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Obvious Science: Burnt Out

Obvious Science is a series launched by the authors of the Science Society blog to explain the underlying science of specific phenomena.

Burnout, characterized by chronic exhaustion, lack of motivation,

increase in bad habits, anxiety, depression, and a decreased sense of

accomplishment, has been on the rise within the past year. A study on the

levels of anxiety and burnout experienced by US College/University students

during the pandemic was conducted in August 2020. The researchers collected data at two time points: August 2020 and April 2021 and found that the rate of burnout amongst the students they sampled increased from 40% to 71% [2]. Students screened for anxiety and depression in this study experienced an increase in their symptoms and more students reported an increase in unhealthy habits such as drinking, smoking, or eating unhealthy foods to cope with stress [2].

We are steadily approaching final exams and under normal circumstances, it’s typical for students to experience burnout at this point in the term. But we’re living in unprecedented times, and I imagine that the agony of online school only makes matters worse. Burnout sucks. But you already knew that. What I’m betting you don’t know is what happens progressively to your body to reach this ‘burned out’ state.

A system in our brain called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis mediates the stress response in our bodies. During the stress response, the hypothalamus secretes two hormones into the blood vessels that connect the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland: vasopressin and corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) [3]. These hormones stimulate the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH) into the general blood circulation [3]. ACTH stimulates the production of cortisol (stress hormone) which marks the physiological stress reaction [3]. This system is controlled by a negative feedback loop which basically means that this system can turn itself off after the stressor has been removed and the body will return to homeostasis.

What makes burnout different from your basic stress response is it can

cause dysregulation of the HPA axis which affects the ability of this system to

turn off [2]. The adrenal glands will secrete more and more cortisol until your

cells become resistant or insensitive to the levels of cortisol in your blood [2].

Long past the stressor being eliminated, the physiological and psychological

effects of that initial stressor persist. It’s the lack of recovery from the stress

response combined with the changes in stress physiology from chronic stress

that pave the way for the development of burnout symptoms [2].

If you’re alarmed by this, don’t be. There’s still hope for you yet. If you

managed to tip the scales by burning the midnight oil too frequently and

developed burnout, you can tip the scale in the other direction by adopting healthier habits and aid recovery. That’s the great thing about our bodies – our body wants to move towards ‘normal’ whenever we make lifestyle changes. And ‘normal’ for our bodies can change. Adopting healthy habits such as eating well, getting moderate exercise, and creating a sense of predictability in our life (e.g following a realistic, consistent timetable every day, going to sleep at the same time every day, etc.) can help you close the chapter on burnout.

References (CSE)

[1] High stress hormones: Cortisol + HPA axis dysfunction. CentreSpringMD.

(2021, August 16). Retrieved November 26, 2021, from


[2] Person. (2021, July 26). College students report high levels of anxiety

amid pandemic. Healthline. Retrieved November 26, 2021, from


[3] Wolraich ML. The effect of sugar on behavior or cognition in children. JAMA. 1995;274(20):1617. doi:10.1001/jama.1995.03530200053037


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