The result of long-term stress: how does a burnout develop?

The result of long-term stress: how does a burnout develop?
Stress is a physical and emotional feeling of tension. Stress is based on situations that make you afraid, frustrated, nervous, or inwardly restless. Your body, especially your nervous system, interprets stress as a threat to the environment.

Past vs now

In the past, in the time of our ancestors, this was an acute and concrete threat. For example, a bear that suddenly appeared. In our current society there are also acute and concrete threats (for example, being assaulted or threatened, having an accident…).

Most stressors, however, are non-life-threatening but frequently occur on a daily basis. Such as traffic jams, traffic noise, someone cutting off your pass or stabbing you in the store, a long line at the cash register; your children who are not ready to go to school in time; the dishes that are still there, your computer that does not do what you ask,

a colleague who is unfriendly to you, your proposal is rejected at the meeting, a discussion with your partner, a news report about a terrorist attack; yet another bill in the letterbox, or your smartphone that continuously rings (email, Facebook, WhatsApp, SMS…); not finding your keys right away, the neighbor who is playing music too loud again, an annoying cough that just won’t go away, walking bored because your girlfriend doesn’t call back… and so on.

The result of long-term stress: how does a burnout develop?

In addition, we live in an age of technology and (social) media, automation and urbanization, which means that our brain is always switched on and overloaded. This causes chronic stress.

The stress response

Acute, life-threatening stress and chronic stress, due to an accumulation of daily non-threatening stressors, are interpreted the same way by our bodies. The stress response that goes up in your body is the same when you have to run from a bear as it is when you get frustrated with your boss’s incompetence on a daily basis. This is what happens then:

Your nervous system senses the threat and sounds the alarm. This triggers the stress response. Its function is to protect your life. Stress hormones are released and these will ensure that you have a greater physiological strength. Which you need to be able to fight or flee. Your heart will beat faster so that blood can be sent to the muscles and you will breathe faster and shallower. So that more oxygen goes to the muscles. Your blood thickens so that you don’t immediately bleed to death if you are attacked.

If the threat persists (for example, the bear hanging around camp for days or, during this time, when we feel constantly stressed) cortisol is also released. Cortisol ensures that we can continue to resist in the long term. It does this, among other things, by increasing our blood sugar level (more fuel). However, the downside is that cortisol is very harmful to the body.

The result of long-term stress: how does a burnout develop?


Because this is the other side of the coin, when you are under stress for a long time:

  • The life-supporting functions of organs and the growth processes in the body are inhibited. Such as digestion, nutrient absorption, excretion, cell growth and energy production.
  • The immune system is suppressed, making you more susceptible to viruses and bacteria.
  • The brain will function less well, concentration problems will arise, information processing will be slower and your problem-solving ability will deteriorate.
  • The feel-good hormones (serotonin, dopamine and endorphins) decrease, causing depressive symptoms.
  • The fear and aggression center in the brain becomes hyperactive. You become more susceptible to the negative.
  • Do you no longer feel the limits of your body so that you keep going (in fight or flight mode) and eventually become exhausted.

Burnout occurs

Fortunately, a burnout does not happen overnight. But if stress lasts too long (there is already talk of chronic stress after only 3 weeks), is too intense or if there are too many moments of stress in quick succession, then the body does not have enough time to recuperate and enters the danger zone. closer and closer.

If the stressor does not disappear, the body goes from the acute phase (flight or flight reaction) to the adaptation phase, during this phase cortisol (= a stress hormone) is produced to be able to keep going. However, continuing to adapt to the stress costs the body a lot of energy, which eventually leads to the exhaustion phase. Burnout is therefore also called the exhaustion syndrome.

The result of long-term stress: how does a burnout develop?


A prolonged high cortisol level leads to resistance, in the blood cortisol is normal or elevated, but it no longer does its job or very minimally. With chronic stress, the adrenal gland has to produce so many stress hormones that it becomes exhausted. This results in a low cortisol level, which makes you even more sensitive to stress. This creates a vicious circle.

If you suffer from stress for too long, the stress hormones are continuously produced, so that your body has much less energy and no time to repair itself. Because excessive stress consumes energy, it eventually exhausts you both physically and mentally and seriously jeopardizes your life force. It destroys your health and vitality and also creates a deep well in your reserves. Chronic or long-lasting stress is therefore the cause of most (deadly) diseases.

95% of all illnesses can be traced back to too much stress. Stress is like a backpack full of rocks. Every stress experience is stored somewhere in the body and disrupts its normal functioning, resulting in illness, imbalance and stagnation.


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