New Biology: Burnout Circuit Overload - Dr Naras Bhat MD
Christina Maslach, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley did extensive research on burnout in the contemporary work culture. She described burnout as an “erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will—an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually, and continuously over time, putting people in a downward spiral from which it’s hard to recover.” She found three characteristics in burnout victims: exhaustion (physical, mental, emotional), cynicism, and ineffectiveness. Maslach’s study revealed that the first reason for burnout is work overload, followed by lack of control, insufficient reward, unfairness, breakdown of community, and value conflict. In similar breakthrough research, Psychologist, Cary Cherniss, Ph.D., author of Beyond Burnout, studied burnout in relation to service-oriented professions and found that the common denominators of burnout are depersonalization and loss of “meaning in life.”
Time & Focus Pressure Lead To Circuit Overload
The burnout of any system can be due to frequency, intensity, or duration of overload. Through our Cybernetix Medical Institute in Concord, California, we’ve worked with software engineers in Silicon Valley. These engineers were suffering from project burnout. We found that teaching the engineers to take micro-breaks from the repeated or sustained hits of their narrow focusing on the project, allowed for the reduction and balancing of the allostatic overload. We’ve also successfully used our stress resilience model with University of California, Berkeley students who were struggling with test anxiety. We found that when the students studied for hours, nonstop, the retention rate was low, and the student burnout rate was high. Whereas, when the student took a micro-break every five minutes, and a longer break every 90-120 minutes, he or she coped well and avoided allostatic overload. This phenomenon of narrow-focused work leading to burnout can be further explained by the following example. Imagine a child holding a magnifying glass over a piece of paper. He is holding the glass so that the sun strikes it and the intensity of the narrow focused rays cause the paper to smoke. If continued long enough, the paper catches fire. That’s where the narrow-focused energy literally becomes burned out, or leads to burnout.
The Myths About Workaholism & Creativity
In today’s profit-oriented culture, people have the mistaken belief that their productivity is dependent on narrow-focused (intense) work—without breaks. But in fact, two distinct studies show that workaholism and narrow-focused work paradoxically reduce productivity. Charles Garfield, Professor of Psychology, University of San Francisco Medical School, studied peak performers and found that workaholism doesn’t lead to peak performance or creativity. He found that workaholics are compulsively addicted to work—not the results. They work hard, but not smart, thus, often becoming fatigued and burned out.
Similarly, an illustration of the negative impacts of narrow focusing can be seen today with the increase in repetitive strain injuries, such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This disorder is alarmingly on the rise due to the narrow-focused, computer work that often creates a state of high tension in the mind-body. By contrast, in pre-computer times, repetitive strain injuries were uncommon when the typewriter was the sole means of word processing. The reason being is this: typewriters gave typists a momentary, built-in, switch from narrow to open focus every time they hit the carriage return. The computer, on the other hand, doesn’t insist on these repeated, regular breaks that allow people to momentarily open their focuses and create more mind-body balance.
An additional negative result of narrow focusing is when the focus is turned intensely on body arousal sensations alone. In fact, this type of narrow focusing on body arousal sometimes brings on a high anxiety state. For instance, let’s say a woman interprets her body arousal sensations as signs of weakness or danger. Then, the increased heart rate, due to stress, could trigger catastrophic thoughts that she is having a heart attack. This fearful thought, combined with the intense/narrow focus on her body arousal, can further escalate the stressful body reactions and create more anxiety.
Another example of narrow focusing on body arousal sensations, from the sports world, would be “athletic choking.” This is when an athlete becomes narrowly focused on his or her body arousal and then misses the ball. The coaches explain athletic choking by the principle of “double bracing.” For example, when the flexor and extender muscles are tensed simultaneously it makes a person clumsy and rigid.
Now, let’s discuss the myth of creativity. Many people believe that narrow focusing on task increases creativity. For instance, we may think of the stereotypical artist who doesn’t take regular breaks when he or she is enthralled in the act of creative inspiration. We may think this passionate state” of creativity has an intensely narrow focus. So what does research tell us?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Creativity describes a University of Chicago study of 2300 people. He found that creative people could continually switch their focus between the opposite polarities of life. For example, they could switch between activity-rest, smart-naive, disciplined-playful, reality-fantasy, and extroversion-introversion. In short, creative people have the ability to switch their focuses and this allows them to embrace both the mastery and the mystery of life.