Interesting article: Burnout, amygdala, neurological changes, cognition

I just came across this interesting article as I was Googling the long term effects of Burnout (because I still feel oddly "broken" and permanently changed nearly two years after going sick).

From a quick read, the article talks about enlarged amygdala, weakened connections between it and other brain structures, and problems with executive functioning - all of which I believe I've also read as features of autism (further hints of connections here in Former Member's summary of the Wikipedia entry for Amygdala in this thread: Are you good at identifying emotions feelings within yourself). So I'm wondering if in my case burnout intensified the existing effects of my own autism that I had been masking (& led to my discovery of my own undiagnosed autism). Note that I'm not at all suggesting that burnout might cause autism - that would be a silly leap and we all know that autism is a lifelong condition.

Coincidentally I also listened to a TED talk on executive function that highlighted that EF is needed when learning a new skill, before the automatic parts of the brain take over. I'm wondering if this means that masking asks a lot from the EF brain and places demands on them that eventually give in after years of over-use -> autistic burnout?

Anyway, I'm not drawing any conclusions at this stage (if ever). I have no particular experience in neurological research just an interest and personal experience of burnout and autism, and I thought this was interesting.

I'm not claiming that any of my rambling here is well-thought-through science or research, just a collection of smoking guns and interesting associations.

https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/burnout-and-the-brain

  • Many thanks.  Really interesting.   I've long thought that my amygdalae might be enlarged and I've always had quite high stress levels, from primary school onwards.  Plus certainly my experience of life (and the workplace especially) has involved "“the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of tiny disappointments, each one hardly noticeable on its own.”

  • Brain science fascinates me and I'm partly looking for clues as to things that I can do to help myself recover further other than "keep going and keep trying (harder)".

    I'm also beginning to get a bit passionate about the fact that the experts on burnout seem to be the sufferers themselves give or take - Occ Health departments and general media awareness has caught up with championing general mental health, correcting false beliefs around depression and anxiety, but there seem to be few places to turn to for expertise in treating (& even better, preventing) burnout.

  • I can relate to the bit you quoted too, though for me it was more along the lines of hundreds of medium-sized disappointments :-). i.e. fewer but larger than the quote suggests.

    I had high stress levels from somewhere around the end of my teens until my burnout switched everything off. Since then I'm doing better with stress.

    How was your experience? Have you experienced what you'd describe as burnout?

  • I've noticed that every few years things simply become unsustainable and feel overwhelming.  In the workplace I've had to take time off or leave altogether.  Then it takes me a long tome to put myself back together again.  i only recently started to see it as burnout, more specifically autistic burnout, but looking at it like that does make a lot more sense.  If i'd known beforehand I could have made allowances in advance and some of the jobs I took i never would have taken on in the first place.  Now i could look at them and see instantly, "This is sure to lead to burnout."

    There have been major and medium sized disappointments along the way, many of which still cling to me, but these were always firmly in my awareness.  It's the tiny disappointments that I haven't really considered so much but i think these probably eroded me to the point where the larger ones could just simply bowl me out.  I had nothing left to give.   

  • This is a really interesting article, largely because of the overlap of brain structures involved in Burnout and Autism.

    Your article suggests that people suffering from burnout will have more pronounced thinning of the Medial Prefrontal Cortex, beyond what is expected due to the normal aging process. As well as larger Amygdala and shrinking in the Caudate Nucleus.

    To summarise the brain structures and their function that are involved in both:

    Various articles implicate the involvement of the Medial Prefrontal Cortex in decision making and memory and the ability to retrieve the best action or emotional response to specific events at a particular place and time (1). The Amygdala is responsible for the reactions to stimuli that elicit the emotion of fear. If the Amygdala is damaged or removed then the feeling of fear and thus the response to it is either severely impaired or completely removed (2). The Caudate Nucleus is thought to be involved in the storing and processing of memories and the use of information about past experiences to influence future actions and decisions. It is implied that it also plays a large part in the development and use of language and communication skills (3). Not only that but there are also studies that show evidence for a role of the Caudate Nucleus in OCD suggesting that if the Nucleus is unable to control the transmission of worrying and concerning impulses between the Thalamus and the Orbitofrontal Cortex this then alters the impact and influence of the stored memories about how to respond in a certain situation which then has a knock on effect on decisions and actions in response to certain stimuli (4). 

