Burnout from stress: The signs to look out for

Around a decade ago, my brain seemed to shut down. I suddenly could not read what was in front of me, I could not take anything in. It lasted all day and I had to stop work and lie down. I now know I had a cognitive block, which is caused by high levels of mental fatigue and exhaustion.


I had been sitting at my laptop, trying to manage overdue deadlines and my emails had been spiralling out of control for some months. I was overwhelmed with more requests than I could cope with. My stress levels had been high for years and had now rocketed till my mind exploded and then went blank.

If we are stressed over a long period of time our coping mechanisms in the brain’s cognitive abilities can slow down or stop functioning temporally.

I was diagnosed with burnout. After years of putting work first, constantly travelling, endless to-do lists, long hours and lack of sleep, my mind had told me enough is enough. Physically my body was exhausted and fatigued too. My diet of fast food and drinking too much alcohol to get through the week was not healthy.

When we are stressed out the cortisol hormone is released in the adrenal glands. When we have elevated cortisol levels over a long period this can cause negative effects on our health. It can affect our immune response, metabolism, blood pressure and even affect our gut health. I felt it as low energy and didn’t realise I was ill.

According to government statistics in the UK over 36% of adults have reported stress as a major reason for long-term time sick leave from their employment. Stress can affect us day-to-day, not only at work, but affect our relationships, and our behaviours towards others, making us more isolated. Stress is not only a work-related topic but can also be due to caring for a sick relative or money issues. Everyone can usually always pinpoint the cause of stress in their lives.

After the incident happened, I knew I had to make some changes in my life. I had been working for over 20 years in the corporate tech industry as a director and decided to quit. My health and well-being had to come first. Unfortunately, the damage was already done to my body, but I got started on the road to recovery.

For the first time in decades, I started to slow down.

I started with small tasks such as cooking healthy meals from scratch, which I had never done before. I limited my alcohol intake to a few glasses at the weekend and practised meditation for a few minutes every morning. When I felt stressed, I used breathwork to calm my nervous system down.

I then focused on a bigger career goal that would give me flexible working hours and would enable me to do things at my own pace. I retrained as a yoga teacher and worked at the Mind charity helping others. This then led me to my career in life coaching, supporting others through their goals, which I love.
Recovery from burnout can take anything from three months to a year according to NHS data. It really depends on the level of exhaustion you have or any relapses you might have. Many of us have stress in our lives to some degree, but how do you know if yours is leading to burnout?

Six signs of burnout to watch out for

1. You stop socialising

Work-life takes over and you stop seeing friends or family. You may have strained relationships with your partner or someone close to you. Cutting yourself off from the support you need is a common sign of stress. This can lead to further issues of loneliness and isolation.

2. Lack of sleep

High levels of stress can interfere with our sleep, either making it difficult to fall asleep or have a good night’s sleep without waking up thinking about those to-do lists.

3. Feeling negative all the time

Stress can lead to low mood in your life, this can lead to depression and anxiety. You may be trying harder at work and feel that you never achieve anything, that you are not good enough, so work harder. This leaves us feeling depleted.

4. Gut issues

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common cause of high-stress levels as well as stomach cramps and other issues such as ulcers. We all know the term ‘gut instinct’. Our gut is connected by the vagus nerve to our brain so it is important to notice the signs in our gut of emotional in-balance in our brain.

5. Low energy

You are tired all the time. When we are stressed, the immune system cannot function as well, this can make us more susceptible to infections and illness making us feel worse. The cycle continues as we try and work harder through low energy which just depletes us more.

6. Appetite changes

Either eating too much and gaining weight, or eating not enough and poor quality. Using the wrong type of food and too much alcohol or addictive habits to feel better can also be a sign of stress. Cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone, kicks in when we are continually stressed and plays an important role in the metabolism. It can influence food cravings and can also trigger the release of glucose (sugar) from your liver.

If you think any of these symptoms apply to you it is important to seek the support you need, either from your local GP, support groups or one-to-one life coaching. Recognising the signs of burnout and implementing effective coping strategies is crucial for preventing it and managing our stress levels. 

Longer-term day-to-day stress management is about prioritising your self-care and taking things slower to restore your balance and your well-being. Also, learning to set boundaries both at work and home - saying "no" to things you don’t want to do. Recognising your triggers for stress and having a toolbox to hand to help manage it long-term will help your recovery. Your body and mind will thank you for it!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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