Burnout Hormones


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Stress produces hormones that influence the body's reactions and responses. The stress response is largely brought about by the action of the hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline.  so that different body actions can take place. (Cortisol appears to be the hormone mainly involved in physical burnout.)  It is possible to identify those signs in the body and mind which are produced by the action of noradrenaline, adrenaline or cortisol.

Noradrenaline is associated with aggression and fighting behaviour as shown by changes in facial muscle tenseness and drawing back of lips to show the teeth which are clenched together. The back and shoulder muscles tense (hunched shoulders) and the fists clench. Hairs stand more erect; this is seen as ‘goose pimples’ since humans have relatively little body hair compared to other animals. All this action is to make us look more threatening and hostile. Also, the skin blood vessels constrict, and the palms of the hands, the feet and the upper lip become sweaty. The pupil of the eye dilates, mental alertness increases, thinking and decision-making become quicker and performance improves.

It is not adrenaline but noradrenaline that is flowing when we feel that "drive" and physical strength welling up.  It produces a feeling of pleasantness and excitement in the absence of irritation, anger and hostility. Noradrenaline increases alertness, improves concentration, mental ability, learning, and makes us feel good. Adrenaline has none of these benefits and can make us feel awful.

Adrenaline is more orientated toward preparing the body for a quick getaway. Heart action increases and can be felt as a pounding in the chest. This is sometimes erratic and described as heart palpitations. Blood supply to the vital organs and skeletal muscles increases so it is necessary for noradrenaline to reduce the supply to the non-vital organs such as the gut and skin. This, together with a reduction in activity of the gut, gives the feeling of ‘butterflies’ and knots in the stomach. A ‘cold sweat’ is experienced when sweat is secreted onto the surface of a cold skin.

Feelings of uncertainty, worry, insecurity and anxiety are examples of the results of adrenaline activity. It can make us forget things more easily, reduce concentration and decision-making ability.

Cortisol is less obvious, even when there has been too much in the system for too long. It becomes the main player in situations where demands persist. It is important in keeping up the supply of energy needed by the body for the effort required in the face of long-term demands. Outward physical signs that cortisol is at work are difficult to see although frequent colds, allergies or asthma could be indicators. However the mental signs are clear enough: feelings of failure, helplessness, hopelessness, chronic anxiety, submission and depression.

Eustress ("good" stress) means having a predominance of noradrenaline activity yet too much for too long can lead to ill health and eventually death. Staying in the "eustress zone" means activating the stress response by just the right amount so that you feel confident in dealing with your demands and challenges. the amount of noradrenaline released in the body to achieve this is not harmful. There is a "bell curve" type of effect with too little - as well as too much - stress being bad for us.

Optimum performance is achieved on the top part of the upward slope of the bell curve, where we feel stimulated, alert, are better at making decisions, and are more creative and effective in achieving results. Peak performance is reached when we are dealing with just the right numbers and types of demands and challenges and we feel confident and well able to handle them. It is only when excessive amounts of noradrenaline are released that harm may arise. Too much "good stress" as well as too much "bad" stress can overtax the body.

The stress response involves all body functions so too much distress, overtaxing our adaptive resources, can lead to exhaustion, a variety of health problems and can even be fatal.  Stress affects all our body  systems, including our defences and immune mechanisms. Chronic stimulation by cortisol reduces the body's ability to deal with infection and increases susceptibility to immune-system-related diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, asthma, skin problems and cancers.

If demands and pressures continue to increase beyond our abilities (or willingness), our coping resources become steadily overtaxed and performance starts to decline. We hit the downward slope of the curve. If this continues, we could find ourselves on the slippery slope of the distress zones; experience anxiety, fatigue, exhaustion and mental breakdown, often referred to as "burnout".

To reduce demands on you:

bulletkeep count of life events that stress you (both good and bad ones)
bulletlearn to say "no"
bulletwork out your priorities
bulletorganize your life
bulletbe realistic about what you can achieve (over a day, week or month this is usually half of what you think you can do; over a year it is usually twice what you expect)
bulletseek help when the going gets tough
bullet find a job that suits your personality and abilities
bullet learn to work effectively (smarter, not harder)
bulletavoid uncertainty (unless you thrive on it)

Increasing demands

bullettake up a hobby or pastime
bulletjoin an evening class or social club
bulletjoin a voluntary or community organization
bullet reappraise your job/job role