African American woman pensive with headache, experiencing burnout's brain effectsBurnout's brain effects can be devastating. People with burnout often experience:

  • Brain fog
  • Dangerous inattention leading to low productivity and increased accidents
  • Unpleasant mood changes (to themselves, not to mention to the people around them!)

In this latest sneak preview (lightly edited to fit in a blog post) from our upcoming book, Save Yourself from Burnout: A System, to Get Your Life Back, we give you a useful framework for understanding what happens to your brain when you're burned out, as well as a low-energy but highly effective way to help turn these effects around.

“You Wire What You Fire”

Certain brain scans can show which part of the brain is active when people participate in different activities. When scientists do scans on burned-out people as they work, and compare them to the brains of non-burned out people as they work, it shows that burned out brains are active in different areas than non-burned out ones. During the process of becoming burned out, you have inadvertently trained yourself to use a different, less effective part of your brain to deal with incoming information and solve problems. The good news is that you can train it back!

Even though you may not realize it, when you take part in repetitive activities, especially ones that are linked to good or bad feelings, you are changing your brain and training it. The saying in neurobiology, “You wire what you fire,” refers to the way the brain is constantly changing over time, depending on how you use it. If you use a particular pathway frequently, your body builds up more neurons in that area to support that particular function.

Two Brain Networks: Reactive and Reflective

Visualize your brain as having two networks, the Reactive part and the Reflective part. These two networks in the brain both process incoming information and work on problem solving, but they do it in different ways. Your body chooses one of these to act as your brain’s default setting, so there is always one or the other, either the Reactive part of the Reflective part, that is standing by, ready to handle the information coming in and the problems that are waiting to be solved.

The Reactive network is the less evolved part of your brain. This is the network in your brain that reacts with involuntary behaviors and emotions without the chance for you to consciously think about them first. When you process incoming information with this part of your brain, you experience lower endurance and feel pain more intensely and for longer periods of time. Also, when you use this part of your brain to solve problems, you are less creative and tend to act impulsively.

In comparison, the Reflective network of your brain is the more evolved part. This is the network in your brain that reacts in a careful, thoughtful manner. When you are using this part of your brain, any pain that you feel is experienced as being less intense and lasts for a shorter time. Also when you use this part of your brain to solve problems, you have more control over your emotions, you are able to reason, and you have a greater ability for creative problem solving.

Burnout's Brain Effects

So if you have been in a long-term situation where you have experienced chronic stress and your efforts don’t often get met with any sense of success or reward, your brain can become trained to equate effort with failure. This repetitive action trains your brain to use the Reactive network. The good news is that you can train it back into the Reflective mode! Mindfulness is one of the most powerful methods for training your brain to use the Reflective network more consistently.

Mindfulness Trains Your Brain

Portrait of a happy thoughtful Afro-American woman Mindfulness is a method of concentrating your calm attention on all the features of the present moment, including your own feelings and sensations. This kind of awareness without being defensive or reactive is often described as witnessing, or being present in the moment.

In other words, mindfulness is a way of training your brain to use the Reflective default mode.

When you are solving problems or confronting difficulties using your brain’s Reflective mode, you are using the part of your brain for the greatest capacity for a productive outcome. When in this mode, you have more endurance, while pain you experience is less intense and lasts for a shorter amount of time. You also have more control over your emotions, are better able to reason, and have a greater ability for creative problem solving.

For many of us, our work involves “emotional labor.” That is, we often face emotionally-charged encounters and need to manage our emotions as part of our job. When we experience emotional labor while our brain is in the Reactive mode, we are likely to fall into emotional exhaustion (the first dimension of burnout.) Emotional exhaustion is especially likely if our work requires us to display false cheerfulness, also known as “surface acting.”

Thankfully, research has shown that mindfulness skills, especially when consistently practiced, reduce both surface acting and emotional exhaustion. This is because people who are consistently practicing mindfulness are able to calmly and effectively respond to problems as they arise. Mindfulness training teaches people to simply notice and observe those feelings without feeling compelled to either repress them or act on them.

(c) 2017 by Marnie Loomis and Beth Genly

Here's two tools that can get you into mindfulness, and keep you on track. I've used both at various times, and love them:

  • Headspace, an app in which a guy with a charming British accents walks you through brief meditations with a refreshing lack of “woo-woo” jargon.
  • HeartMath, which has a bunch of free online materials, such as simple illustrated tutorials (like the one in the link) and videos that help with mindfulness. But what I love about HeartMath is their InnerBalance biofeedback product. It's super-simple to use, and provides direct information and support to keep you on track.

What is your experience in using mindfulness to combat burnout?  Do you have a favorite mindfulness tool?