van Luijtelaar, Gilles; Verbraak, Marc; van den Bunt, Martijn, MSc; Keijsers, Ger;Arns, Martijn, MSc. EEG findings in burnout patients. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 22, 208-217.
Burnout is a disorder characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, depersonalization, cynicism, and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment in regards to one’s work. Burnout rates are high among high-stress occupations (the medical field is an often-cited example), including musicians.
I was interested in whether I could find any research on the specific neurological symptoms of burnout, and what might be done to alleviate them. As it turns out, a 2010 study examined the first part of this question using EEG. Researchers compared patients diagnosed with burnout syndrome with healthy patients in order to establish whether there were any distinctive neurological markers of burnout. Burnout shares many symptoms in common with both depression and chronic fatigue syndrome; however, the study found that burnout was distinctive from both these disorders. Specifically, burnout patients exhibited a certain type of brain wave that is associated with reduced cognitive function and decision making; this wave can be present in depression patients, but depression also frequently shows frontal-lobe asymmetry, which was not present in the burnout patients. Researchers suggested that prolonged stress could impact the functioning of the hippocampus, which can result in the type of wave observed in the burnout patients. The researchers believed that, although burnout shared characteristics with both depression and chronic fatigue syndrome, it had distinctive enough neurological markers to be diagnosed separately.
These findings are interesting in terms of recognition of this disorder for diagnosis, but I was unable to find similar neurology-based research regarding treatment. It may be that this research is too new to have been investigated for treatment purposes. The Web is full of informal articles regarding treatment of burnout in musicians; many, however, are predicated on the idea that one already has a musical career in progress and is working too much. Burnout among music students out of professional frustration and lack of fulfilling music-making is also common; it would be wonderful if this research led to new treatment ideas that might allow more music students to remain committed to the passion that brought them to music in the first place.