Are you burned out? Here’s how your body might be telling you.

Physician and author Neha Sangwan provides tips to interpret your body's signs and prevent burnout.
Stressed person probably wondering if they're suffering from burnout
Learn how to listen to your body and find out if you're experiencing burnout. jed2uphoto / Deposit Photos

Excerpted from Powered by Me: From Burned Out to Fully Charged at Work and in Life by Neha Sangwan, MD, with permission from McGraw Hill, pages 44-49, September 2023.

How do you tell the difference between when your body is casually communicating with you and when it is trying to alert you to signs of burnout? Well, that depends on how closely you’re listening and whether you’re numbing the early signals. Your body has manners. It knows you’re busy, so it starts with a whisper, at a low volume (say one or two out of 10), but if you don’t pay attention, it continues to get louder, until it eventually stops you in your tracks. If you’ve gotten in the habit of hitting snooze on your body’s signals with various coping mechanisms, you can reach an 11—a heart attack, pneumonia, or other crisis—without even realizing it. That’s scary. 

It’s important to note that your body is more than just an alarm system. It wants to be your friend, and it talks to you about everything. Yes, it’s also informing you in your everyday communication with others when something is:

  • Important to you 
  • Out of balance 
  • Different from what you expected 
  • Not quite right 
  • Exactly right 

Your body’s signals will not only give you a heads-up when something is wrong and it’s time to see the doctor, but also day-to-day updates on what resonates with you and what just feels off. Once you learn how to interpret these powerful signals, you’ll have a distinct advantage in every conversation, interaction, and experience in your life. 

The body map

Begin by ruling out any medical problems. Any new and unusual signals from your body need to be checked out by a medical professional. Once you’ve gotten a clean bill of health, then you can explore how the collection of symptoms may potentially be caused by burnout. 

When we’re acutely focused on everyone and everything around us (external data), it’s easy to miss what’s happening inside us (internal data). Recognizing and healing burnout depends on how attuned you are to interpreting your own physiology and responding to the data your body is sending. 

Each person’s body has a unique communication style. For some people, it’s their heart racing, stomach turning, or muscles tensing. For others, it’s sweating or shallow, rapid breathing. All day long, your body communicates with you, and it’s critical that you’re able to decipher those signals. These physical sensations are the gateway of awareness to valuable information that will guide you on this journey. 

Take a look at the Body Map illustration below to get a few ideas of how your body might be trying to communicate with you. By no means is this an exhaustive list. Feel free to add your own physical sensations to the diagram. 

One of the fastest ways to tune in to your physiology is by becoming aware of your physical body in space and where it meets the external world. By this, I mean literally shifting your attention to where your body meets the chair or wherever you are sitting. If you’re standing, notice where your feet meet the floor. As you take your next deep breath, focus on the expansion and contraction of your rib cage. Next, become aware of the sensations of clothing on your body, such as the tightness or looseness of your waistband.

Diagram of the human body showing zones where burnout symptoms might appear.
Begin by ruling out any medical problems. Only then you can explore how a collection of symptoms may potentially be caused by burnout. John-Carlos Lozano / Courtesy of McGraw Hill publishers

Don’t worry if this doesn’t come naturally. If you’ve experienced high stress over long periods of time, you may have adapted to tuning out your body’s sensations. It’s a common coping mechanism. For example, Alex, my seatmate on my latest flight, was adept at silencing his body’s signals (headaches, insomnia, and back pain). He went searching for clues to heal himself, but in the interim, prescriptions and cocktails brought the only relief he could find. 

If you’ve been relying on your own coping mechanisms, whatever they may be, and are out of practice at listening to your body, try expanding your awareness in everyday activities: 

1. While you’re on a call or in a meeting, hold a smooth stone or weight that fits comfortably in your hand.

2. Each time you notice the weight in your hand, use it as a reminder to check in with your body (meaning, is your body trying to get your attention? Do your wrists hurt from too much typing? Is your rear end numb from sitting for too long? Do you need to stand up, stretch, or get some water?). 

3. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t feel anything. Instead, take a deep breath and refocus your attention back on the weight in your hand.

 4. Anytime you notice an emotion arise in another person or a shift in intensity in the conversation, that’s a good time to bring your awareness back to the weight in your hand. 

5. Be patient. You will begin to tune in to your body’s signals.

The signals are already there

You probably feel more than you realize. What about that pesky neck or shoulder pain? A 3 o’clock energy dip? Any intermittent headaches? What about joint stiffness? These are all signals from your body. 

Once you identify and understand its unique language, you will be able to decipher the physical clues even earlier (at lower intensities), get curious and ask yourself, What happens before that? And just before that?

Powered by Me, book cover
Neha Sangwan is an internal medicine physician, international speaker, corporate communication expert. She consults with organizations such as the American Heart Association, American Express, Apple, Kaiser Permanente, and Google, and has shared her journey on the stages of TEDx Berkeley, TEDx San Luis Obispo, and TEDx Babson. Courtesy of McGrawHill publishing

Interpreting your body  

Understanding your body’s unique language can seem confusing at first. That’s only until you learn how to interpret the intensity and frequency of the signals as well as the context of the situation. The data from your body typically falls into one of three main categories:   

Everyday guidance: low volume, low frequency

Helping you navigate everyday situations and a changing environment and recalibrating your internal GPS in new experiences. These physical signals can show up in many ways: intermittent muscle tension, throat constriction, jaw tightness, knots in your stomach, to name a few. 

Chronic depletion: mid-volume, more frequent

Alerting you to a drain of energy and lack of alignment in your internal GPS. These physical signals can show up as individual symptoms, such as fatigue, heart palpitations, insomnia, headaches, imbalance, pain, brain fog, forgetfulness, diarrhea, constipation, or a collection of symptoms known as a syndrome. 

Physical breakdown: high volume, consistent frequency

Letting you know that something is physically wrong and needs your immediate attention and/or medical support. In extreme situations, this would show up as a sudden onset of crushing chest pain, perhaps a slurring of words, or loss of function in a limb. In this case, you would call 911 for emergency healthcare.

Buy Powered by Me: From Burned Out to Fully Charged at Work and in Life by Neha Sangwan here.