality of work produced.

Increased cynicism and detachment

A sense of detachment and cynicism towards work, colleagues, or clients may develop. This can manifest as feelings of apathy, pessimism, or resentment towards one’s job or responsibilities.

Emotional instability, irritability, or mood swings

Burnout often accompanies emotional instability, causing individuals to experience frequent mood swings, irritability, or outbursts of frustration. Small stressors may provoke disproportionately strong emotional reactions.

Cognitive difficulties, such as concentration problem

Burnout can impair cognitive function, making it difficult to concentrate, stay focused, or make decisions. Memory problems and a decreased ability to process information may also occur.

Physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension, or gastrointestinal issues

The physical toll of burnout may manifest as frequent headaches, muscle tension, digestive problems, or other somatic complaints.

Withdrawal from responsibilities or social interactions

Burnout may lead individuals to withdraw from work responsibilities or social interactions, preferring isolation over engagement with others.

Loss of enjoyment in previously pleasurable activities

Once enjoyable Activities may no longer bring pleasure or satisfaction. Hobbies, interests, or leisure pursuits may feel burdensome or unfulfilling.

Increased reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms

Individuals experiencing burnout may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as excessive drinking, drug use, or overeating to numb their emotions or alleviate stress.

Insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns

Burnout can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, or waking up frequently throughout the night.

Neglecting personal needs or self-care

As burnout progresses, individuals may neglect their personal needs or self-care routines, sacrificing exercise, proper nutrition, or relaxation activities in favour of work or other obligations.

Chronic feelings of overwhelm or hopelessness

Burnout is often accompanied by a pervasive sense of overwhelm, helplessness, or hopelessness. Tasks and challenges may seem insurmountable, leading to a loss of motivation and drive.

Chronic Dysregulation and Burnout

Chronic dysregulation and burnout are often interlinked. The same situations that cause burnout can also cause chronic dysregulation. Moreover, people who have experienced instability and high stress in their early lives may find themselves drawn to situations that feel similar, or activate the nervous system in the same way.

Chronic dysregulation refers to a prolonged state of physiological and psychological imbalance, typically resulting from sustained exposure to stressors. This dysregulation disrupts the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, and cognitive impairment.[2]

Burnout, on the other hand, is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It is characterised by feelings of cynicism, detachment, and reduced effectiveness in one’s work or personal life. Chronic dysregulation can significantly contribute to burnout, as the prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems can deplete resources and resilience over time.

Dealing with one often requires addressing the other. Recovering from burnout linked to dysregulation can be supported by Polyvagal Theory-informed therapy, which focuses on understanding the body’s autonomic nervous system responses to stress and trauma. By fostering awareness of physiological cues and regulating these responses, individuals can learn to restore balance and resilience.

Polyvagal-informed therapy offers techniques such as breathwork, mindfulness, and somatic experiencing to help regulate the nervous system and promote self-regulation. Through this approach, individuals can gradually reconnect with themselves, build coping strategies, and cultivate a sense of safety and well-being. It emphasises empowerment and self-compassion, guiding individuals towards healing and recovery from burnout caused by chronic dysregulation.

Coping With Burnout: The Importance Of Boundaries

Personal boundaries, which define what is acceptable and unacceptable within relationships, are essential for safeguarding our well-being and promoting healthy interactions. They establish a framework for personal autonomy, protecting physical, emotional, and psychological safety. By ensuring that our needs and values are respected, boundaries facilitate effective communication of our needs and desires while fostering mutual respect.

For those who have experienced trauma, boundaries play a crucial role in maintaining balance, helping survivors take the steps necessary to avoid nervous system dysregulation in day-to-day interaction.


[1] Correia, I., Romão, Â., Almeida, A. E., & Ramos, S. (2023). Protecting Police Officers Against Burnout: Overcoming a Fragmented Research Field. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 38(3), 622–638.

[2] Kanthak, M. K., Stalder, T., Hill, L. K., Thayer, J. F., Penz, M., & Kirschbaum, C. (2017). Autonomic dysregulation in burnout and depression: evidence for the central role of exhaustion. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 43(5), 475–484.

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