Burned Out by Work, Life, the State of the World? Dr. Robin Berzin Says We’re All Fried—and It’s Impacting Us on Deeper Levels than We Realize. Here’s What to Do.
I always thought I could “beat” my burnout. I’d take a mental health day or meet my girlfriends for beers thinking that would be just the ticket. While these things feel great, they never shift my perpetual state of angst, overwhelm, and being fried.
I’m not alone. Research shows that burnout has reached an all-time high. Robin Berzin, MD sees this constantly in her work. Day after day, the founder and CEO of Parsley Health, a holistic medical practice, works with patients teetering on the edge. “We are living in an era that is always on. We are hyper-stimulated—and that stimulation doesn't stop at the boundaries of our work,” she tells me over Zoom. “Our shopping, our social lives, our communication with family—every single thing we do is constant now.”
The positive news is that we can get in front of this—and the tools for doing so are the basis of Dr. Berzin’s new book, State Change: End Anxiety, Beat Burnout, and Ignite a New Baseline of Energy and Flow. She offers actionable, concrete ways to help us create what she calls a state change, “a powerful shift in our positivity, our mood, our energy, our clarity, our focus—which is something that we can find over and over again, every single day.”
Dr. Berzin’s insight is as life-changing as it is simple. She also guides us to fully understanding what burnout truly is and how it impacts us—which has radically changed my approach to this tenacious issue.
A Conversation with Dr. Robin Berzin
You write in your new book that our western system of medicine silos our mental health and our physical health. Let’s start there.
Our minds and our bodies are not separate. There is no concrete wall between our heads and the rest of us. And yet our medical system has siloed these two critical and equally important areas of our health into literally different departments. If we are going to truly deliver whole-person health, we need to look at the mind, the body, and our emotions as one.
Our healthcare system isn't really designed for what we need today. It's sort of designed for another time and chronic conditions, whether it's a blood sugar issue or a joint pain issue or depression—these things develop over weeks and months and years and sometimes decades. We need a system of medicine that is geared to look at us and work with us over time and be more than a reactive 15-minute visit and refill. By treating the mind and the body together, and by understanding how one presses on the other in two directions—it's a two-direction conversation—we're often able to unlock not just a daily state change but a more permanent state change in our mental health and mood—all by addressing what's happening on the physical level.
Burnout is pervasive today. Talk about what you’re seeing that’s concerning you.
From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, we are living in fight or flight. We are living like we're running from a lion. That lion today is your email, the news notification about the latest global crisis, the social media ping. So when the body lives in crisis for a long period of time—months and years, as we all have been—that is a physiological state. That is a state where your hormones, bones, neurotransmitters, and all the chemicals in the body are on high alert all day, every day, it causes disease: high blood sugar, high blood pressure, digestive issues, immune system issues. It also causes anxiety, depression, and a sense of chronic fatigue.
Many of us may have a hard time asking, ‘Am I diagnosed with a disease called burnout?’. That might be tough, but that feeling is a true biological state. It is a syndrome. It is real. It is happening in your body—it's not just happening in your head. So we've all been living in that state for so long that everyone forgets that it’s become this new normal. If we don't want that to be our new normal, if we don’t want burn-out to be the automatic consequence of living a productive, successful life, then we need to reinvest in our physical health in new ways because our bodies are what need healing. Whether we're dealing with situational burnout from the past two years, or we're dealing with trauma and PTSD and things from a long time ago, whatever level it is or wherever it comes from, trying to deal with that feeling is like trying to climb Everest. Not addressing what's happening in the body is like trying to get to the top of Everest without even stopping by basecamp. It’s not going to happen.
I've always thought I could outsmart my burnout. You’re saying burnout is more than mental. That functionally, it’s a physiological state. Will you expound on that?
