Though stress is an accepted part of life, in modern times, the type of chronic unremitting low-level stress, we all experience can wreak havoc on our nervous system, our ability to make energy, and generally our entire system. 

Our brains and bodies were designed and evolved to cope with acute danger and short-lived stresses – like running away from a predator and then relaxing after the threat had passed.  

Today, the constant, daily mental threats we now experience are harder for the nervous system to cope with. These stressors can throw our system into chaos, causing both brain and body changes that can leave you feeling drained, tired, irritable, and with brain fog.

The most extreme version of this is now known as burnout syndrome, which the World Health Organisation now recognizes as a diagnosable medical illness. Burnout Syndrome was officially defined by Girdin, Everly, & Dusek in 1996 as “a state of mental and/or physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” It can also be defined as the constellation of symptoms resulting from the long-term effects of chronic unchecked ‘bad stress’ on the brain and body. Cases of burnout are rising.


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As the pace of modern life continues to speed up and we are more connected to our devices, we have less time for brain and body rest and less time for restorative sleep. Combined with our brains constantly being stimulated by screen time and the work culture pressure to be more productive at all costs, these factors create the perfect storm for the burnout epidemic.  

Anyone can get burnout – from stay-at-home mums and corporate executives to yoga teachers, although it may be more common in the helping professions. Burnout is not cured or solved by going on holiday – unlike what people may be told by well-meaning friends, family, or even their doctor. Another standard piece of advice is that stress is normal, and everyone has it, so we have to deal with it. 

Recovery is a frustrating journey for many people experiencing burnout symptoms and chronic fatigue because no one seems to have good answers to help you recover. You may be subjected to lots of tests from your doctor, which all come back normal, so you may be told that there is nothing wrong with you.


‘Good’ Stress vs ‘Bad’ Stress

“Good stress” is experienced when stress is limited to a short amount of time, and the experience leaves us with a sense of accomplishment, exhilaration, or mastery at the end. For example, people experience this with the physical stress of running a race or giving a speech to 500 people for the first time.

On the other hand, “bad stress” is the kind of stress that is unbalancing. It is where the stress is prolonged, emotionally draining, and/or physically exhausting. It may eventually become dangerous to our nervous system and immune system and may start to wreak havoc on our hormone balance and endocannabinoid system balance. This kind of stress can trigger burnout, especially when experienced daily.

Luckily, we can shift how much ‘bad stress’ our brain experiences using a resilience medicine approach to recover from burnout and prevent relapses. We do this by changing how our brains ‘see’ and ‘feel’ stress, shifting it from a threat response in the brain to a positive challenge instead, triggering positive brain changes in regions such as the limbic system, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus.

 

The Resilience Medicine Approach to Toxic Stress + Burnout

There are biological tools that may help toxic stress and burnout.

Diet
Supplements
Medication
mind-body
BioData + Habit Tracking

Diet

  • The Resilience Medicine diet principles
  • Reduce or consider eliminating temporarily caffeine and alcohol, and other stimulants that can give ‘fake energy’ followed by a crash

Supplements

Many people living with toxic stress +burnout find nutraceuticals and botanical supplements can help, including:

  • L Theanine
  • Passionflower, hops, ashwagandha and other nervine tonic herbs for stress support
  • Vitamin B 6 and B complex
  • Liposomal glutathione
  • Lions Mane and other medicinal mushrooms for stress and cognition support
  • High Absorption Magnesium
  • Vitamin D 3

Cannabinoids


  • Full spectrum CBD and terpenes from the cannabis plant, including alpha-pinene, beta-caryophyllene and myrcene.
  • Medical cannabis for anxiety and sleep support

mind-body Tools

Many forms of relaxation practices can help decrease brain and body hyperarousal, reduce the toxic stress burden and help heal from burnout and the ‘tired but wired feeling.’ For example, practices that engage the breathing muscle called the diaphragm can help activate the calming vagus nerve or the rest and digest arm of the nervous system, such as many forms of breathwork. Some other simple ones include:

  • PMR-progressive muscular relaxation-great for reducing ‘body noise’, e.g. tension and physical symptoms of stress
  • Moving meditations like yoga and tai chi. Suitable for busy minds, if you are a person who finds sitting meditations anxiety-provoking, these can be a better fit
  • Breath focused mini-meditation minutes throughout the day focusing on a longer exhale than inhale and experimenting with a few seconds of holding the breath at the top of the inhale.
  • Yoga Nidra recordings whilst lying down at night to wind down.
  • Walking in nature
  • Body free movement to music connects us back to our bodies and creativity, gets us out of our head and into our bodies and releases mind and body tension. It can shake up rigid patterns of movement and release muscle tension that can build up to cause physical anxiety symptoms.
  • Altered states experiences with a guide. This can connect with your purpose again – e.g. holotropic breathwork, alpha-theta neurofeedback, therapeutic psychedelics (where legal)

Apps, BioData and Habit Tracking:

You can track how you feel and related symptoms in the app and see any interventions and resilience tips you have started and if they are helping over time.

The Resilience Medicine App is a free tool developed over a decade of practice treating patients using a quality of life approach. It can help you track how you feel in the four main Resilience Medicine areas of mood, stress/anxiety, energy and mental clarity.

Burnout syndrome can affect anyone regardless of what you do for work or if you are a busy stay-at-home mum, it’s not just certain professions that are affected. The brain and body can recover fully after a burnout but once you experience burnout once you are more likely to have a second bout if you go back to the things that caused you to burnout in the first place.

Cannabinoids including CBD, simple mindbody practices such as mindfulness meditation for just a few minutes each day, taking micro breaks during the day to recharge changing the diet to support energy and stress relief without needing sugar and caffeine and practicing saying no to avoid overwhelm are all hugely important to burnout recovery.

Most of these things can be done without a doctor and tracking each intervention to see what is helping and give you that personalized insight that your doctor cannot.

Dr Dani Gordon, Founder of Resilience Medicine