Our Emotions and The Three Stages of Burnout  

Have you ever felt burnt out? Not tired, but emotionally and physically spent? It happens to the best of us, but it can be a sobering experience when we reach our limits and become exhausted.

The thing is, burnout is real. And so is the damage it causes to our bodies.

We know it happens because of chronic stress.

You see, our bodies have a natural response to stress, or threat, and it’s damn effective. It’s that infamous fight-or-flight scenario we’re all familiar with: we see a bear ( or that family member we don’t like) and if we register it as a threat, the alarm goes off: adrenaline kicks in, giving us that elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and energy, while cortisol pumps our bloodstream with sugars and improves our brain’s use of glucose and boosts tissue-repairing substances. The goal? To run like hell.

But what many of us might not know is that during that alarm stage, cortisol also works to curb some of our main body functions so that we can put all of our energy into running away from that threat. Our digestive system, reproductive system, and our growth processes all shut down for our own good.

In a recent Zura Health podcast, Kylie interviews functional health practitioner Dr. Christopher Motley, who goes into detail about what happens to our bodies before and during a burnout as well as all the emotions we experience during this experience.  

If you haven’t heard the podcast yet, I recommend listening to it now, and then coming back for a deeper look into these three stages.

Three Stages of Burnout

Stage 1: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The first stage of burnout is after the initial fight-or-flight scenario, when we’ve essentially told our bodies we are staying with the bear. Kind of crazy, right? (More about why that happens in the podcast). In this stage, the body is in a constant state of alarm and produces high cortisol levels. For the most part, people in this first stage feel stressed even when they are not in a stressful situation and often describe feeling wired.

Common symptoms during the first stage include anxiety, low immunity, insomnia, and restlessness. I consider these stage one symptoms as our body’s way of speaking to us: the alarm system is still on, please  come back to baseline levels.

Stage 2: Adaptation

If stage one is deciding whether we fight or run, Dr. Motley describes stage two of burnout as getting used to fighting and running. The adaptation stage, or making chronic stress a way of life. And sadly, we know all too well that our society praises this constant state of overload.

In his practice, Dr. Motley has found that most people in stage two do not manifest any health issues because they’ve adapted to their situations. But the body still speaks, and common symptoms include feeling tired, mood issues, difficulty concentrating, frequent energy crashes and blood sugar imbalances.

Stage 3: Burnout or Adrenal Failure

In stage three, the person is completely exhausted and usually can’t function normally on a personal or professional level. This is when the adrenal glands are no longer able to produce the increasing need for cortisol to combat stress and they become exhausted. They have been doing it too long, and I see it as our body’s way of saying: you’ve been crying wolf (or bear) (or bad relationship) (or stressful job), for too long.

Coming Back After Burnout

The thing about burnout is that it happens gradually. Ideally, understanding our body’s natural response to stress should be an awakening and an opportunity to listen to ourselves on a deeper level. Symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia and restlessness, these are our body’s way of speaking to us – letting us know that we need to slow down and get back to a balanced state.

So how do we bounce back from burnout?

Dr. Motley shares four very practical ways to prevent chronic stress from causing burnout and adrenal failure in our bodies, and I’ll give a hint: it starts with awareness.

Listen to the Podcast to learn the four tips as well as hear the entire conversation.