Home » burnout » Burnout as a root cause of addiction

Burnout is a phrase often bandied around these days, often without much thought as to what the term actually means or the factors that make people feel so exhausted. Although most people feel “burnt out” from time to time, severe burnout is a condition that should not be ignored.


Stress is a fact of modern life for most of us, but high-powered, high-achieving people with demanding lives often use stress and the resulting adrenaline as the fuel that propels them through the demands of their busy days. Over time, this relentless drive can take its toll. People with severe burnout feel overwhelmed by stress when they wake up in the morning and when they climb into bed at night.


Burnout can be intense enough to threaten health, relationships and careers. Sometimes it drags on for years as people continue to experience profound feelings of severe mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. Burnout can actually be measured with specialised laboratory tests, such as Cortisol levels. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands to protect the body from stress, and it becomes fatigued and literally “burns out” if the stress continues.

Burnout as an underlying cause of addiction

It is not difficult to understand how burnout can be an underlying cause of addiction. Sleep disturbance is a common symptom; racing thoughts prevent people from falling asleep and serve as an unwanted alarm clock in the middle of the night. People then turn to alcohol for some relief, as alcohol is a sedative. Or they try to numb stress and anxiety with prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines etc.
Often people need help waking up from the drowsiness and hazy mind caused by sedatives. Some people rely on caffeine to give them an energy boost, but too often cocaine or amphetamines provide the energy to get through the day. Other unhealthy distractions such as internet pornography, gambling or overeating can provide relief by acting as temporary mood elevators.

Symptoms of a burnout

Fortunately, none of these things solves anything, and a dangerous cycle can quickly turn into a full-blown addiction. There are a number of signs and symptoms to look out for if you fear you may be suffering from burnout:

  • Weak immunity and frequent minor illnesses such as colds, headaches, allergies or skin irritations
  • Difficulty making decisions (even in people who are usually very decisive)
  • Feelings of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion
  • Loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities, including sexuality
  • Feelings of dissatisfaction, disillusionment and boredom, or a sense that life has lost its meaning and purpose
  • Intense emotions, including depressed thoughts, anxiety and panic
  • Loss of self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Anger and irritability, infrequent outbursts of rage

There is no set time frame for burnout. Some people can endure relatively high levels of stress over long periods of time, while others develop burnout fairly quickly. However, boredom often affects perfectionist, high-functioning people who set very high self-expectations.

Solutions for a burnout

If you are normally a highly motivated, responsible and energetic person, it can be difficult to admit that there is a problem. However, it is crucial to seek help as soon as possible, because although you may have achieved great things, you are not superhuman and you cannot do everything. With the help of an experienced therapist, you can learn techniques to address and manage the stressors that have stolen the feelings of reward, accomplishment and joy from your life. When burnout is accompanied by addiction to drugs or alcohol, proper treatment for drug addiction and alcohol addiction is the place to go.

Biochemical repair of exhausted body cells and restoration of adrenal function is vital and a thorough medical check-up with a holistic doctor is highly recommended and should always be part of the treatment for burnout at any stage of severity and duration.

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