Adam Borland, PsyD is a psychologist practicing at the Center for Adult Behavioral Health at Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Borland talked with us about the major symptoms of burnout and provided some tips on how both to deal with burnout and prevent this condition from developing in the future.

Read the Q&A with Dr. Borland below.

WAM: While many of us are looking forward to taking time off in August, there are also plenty of us suffering pangs of guilt or discomfort at the thought of getting off the production lines at work. How is the brain positively affected by giving it a rest from tightly scheduled lives
Dr. Borland: We are inundated with endless demands in our daily lives — familial and work responsibilities, the 24 hour news cycle, ongoing COVID uncertainty, and the pressure of social media. Unfortunately, we don’t often allow for the necessary downtime our brains’ require to adequately recharge. The benefits of brain downtime include: improved energy, motivation, productivity, performance, concentration, and overall mood. It is important we prioritize downtime, without feelings of guilt, to ensure our physical and emotional well-being.

WAM: What are the typical signs and symptoms—the warning signs—that tell us it’s time for a change of pace and scene for our brains?
Dr. Borland: It is physically and emotionally unhealthy (and unrealistic) to expect our brains to maintain a constant pace of 100 mph. We must prioritize healthy balance and boundaries in order to manage potential symptoms of stress, anxiety, and fluctuating mood. Warning signs that our balance is off kilter may include: physical and emotional fatigue, poor sleep, changes in appetite (weight gain or weight loss), compromised immune system, poor concentration, and feelings of irritability and resentment.

WAM: Is vacation simply a time to recuperate from the stress of work, or is there some change that takes place by being away from work that might actually improve our performance or benefit us when we return to work?
Dr. Borland: Vacation is an opportunity to refill our physical and emotional tanks. We benefit from relaxation (disconnecting from our phones, computers/email, and constant work demands), a change of routine and scenery, catching up on needed sleep, exercise, and meaningful time with family and friends. Depending on the type of vacation, we also benefits from getting some needed sunshine/vitamin D, particularly for those living in cold weather climates. Ideally, with our physical and emotional tanks refilled, our work performance will improve. Following a vacation, it is important to maintain a healthy routine by prioritizing balance, boundaries, and assertiveness.

WAM: Are there certain kinds of activities that are most effective at “healing” a tired brain? For example, is it as valuable to go to the movies as it is to take a hike in the woods?
Dr. Borland: While there is not a one size fits all approach to caring for a tired brain, engaging in certain healing activities may be beneficial. These activities may include: exercise/physical activity, deep breathing/guided meditation (phone apps), creative outlets (painting/drawing/sculpting, playing music, cooking), reading, spending time outdoors (walking/hiking, gardening), attending an event (theater/movie/concert), and socializing with family and friends.

WAM: Do you have a brain health tip(s) for how to bring the healing aspect of a vacation back with us into daily life and work after Labor Day?
Dr. Borland: It is important to maintain a healthy mindset, including prioritizing positive self-talk, gratitude, choice, and emotional balance and flexibility. Creating a healthy daily routine, including setting small, achievable daily goals will go a long way in feeling a sense of physical and emotional accomplishment (sleep, diet, exercise, taking breaks throughout the day, breaking down overwhelming projects into smaller tasks, and maintaining communication throughout the days with family, friends or work colleagues). 

It is vital we remind ourselves we are doing the best we can to attend to the constant demands of daily living. Are we perfect? No. Will we make mistakes? Of course. But we cannot focus solely on our perceived failures and overlook our numerous accomplishments. Balancing the responsibilities of familial dynamics (parenting, marriage/relationship, caring for elderly parents), finances, and maintaining a household (cleaning/upkeep, shopping), while also attending to our own self-care (sleep, diet, exercise, relationships) can feel like a never-ending cycle of playing catch up. It is important we are kind to ourselves and celebrate the small victories throughout the day…much the way we would recognize the achievements of a loved one.

In addition to answering our questions, Dr. Borland offered this handy summary of the the biological affects of stress, along with his top tips for improving stress levels in our daily lives.

Heightened stress causes our body to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, the same ones responsible for activating the body’s fight or flight response in response to perceived danger.  Stress affects the body in numerous ways, including:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Muscle tension
  • Headache
  • Stomach ache
  • Poor sleep
  • Fluctuating mood
  • Decreased libido
  • Changes in menstrual cycle
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Heightened blood pressure
  • Increased risk for heart attack

To manage stress, we must first acknowledges its presence and, if possible, identify its causes. It is important to have a stress management toolkit available at all times. Items in this toolkit may include:

  • Deep breathing/guided meditation (mindfulness; one breath at a time)
  • Exercise/physical activity (get some fresh air, break a sweat)
  • Positive self-talk (“I’m doing a great job”)
  • Gratitude (thankfulness journal)
  • Creative outlets (take out the canvas, paints, and brushes collecting dust)
  • Meaningful relationships (don’t be afraid to communicate/open up to trusted others)
  • Socialize (go to dinner with family/friends; catch a movie or sporting event)
  • Spirituality/religion (sense of community)
  • Humor (don’t be afraid to laugh; watch a funny movie/show)
  • Volunteer (help those in need)
  • Read (lose yourself in a good book)