What if Burnout Is More Than Just Exhaustion?

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Naturopathic Doctor & PhD turned scientific creative, travel adventurer, joy seeker, book lover, mom of two amazing humans, wife to her best friend. 

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Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. Many people have experienced some type of burnout symptoms over the years, and look forward to taking time off, or going on vacation to get a break from things and recover. But what if there was more to it than that? What if burnout wasn’t just about being busy, loaded with responsibilities and feeling exhausted. What if there was more to feeling burnout and another factor that could help you feel like yourself again? Join us in this episode as we discuss burnout from a different perspective.

“There’s something significant that sits underneath these two parts of burnout – managing the demands of life on one side, and coping with stress on the other. Something more that impacts us on a deeper level and put us at risk for burnout in a more profound way.”

Topics We Discuss In This Episode:

  • What is burnout
  • What are burnout symptoms
  • How to recover from burnout

[02:12] If you haven’t experienced burnout yourself, you probably know someone who has a recent 2021 survey reported that 51% of respondents had experienced burnout and yes, the pandemic had an impact on that number. But even pre pandemic, the numbers were still a staggeringly high 42%. That means that basically, every other person has experienced burnout at some point or another, which is shocking.

[02:42] Unfortunately, there isn’t a standard set of symptoms or a straightforward diagnostic criteria, you can’t do a blood test to determine if you have burnout. It’s often a medley of symptoms and a subjective experience that is hard to quantify.

[06:27] Generally, burnout is described as what happens when the demands of a job outweigh a person’s ability to cope with the stress. Personally, I don’t think that begins to cover it. But let’s start there with a modification.

Burnout is when the demands of life outweigh a person’s ability to cope with stress.

XO Conversations podcast – S1:e4 – what if burnout is more than just exhaustion

Because I’d argue that it’s not in fact, always related to the demands of a job. It could be the demands of life, taking care of kids and aging parent experiencing chronic pain, really anytime when stress overwhelms us to a place where we are no longer able to cope, when the deadlines to do lists and expectations exceed our ability to recharge and recover.

[11:47] The science behind burnout, including a short explanation of the HPA axis and cortisol.

Your body is equipped to handle stress on a short term, acute basis. And taking time off or slowing down can certainly help in those circumstances. But when you’re in burnout, it’s more than just stress, you’re essentially unable to respond to stressors in the same way.

[14:29] There’s actually something else more specific than burnout but likely related called Empathy Fatigue, or sometimes called Compassion Fatigue. It’s an overexposure to suffering and pain that can cause personal stress with a reduced ability to be empathetic.

[19:30] If you’ve experienced it, you’ll know the symptoms at first are easy to confuse, deny or ignore, and eventually it can take over.

Burnout symptoms include PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS:

  • Difficulty sleeping
    • Don’t want to get out of bed in the morning
    • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Changes in Appetite (loss of hunger or feeling more hungry than usual, upset stomach)
  • Exhaustion
    • Tired even without physical exertion
    • Feeling physically or emotionally drained
  • Getting sick (weakened immune system)


  • Irritable, Moody, Anger or Sadness
  • Feelings of self-doubt
  • Dissatisfied with life
  • Reduced sense of accomplishment
  • Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
  • Feeling lonely, alone in the world
  • Lack of motivation
  • Cynicism
  • Negative thoughts
  • Feeling overwhelmed

[22:01] Burnout could be more likely in people who have other challenges like anxiety or depression

It could also be more of a factor in certain personalities. For example, if you’re a more private person, and you don’t have a supportive social circle, then it might be more difficult for you to get the support that you need, and more likely for you to experience burnout.

“There’s something significant that sits underneath these two parts of burnout – managing the demands of life on one side, and coping with stress on the other. Something more that impacts us on a deeper level and put us at risk for burnout in a more profound way.”

Rishma Walji, XO Conversations Podcast, S1E4

[27:18] Yes, the exhaustion, the lack of time, the heavy emotions all contribute to burnout. And linked to that, what I see over and over again, is also an erosion of self. Call it identity, call it values, call it losing yourself. However you interpret it, there seems to be an erosion of self.

[28.09] Has there ever been a time when you’re completely exhausted but also energized? Maybe you’re working on a passion project or a hobby or something else that invigorates you? What if burnout isn’t just about being exhausted? What if it’s also about losing yourself? Your time for self care? Yes. But also your sense of accomplishment, your pride, your freedom to create your passion, your connection to your social network, your time to learn something, your motivation to try something new, your ability to be inspired.

It gets even more complex when you think about it this way. Because it’s not just about losing yourself, but it’s also about figuring out who you are. We need to know who we are and what we’re missing. Otherwise, we take time off because we’re burnt out or we feel exhausted or worse we have health issues. And what if that stress isn’t just about time, but about not meeting our needs, lacking satisfaction, missing purpose or self identity?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that working or caregiving isn’t purposeful we can love the people we take care of and still get burnt out. Because we’re human, and we have our own needs to we are complex beings who aren’t just defined by one role.

What if we can only ignore our needs for so long before our bodies and our minds give up?

The question then becomes, what are those needs? And how can we meet them? And also, would that reduce burnout? If we look at burnout in the traditional sense, it’s related to overwork. So the solution would be to take The break. But if we look at aspects of burnout that are considered identity, you may be at higher risk of burnout if you’re exposed to something that threatens your identity or your sense of self.

Listen the the episode for more information on finding yourself again to help you recover from burnout.

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  1. […] not going to talk about burnout here, I’ve covered it before so you can listen to that episode, it’s a really fresh take on […]

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Travel adventurer, joy seeker, book lover

Hi, I'm Rishma.
Your BFF + New
Life Strategist.

I ran a thriving healthcare practice as a Naturopathic Doctor and Acupuncturist for over 20 years. I also earned my PhD and spent time in academic research and teaching positions. Now, I read scientific studies because I'm passionate about personal growth. I use the insights to help me, and our community, live our own XO life.

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