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Burn-on: how does chronic exhaustion come about?

Updated: May 12, 2023

Unlike burn-out, which is now widely known, burn-on is an unexplored phenomenon – just because it’s less known doesn’t mean it isn’t real, though! This form of chronic exhaustion – also called chronic exhaustive depression – often goes unnoticed for long periods of time (all too long!), which gradually leads to serious consequences. This is how it develops.


… aaaaaand action!


The alarm clock rings, my body boots up automatically like an operative system and plods through the day entirely under the direction of others … aaaaaand action! Like a Hollywood action hero, I try to perform at my best – I am successful professionally, I achieve an inordinate amount, I always have everything under control (from the outside, at least!) and I’m always in a good mood. And that has an effect: managers, colleagues, and business partners all give positive feedback that my performance is great!


But my inner self is painting an entirely different picture.

A woman is surrounded by lots of coloured plates balancing on wooden sticks. She artfully reaches from one stick to the other to make sure that no plate falls off. Burn-on sufferers over-achieve and always go to great lengths to complete many tasks at the once. At the same time, they don’t let on the chronic exhaustion they feel inside.
From the outside, burn-on sufferers appear to perform effortlessly and have everything under control all the time.

Life as an empty shell isn’t any fun


When the Hollywood costume comes off – or, to put it another way: when I’ve completed my tasks for the time being – I’m left feeling like an empty shell: exhausted, joyless, and alienated from myself. I don’t have any energy left for the things that really matter to me or for things that would do me good. Everything feels like an obligation. Even the things I used to love and enjoy so much. Even outings, dates with friends, sport or travel are just more things added to my to-do list that’s already far too long.


I’m not living anymore, I'm just functioning … somehow …


This is roughly what the trailer of a burn-on sufferer’s life looks like, and the constant back and forth between these two opposing states is brutally exhausting.


Straddling the abyss


In the book, ‘Burn on – Immer kurz vorm Burn out’ (free translation: ‘Burn-on – Always on the Verge of Burn-Out’), published in 2021, Prof. Dr. Bert te Wildt and Timo Schiele describe burn-on as a permanent tension between two poles. Much like an artistic gymnast who proudly and gleefully maintains a painful balancing act without noticing an abyss open up beneath them, it’s a long time before sufferers of burn-on realise that they’re losing the ground under their feet … or, at the very least, they don’t want to look down …


A gender-neutral person in comic style maintains a balancing act over a precipice between two rocks. It is a long time before burn-on sufferers realise they are losing their footing. Or they do not want to admit that they’re feeling too much stress and suffer from chronic exhaustion.
For burn-on sufferers, the constant back and forth between having to perform and feeling drained is brutally exhausting.

Always at – or even slightly above – their breaking point, they do everything they can to continue performing as successfully as possible. They don’t let the effort show, but to avoid falling into the depths they must keep exerting themselves with more and more strength. During burn-on, such a state can be maintained for an awfully long time. And that’s without the collapse common to cases of burnout. That’s precisely what is so dangerous! The burning feeling of straddling the gap turns into a permanent state of affairs and, in turn, makes you ill.


You can find the 15 burn-on signs to look out for in the same blog series – "Burn-on: 15 signs that point to chronic exhaustion".


Stress is a blessing…


Stress is necessary for survival. If we are in danger, our body automatically triggers a kind of alarm response and our stress hormones shoot up. This releases energy and bolsters out strength for a short time, so that we can protect ourselves and – figuratively speaking – survive (the so-called ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction). Once the danger is over, this reaction subsides, stress hormones decrease, and the body returns to normal. But there is also a flip side to this coin.


… and curse at the same time


If stress (or, as described in the example above, the ‘balancing act’) becomes a permanent condition, it becomes impossible to balance both the alarm and recovery from it. As a result, our stress hormone levels remain constantly high and throws us off balance.


Our well-being is severely impaired, both physically and psychologically, and the variety of possible negative consequences for our bodies is frightening: chronic tension, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, cardiovascular diseases, kidney diseases, metabolic disorders, allergies, inflammatory diseases, skin problems, difficulties with concentration, insomnia, lack of drive or depressive moods are just a few examples.


The art of suppression


It often affects people who have the urge to control everything around them and tend to be perfectionists. That's why they don't allow things to come to a complete standstill. And because they find the work or activity they’re engaged in fundamentally meaningful and fulfilling – this applies equally to professionals, volunteers, and parents – they are able to suppress any signs for a long, long time. Much like the gymnast described above, they persist (seemingly effortlessly) in this state of permanent tension, repressing the fact that the ground is cracking beneath their legs. Life is postponed until later, now is all about functioning…


Burn-on in brief


During burn-on, a chronic form of exhaustion – also known as chronic exhaustive depression – slowly creeps in, which really hollows out those affected internally. Overwork, constant strain, or permanent stress are at the root of this phenomenon. Despite being deeply exhausted, those effected perform their duties flawlessly and with a smile on their face. Inwardly, however, burn-on sufferers feel like an empty shell – devoid of energy, joy, and drive, with life passing them by.


Burn-on threatens us all, directly or indirectly


If you are familiar with the characteristics of burn-on, you quickly realise how widespread it is in our western society, and the trend is rising! Whether it’s ourselves or someone we know – maybe even a loved one – we are all affected. This means there is an urgent need for action to ensure that our society has a healthy and happy future ahead.


In the same blog series, I show you ways to escape burn-on, including step-by-step instructions that are simple, time-saving, and effective. Click here for the blog post: Burn-on: a step-by-step guide out of chronic exhaustion.


 

About the author

As a former burn-on sufferer, it is very important to me to contribute to raising awareness and educating people about burn-on syndrome - that's what this blog series is for. I hope to help as many people as possible to better understand their situation, feelings, or fears, so that they can help themselves or get help. As a certified HeartMath® coach, I also accompany my clients on their individual escape from burn-on.



Bibliography

Book «Burn on: Immer kurz vorm Burn out Das unerkannte Leiden und was dagegen hilft», Prof. Dr. Bertte Wildt, Timo Schiele, 2021, Droemer Verlag

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