    With regards to Autism. Studies suggest that the different functioning in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex causes many of the behavioural difficulties in ASD due to differences in processing and integrating information from the fields of perception, memory, emotion and motor (5). There is a wealth of studies that see the Amygdala dysfunction as having a central role in the main symptoms of Autism due to the role it plays in social functioning and social behaviours (6, 7, 8, 9). There have also been found to be some abnormalities of the Caudate Nucleus in Autism, especially with regards to it's connections with other parts of the brain. This has been shown by some studies to influence stereotypical behaviours and executive function (10, 11).

    Thus, in conclusion it would appear to be the case that the very parts of the human brain which are found to be affected by stress related burnout are also some of those that whose function is impaired in Autistic individuals. It could therefore be suggested that Autistic individuals are at a much higher risk of burnout, due to differences in their underlying neurological functional anatomy as compared to non-Autistic individuals.

    I wonder if they thought to run the ADOS on the participants in the study that you cited? Just a thought....

    1.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3562704/

    2. https://nba.uth.tmc.edu/neuroscience/m/s4/chapter06.html

    3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301008208001019

    4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3079445/

    5. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00074/full (also links on here to lots of other really good papers)

    6.. https://www.sfari.org/funded-project/amygdala-circuitry-of-impaired-social-emotional-behavior-in-autism/

    7. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170207142714.htm

    8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5192959/

    9. https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms13421

    10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1635430/

    11. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187892931530013X

    Please see also:

    12. https://academic.oup.com/cercor/article/25/6/1554/300206

    13. www.frontiersin.org/.../full

    Right that's me done for the day with scientific research! Thank you for the distraction :-)

  • Wow that's lot of references! Thanks Kitsun :-) I will get reading ...........

    You came to a similar conclusion to where I was vaguely going. Alongside my other post today, I am realising that my EF is easily overstretched, and that's probably precisely the brain function that I've been desperately trying to use for 20 years or so in masking.......

  • Thanks for the article, I found it quite informative.  I'm currently off work with anxiety but it's been brewing for ages, I'm wondering if I am burnt out. The physical symptoms which I've had for the past year I've only realised this past month are my body crying out "stop". I know my body is going to take a while to recover.  I think i get the bit about "thousands of disappointments" in that it's all the little things which cumulate together to cause one big ball. One thing which rang bells for me was the bit about changing your circumstances after recovery and listening to your body so it doesn't happen again.

  • Hi Out_of_step, sorry to hear about that. If it helps you decide whether it's burnout or not, the thing that stood out for me against all previous episodes of depression / stress / sick leave was that I suddenly no longer cared what happened to me. I gave up any idea of needing to preserve anything in my life - all of the fight had gone out of me.

    I didn't struggle with physical symptoms, it was all mental for me. But that won't be the same for everyone.

  • I found this all very interesting to read, thank you.

    I had burn out because of my job last year. I've changed job, changed lifestyle and very much enjoy where I work. But here I am a year later and I am in tears every day and have a meltdown (akin to an adult tantrum coupled with really angry thoughts which come out of nowhere) every few months. I'm exhausted from it and don't know how to move forward. I can think of a few other times in my life I've been at this stage and each time has been linked with a significant event..a series illness, bullying at work, family upheaval. I want s break from myself.

    So my question is, do we have to weather the storms or can something neurological be done? Not medication but training our brain to work differently?

    I don't want to be without my ASD. I'm good friends with it. It helps me do really amazing things. But there are a couple of bits which I could do without and this is one of them. Anyone successfully coached themselves out of meltdowns? Or experienced bouts of crying for an extended time and manahed the episodes?

    Thank you for reading.

  • Hi Besidethesea, I wonder this too - can we do anything to take advantage of brain plasticity that would ameliorate the aspects that we find troubling?

    There are lots of psychological methods used to treat MH problems that do effective re-wiring on the brain (CBT for example) but what I don't know is how to be sure that we are doing healthy re-wiring and not re-establishing the masking patterns that contributed to burnout in the first place - the last thing I want to do is burn out again.