We cannot think our way out of chronic fear. Fear is a physiologic state. When you have a thought that you feel anxious or afraid, maybe you don't even register that thought but the body responds to that emotional state or to that emotion. The thought might be: I'm nervous about this interview. Or it could be: I don't know when I'm going to see my family again. Whatever it is, you have a thought, you then have an emotional reaction to that thought, which may be fear or sadness, and then that emotional reaction triggers our neurohormonal cascade in the body that touches every single cell, that washes through you and can last up to 48 hours—all for one emotional reaction. So imagine if you have 10, 20, or 100 triggers in a single day. Now your body may be dealing with heightened blood sugar, heightened blood pressure, faster heart rate, digestion, poor sleep—and then that goes on day after day. Now we have a physiologic of physical burnout that is very real and that might be worsening or worsened by other chronic issues.
So where do we begin? How can we start to beat burnout and create a state change?
First of all, I want to say: This is your year. This is your year—to take all that you've been through over the past couple of years and seize that as your superhero cape, and get proactive about your health. We’ve told you to put your oxygen mask on first, but we haven't given you the tools to do it. In this book, I am giving you the tools to do it. You are the chief medical officer of your home family and your community.
So, we need to equip you with the tools day in and day out to start to feel better.
Number one is what you're eating.
We can create a powerful state change every single day with what we put in our mouths. It’s a core action. What you eat every day is defining how you feel right now. It’s about taking out the refined sugars and the refined carbs, which account for 95 percent of the American diet and making us inflamed and sick and foggy and anxious and down, and replacing that with real whole foods: vegetables, plants, whole grains, root vegetables, fish, meat. These are things that you can see, things that you understand that came up from the ground or lived on the farm that aren't coming out of processed bags or wrapping. Eating that way will save you money and learning to cook at home will also be enjoyable. When we take out those refined flours, refined sugars, and vegetable oils and the canola oils that are in everything processed and packaged and are interfering with our brain's ability to use the serotonin we have and replace them with whole foods, you will—within days—begin to see the world in a different way.
Number two is sleep.
Firstly, we have a lot of factors in our lives that are counteracting our ability to sleep well, like if we’re drinking alcohol to manage our emotions and to feel better. Alcohol disrupts our sleep as it disrupts the lower resting heart rate and lower body temperature that you need to achieve deep sleep. We need that sleep quality, not just that sleep quantity. This means:
1. A dark cool room around that is 66 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. In bed by 10 pm to avoid that later night cortisol spike.
3. Being mindful of your caffeine intake. I don’t drink caffeine after 9 am.
4. Going screen-free at least 60-minutes before bed—so don't go to bed scrolling your favorite news feed or social media platform. It’s not just the light from your phone. It's the information you’re ingesting that then your brain digests, which keeps you up at night.
What I am about to ask is obvious and redundant, but I still need to ask: Is there hope for us in our burned-out world?
Yes. We can re-energize. We can find that positivity. You can go from feeling down and fogged and exhausted and over it in one moment to exhilarated and positive and ready for the world, all through the tools that I offer. Sure, that real quick shift might require a dance party to your favorite song. But to shift your physiology—and your physiology determines your psychology—we need to maintain that more sustainable staging, which is about changing the foods we eat, sleeping better, shifting our approach to alcohol, and more. So yes, it's very possible.
The other thing I'll say is that these things are basic, but we just haven't learned that it's not our fault. We learned to tie shoes and brush our teeth. But we don't, at any juncture, teach our children or therefore ourselves how to take care of our bodies in a way that will generate health. Instead, we learn how to destroy our bodies day in and day out. What I wrote down in the book are the tools that we didn't learn as kids, but that we need to learn now—to save ourselves.
Dr. Robin Berzin is the Founder and CEO of Parsley Health, the nation’s leading holistic medical practice designed to help people overcome chronic conditions. She founded Parsley to address the rising tide of chronic disease in America through personalized holistic medicine that puts food, lifestyle, and proactive diagnostic testing on the prescription pad next to medications. To learn more visit parsleyhealth.com. You can order her new book, State Change, here.