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Afterburners and Burnout

The sight and sound of a jet fighter deploying afterburner when demanding extra thrust for take-off, or combat, is truly awe-inspiring; human ingenuity perfected. 

As extra fuel is injected and ignited after the turbine, exhaust gases are heated and leave the nozzle at higher velocity, and as we know, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Thank you, Mr. Newton! Differences in the ambient air pressure and the expelled gas can lead to the formation of “shock diamonds,” a string of geometric shapes that may resemble a beautiful necklace to those with a fertile imagination.

Other situations with demanding commitments can also cause larger-than-life sights and sounds, with equal and opposite reactions, but no diamonds result and few are left in awe. I am speaking of burnout, recently included in the eleventh revision of an encyclopedia of medical terminology called the International Classification of Diseases. Burnout is an occupational phenomenon, and together with other oppressive diagnoses, its relevance is becoming ever more clear.

Burnout is “....a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” There are three elements that characterize the condition: physical or emotional exhaustion, reduced efficiency, and a sense of negativity. These might be triggered by the sufferer perceiving lack of control, vague expectations, an unpleasant, chaotic, or boring work environment, loneliness, or a lack of work-life balance. This induces irritability, difficulty concentrating, impaired sleep, a range of physical symptoms – more on that later—and unhealthy eating and drinking habits or using illicit or prescription medications. Recently, burnout has been identified as a major issue for healthcare workers with many doctors and others choosing to leave their professions.

Diligent pilots self-certify prior to every flight with “IM SAFE” and similar tools. Perhaps we need another acronym, such as “WELL” – do you have Work-related Energy, are you able to Laugh, and are you Laid-back? In other words, are you fully in contact with your life before announcing “contact!”

In a world with multiple stressors such as economic concerns, war, political upheaval and an endless negative news cycle, it can be hard to separate burnout from underlying depression or as a response to a specific trigger to something particularly upsetting as in post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a term that is almost certainly overused.

Although burnout is a work-induced phenomenon, all these symptoms may bleed into other areas of life, and as pilots we need to be on top of our game. I have always balked at the term “professional pilot,” for while many of us may not earn our daily bread in the wild blue yonder, we do take our avocation very seriously and professionally. So, burnout may arise in those flying for a living, but also in those of you who have other ways to pay the bills, and if afflicted by burnout there, it may creep into the cockpit. Given that we need all our faculties to fly, this is a topic germane to all pilots.

This takes us to the autonomic nervous system, which, as the name suggests, is the self-governing part of our spinal cord and nerves and handles things like circulation, breathing, sweating and digestion. It has two components, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The former handles “fight or flight” responses where our pupils dilate, our heart rate increases, we breathe faster and blood is directed to the muscles and away from gut and skin, making us feel hyperaware and sweaty and increases our bladder capacity among other effects. Think of the moments before applying full throttle and releasing the brakes, or of our ancestor finding themselves face-to-face with a wild animal; the sympathetic response enabled this warrior to do battle and vanquish the beast or run for their life. If they were victorious, or escaped, gradually things returned to the steady state, autopilot in the cruise if you will.

On returning to their dwelling, the parasympathetic kicks-in, the “rest and digest” response. This healthy cycle has evolved over the millennia, but nowadays there is a problem; we perceive multiple “threats” daily, whether that be a distressing news report, the challenge of a traffic jam or an unexpected aircraft maintenance bill. But there is no return to the dwelling, no resetting of the system. Gradually, with time, and especially if work pressures are mounting, the system defaults to fight-or-flight and our baseline perspective is not healthy; in fact, it may trigger the third “F” – freeze – and one becomes paralyzed by the perpetual hypervigilance and develops the aforementioned symptoms of autonomic dysfunction – headaches, anxiety, bowel upsets. It is important to stress (pun intended) the difference: Hyper-focused in the cockpit or workplace? Good. Hypervigilant all the time? Bad.

If reading this inspires you to see yourself in these words, consider seeking support from a healthcare professional or friends and loved ones. We know that regular exercise and exposure to nature has benefits, as does mindfulness or yoga. And of course, changing jobs is always worth considering!

I am proud to be participating in a free webinar on this important issue at 5 p.m. Pacific/8 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, October 20, together with an experienced family physician Dr. Nigel Guest, renowned TED speaker, physician and humanitarian Dr. Rola Halam, and internationally esteemed leadership and personal development expert Dov Baron. We will discuss the topic and ways to address the problem. To register, please go to https://www.thereticularformation.com/light. In the spirit of transparency, I am one of the founders of this website.

Finally, and inspired by my mentors, I am reminded that whether we choose to be happy or sad, to succeed or fail…we are right. Some personal introspection, a commitment to live one’s best life, is good medicine and while the concept of burnout is relatively new, Seneca, the stoic, was hinting at it two thousand years ago when he said:

“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire” and “It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. The life we receive is not short, but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”

Carpe diem, my friends, and fly well! Or to honor Seneca, Volare bene!

You can send your questions and comments to Dr. Sackier via email: [email protected] and listen to his weekly podcasts at:

https://www.emg-health.com/omnipresent/?category=podcasts&therapeutic_area=healthcare

Jonathan Sackier

Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.

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