Donders Wonders

Donders 200 lecture ‘Burn-out: more than a mental matter’, part 1

This post is also available in Dutch.

During the Donders 200 lecture on burn-out, neuroscientist Erno Hermans, organisational psychologist Debby Beckers, and author Bregje Hofstede, who has had personal experience with burn-out, discussed burn-out from each of their perspectives.


The biological processes of burn-out

Erno Hermans is a neuroscientist and he will explain how exactly stress works, for example: its effects on bodily processes: ‘Stress systems have developed during the evolution of humans as a defence mechanism.’ The system consists of a ‘quick/alarm system’ and a ‘slow/recovery system’. The alarm system responds swiftly to an acute threat and helps us get ready for action. Think of, for example, the freeze-fight-flight reaction (see earlier blog). The slow system, which starts after about 20-30 minutes, is mostly regulated by the ‘cortisol’ hormone and manages recovery from stress. It makes sure the body lets go of stress and returns to its normal state (homeostasis).

In the brain you can spot a shifting of networks during stress. The ‘stress network’ that resides in the deeper, primitive parts of the brain takes over control. This then activates attention networks to focus on the right input and take appropriate action. At the same time, control networks in the newer and higher function brain areas are supressed. These networks are important for supporting cognitive functions such as forming long-term goals. You, as a matter of speaking, literally lose control over suppressing emotional processes.

If you are in a state of stress for a long time, you are exposed to the stress hormone ‘cortisol’. This can fatigue your body and have destructive effects on brain cells. It has been shown in animal research that brain connections decrease after long-term exposure to stress. However, cortisol also regulates other vital functions in the body such as your sleep-wake rhythm. Long-term stress disturbs your natural cortisol fluctuations. This negatively affects your night’s rest, which usually leads to even more stress; it is kind of a negative spiral. On top of all this, you become more sensitive to cortisol because of extended exposure. In burn-out patients this cortisol-curve is usually more flattened. This is probably because your body tries to suppress the cortisol after an extended period of elevated concentrations.

Having a bad relation with stress can thus have all kinds of negative consequences; it gets you out of balance with your natural rhythm. Hermans therefore emphasized the great importance of adapting to your biological rhythm ‘because biology will not move with you’. Stress in itself does not have to be a problem. Hhowever it does become a problem when it controls your daily rhythm and messes up your body.

We’ve got three take-home-messages:

  1. Stress is one of our bodies’ healthy reactions. Do not have a stress-free life; go look for the challenges.
  2. Follow your biological rhythm. Do not try to reverse it, so: do not try to adapt the biology to your rhythm.
  3. Everything is between your ears. All psychological processes can be traced back to the brain.

In the coming weeks, part 2 of this Donders lecture, by organisational psychologist Debby Beckers, will air.

Written by Mahur, edit by Annelies, translated by Rowena

More information:
Donders 200 lecture film (only in Dutch).

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