How Burnout Affects Your Memory

Jan 27, 2021

Dr. Ben Connolly, ND

Dr. Ben Connolly, ND


Burnout has become a serious problem in our society. We see it all around us, we see it at work, we see it in our volunteers, we see it in our children’s teachers and coaches.  Burnout has become so common that we make jokes about it and brush it off when someone mentions it. Although burnout may not be the number one killer, I would argue that it is the number one contributor to decreasing quality of life for my otherwise healthy patients. One of the areas that quality of life can be significantly affected is by the effect of burnout on the brain, specifically your memory.

The brain is largely affected by burnout. The literature shows that as our brains are exposed to chronically elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline (the main 2 hormones elevated during burnout) that changes begin to occur in the brain. One area of the brain hit the hardest is called the hippocampus. This is the part of our brain that stores our short-term memory as well as our ability to learn something new. As the hippocampus is exposed to cortisol and adrenaline it atrophies (becomes weak). This means we notice that our short-term memory function drastically decreases, along with our ability to stay focused, plan, solve problems and learn something new.

The other area of our brain which is affected is the hind brain, or the oldest parts of our brain. This part of our brain is responsible for breathing, movement, sleep and wakefulness. This part of our brain can become upregulated after long exposure to stress hormones. Symptoms will include hyperirritability, increased startle reflex as well as disturbed sleep patterns.

It is not all bad news though. It has been shown that once the brains exposure to high levels of stress hormones has been balanced these negative changes will go away and the brain will return to normal.

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