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Stressed Out? Don't Let It Become Burnout

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Aug. 15, 2001 -- (Quebec City) Do you pop aspirin almost every day to deal with your sore neck, back, or head? Do you work such long hours that you sometimes forget your children's names? Watch out! You might be headed for a burnout, and once you've let yourself go that far, you may never be the same again.

Burnout can cause long-term chemical changes in your body that remain even after you feel better, according to new research. These changes make you more vulnerable to stress, and to catching diseases like colds and flu. People who have suffered physical symptoms from stress should continue whatever stress management tools they used to help themselves recover -- even after they feel better.

Shirra Moch is a lecturer in the department of pharmacy, pharmacology, and health sciences at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She specializes in research on stress.

Moch and her colleagues conducted a study on 16 people who suffered a stress burnout so severe that they had to be hospitalized. These people basically spent the whole day in bed crying, she says.

What caused this severe stress?

It was different for everyone, but according to Moch, "Johannesburg is a very, very stressed place. ... The level of crime is excruciatingly high. When you drive out of your house every morning you need to look right and left to make sure there's no one there who is going to steal your car. ... If they have a gun they will ... shoot you dead. There's a level of violence there that is uncontrolled, and the police aren't able to deal with it. You have a daily risk to your personal safety, and there's also a very high rate of theft and break-ins."

Normally, when peoples' bodies are stressed by an illness, or their minds are stressed by a mugging, or even an argument with a spouse, the body starts to pump out a hormone called cortisol. This hormone actually helps the body fight off disease. Many overstressed people have too much cortisol, but the people Moch studied actually had low cortisol levels.

Moch's patients were given intensive stress management therapy while they were in the hospital, which included medicine as well as courses in meditation, breathing, exercise, and nutrition. They also saw a social worker who taught them to handle stressful situations and a psychiatrist who gave them talking therapy. They participated in this program all day for about five days while in hospital and then half days for a short time after they were discharged. Afterwards, they came in for monthly follow-up sessions.

The intense stress management worked -- to a point. The people with burnout did start to feel better and were able to go back to work and live normal lives. However, their cortisol levels have remained low, even five months later. This means they remain more susceptible to diseases like colds and flu and are more likely to have another burnout if they don't stick to the stress management changes they were taught.

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