How Burnout Changes Your Brain—And What To Do About It

Christine Comaford

How are you feeling lately?

Is your energy level lower than usual?

Do you feel less connected to others and the world around you?

Is your self-esteem plummeting?

Are you being harder on yourself than usual, being disappointed in yourself in general, or when you’re irritable with others?

If you answered yes to these questions, chances are good you’re burned out. And it’s not surprising with a multi-year global pandemic, the war in Ukraine, talent shortages at work, rising costs due to inflation, and much more. As a leadership and culture coach, I see a tremendous amount of burnout these days.

Before we dive into the cure, let’s look at what’s likely happening in your brain.

Your Brain On Burnout

Chronic stress leads to burnout. And a burned-out brain is generally a more irritable, less hopeful, and less motivated brain. Why? Thanks to Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine, we now have some answers.


"One of the most striking (effects) is thinning of the gray matter of an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC)," Arnsten said. "It (the PFC) helps us to act appropriately. It gives us insight into ourselves and others. It gives us perspective. It allows us to do complex decision-making and to be able to have thoughtful, abstract reasoning rather than concrete or habitual responses."


When the PFC is compromised our focus and memory are impacted, increasing the likelihood of mistakes, and making it harder to learn new things. Burnout also enlarges the amygdala, which governs our fight-flight-freeze response and threat perception. The result? We become more “primitive” since the brain circuits for fear, irritability, and threat perception are stronger.


But that’s not the whole story. Remember how I asked about your energy level and feeling of connection above?


"The problem is there are two other dimensions," she said. "Inefficacy, or feeling like you're not really accomplishing things anymore, and cynicism, or a sense of alienation, either from the work itself or from other people."


Sending employees home to rest without giving them tools to address the other two symptoms may be ineffective, Arnsten says. "The problem is cynicism as a sense of alienation," she said. "Now I'm sending you home. You're spending even less time feeling like you're connecting to your coworkers. So that's where it gets tricky."


How To Cure Burnout

Curing burnout is not as simple as taking some time off. You’ll want to deep dive into what’s beneath your burnout and set up some structures to cure it and prevent it from occurring again.

First, note what is most prevalent for you: Exhaustion? Disconnection? Feeling demotivated?


1-Take stock – take our self-care assessment to see how you’re doing. From your answers, you’ll know which areas of your life need more attention and care. Then, check out our Motivation infographic and note in which area(s) you need more support. Then ask your leader at work for it, and your family/friends to help out.


2-Give yourself a break – remember that when your brain is compromised, as it is in burnout, you may feel less tolerant, grumpier, and quicker to anger than usual. This does not make you a bad person. It’s just a sign that your brain is reacting to chronic stress. It's trying to protect you, even though it may be causing social problems as a result.

When you give yourself a break, you’re asserting some control over your emotional state. The feeling that we are in control of our responses, that we can forgive ourselves and move on, strengthens our ability to bounce back from a stressful episode.

"If you feel like you're in control of the stressor, then there aren't these toxic brain changes," Arnsten said. "If you feel out of control it leads to chemical changes in the prefrontal cortex that weakens the connections, and over time actually erodes those connections away."


3-Meditate – Harvard proved years ago that meditation increases cell density in the PFC and Hippocampus and decreases cell density in the amygdala. Only 20 minutes per day (and it’s fine to break this down into 5 or 10-minute chunks) will yield this benefit in approximately 6 weeks.


4-Connect with others – Our Isolation infographic will show you what’s going on in your brain, as well as provide some insights to re-connecting. And compassion toward others is super effective to help restore one’s sense of belonging. Whether it’s mentoring someone, doing some volunteer work, or simply setting an intention to be more patient and understanding of others all help. Add compassion for yourself too.

Next, notice where you experience a sense of achievement, and ensure you feel achievement daily. Whether it’s completing a workout, a project, or a small task like making your bed, notice the little achievements in your life and give yourself a pat on the back.


With all of the above, you’ll be bouncing back from burnout in no time. Let me know how it goes!

Feeling The Burnout Lately Yourself?

A weekend getaway may be exactly what you need to take control of your life.


Meet Christine Comaford

For over 30 years Leadership and Culture Coach, Serial Entrepreneur, and New York Times bestselling author Christine Comaford has helped leaders navigate growth and change. She specializes in applied neuroscience, which helps her clients achieve tremendous results in record time. An entrepreneur she built and sold five companies with an average ROI of 700%, and she was a software engineer in the early days of Microsoft and Apple. Christine is a human behavior expert, a leadership columnist for, and the New York Times bestselling author of Power Your Tribe, SmartTribes and Rules for Renegades.

Learn More About Christine