Preventing Burn-Out; Avoid the Cliff
Are you feeling tired, jaded, stale, fatigued or burnt out? These are all common terms used to describe the physical and emotional consequences of overwork. Competitive athletes experience the same outcome when they overtrain. How can you prevent and, if necessary, recover from this depressing state?
Stress is actually a good force. Without it, we would neither perform nor grow. If you study the normal performance curve below, you will notice how increasing your workload, or the stress that drives you to work, improves your performance. The law-of-diminishing return kicks in at some point, and additional effort produces less improvement in performance.
Most important to this concept is the balance of work (or training) and recovery. Athletes know this well. They stress their muscles during training in order to make them stronger, but they MUST allow them time to recover and build before stressing them again.
That’s true for our brains and psyche too. That’s why we need sleep! Sleeping or resting too little impairs performance. Each of us must find the highly individualized, optimal ratio of work to rest that drives sustainable peak performance.
So, it’s easy right? Work harder and harder and then back off and you find your “zone”. That is true to some extent, but it’s not so easy, actually!
The problem, as you’ll see below, is that at the end of the performance curve is a giant cliff. Step over the edge at your peril. It’s a long painful ride to the bottom, and the way back is excruciating.
So, you’d like to know how to push yourself as far as possible without actually falling off the edge, right?
Here’s the problem: our scientific insight and ability to predict the edge is sadly lacking. In my personal experience, most elite athletes have fallen off the performance cliff at least once! That’s probably also true for anybody that’s particularly driven at work.
The good thing about the edge is that there may be warning signs. Unfortunately, the science is not strong enough for me to say there are warning signs.
Here is the science about the warning zone. This is the zone where stress becomes distress, implying that you begin to experience physical, physiological, emotional and/or psychological discomfort. Sleep disruption is often the most common symptom, and may express as difficulty in falling asleep, increased wakefulness through the night, or reduced quality of sleep. All result in feeling tired on waking.
You can imagine a negative cycle developing rapidly where overtraining results in sleep disruption that in turn impairs performance. Competitive people react by increasing their workload to offset the poor performance, precipitating a downward spiral. This is the quick route over the edge of the cliff!
The other physical measure that regularly alerts us to overtraining in athletes is the resting heart rate. It is a strong warning signal when this starts to creep up (with no other cause such as an underlying infection). I advise all elite athletes I work with to track their waking heart rate. This is the heart rate as you wake, before any of the noise of the day can elevate your heartbeat. I look forward to seeing the research, but I bet that resting heart rate is reasonably good at detecting burnout in non-athletes too!
There are other diagnostic tests, but these are not sufficiently reliable to receive broad support from medical scientists. We know that cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, tends to drop as you burn out. The adrenal system, responsible for your fight and flight reactions, becomes fatigued and under-responsive.
In athletes, glutamine (involved with cellular energy metabolism and protein synthesis), glutamate (important for healthy nerve function) and testosterone (a driver of muscle growth and recovery) all tend to be reduced in the overtraining syndrome.
It is interesting that athletes experience reduced perceptions of strength and recovery when they are over-trained. It is tempting to believe that this is the body preventing the owner from doing any more damage. The athlete can actually do more work, but because they feel tired they don’t, protecting the body from further injury.
Perhaps the biggest danger while you’re in the warning zone is that a relatively small stress can nudge you “over the edge”. You may be aware that you are in the danger zone, but feel confident because you are aware how close you are, then an unexpected insult, like a burst of wind, suddenly throws you down the cliff. The insult may be, for example, a minor illness or a seemingly trivial fall-out with a friend that brings the cliff closer towards you, and over you go!
Now, here is the bad news. Only a tiny minority is able to grab onto a ledge on the cliff on their way down to claw their way back up. For the most part, it’s a quick, painful descent all the way to the bottom.
The only way back is a long walk back up your original pathway, often requiring a convalescent period before that climb is possible!
The best (maybe only) approach is prevention.
Listen very carefully to your body. Push through minor resistance, but listen for persistent warnings.
Track your sleep. Track your resting (waking) heart rate. Nobody knows your body like you do, and everybody’s performance curve is unique (and can change over time). Super-human ideation is both dangerous and arrogant.
Science is deaf to the protests of hero’s as they fall off the cliff. If you hear warning signs back-up a little; reduce your workload and increase your rest and recovery. And then back-up even further. You need to have some extra space between you and the edge for the unexpected. If you do this, you should be able to keep yourself in your zone of high performance. That’s where you find health, happiness and wealth.
Dr. Roddy Carter, MD, has over 30 years of experience working across a range of medical disciplines and corporate settings.
At the height of his successful career, Roddy experienced his own health and happiness crisis. During this profoundly transformative time, he began applying his deep knowledge of performance neuroscience to his everyday life. He discovered that, in moments of trauma, the brain develops intricate psycho-protective adaptations to ensure our short-term survival; however, these adaptations often impose substantial residual limitations, create distress, and prevent us from reaching our full innate potential.