When you’re drowning under the weight of life’s demands and desperately gasping for air, perhaps you’re not so concerned about what to actually call the experience.
Am I stressed? Am I burnt out? Am I depressed?
All you can really put your finger on is that fact that you are f*cking drowning over there.
Regardless of the label, you need a life raft and you need it now. But what you need on the raft might actually look different depending on the condition you’re in. So let’s break down the differences between these terms and get a clearer picture of what each one requires for recovery.
Stress, at its core, is the physiological experience we have when something that we care about is at stake. What we care about might be a relationship, our reputation, timeliness, a physical possession, or a one of a million other things. If we are experiencing some threat to that, stress is activated in our bodies. And thank goodness! Without a healthy level stress, we would not only be unproductive lumps, but would have been extinct long ago when we couldn’t get up the motivation to run away from the mountain lion.
The thing about stress is that it leaves remnants of itself when it goes. Even when the immediate threat is resolved and we’ve mentally moved on to other tasks (probably other stressors), stress continues to impact our bodies unless we complete the stress cycle. That means that we’ve processed out the stress from our physical beings through things like talking about it, engaging in movement, making art, or another stress cycle strategy.
If we aren’t able to complete the stress cycle and the stress just continues to run through our bodies day after day, we could describe this as chronic stress. Chronic stress is the experience of a prolonged stress response due to an ongoing issue, like the journey of a divorce, or to repeated stressors, like daily microaggressions.
When we experience chronic stress, the signs often show up both in our mood and in our physical bodies. We can have symptoms from muscle pain to headaches to increased blood pressure. We can find ourselves getting sick easily because our immune response is suppressed. Our thoughts are often scattered and we have trouble holding onto ideas and concentration. We might be irritable with people around us because so much of our emotional energy is being occupied. And we might even find it hard to enjoy the moments where we do have spaciousness and freedom.
Burnout can be a condition that occurs as a result of unchecked chronic stress, but that’s not always the case. In fact, burnout can also result from too little stress. Consider a time when you were consistently underchallenged and what you were doing (or perhaps not doing), made you feel disinterested, disengaged, and frustrated. This experience can also be a precipitant for burnout.
But let’s go back a step. Burnout was actually included by the World Health Organization as a condition several years ago because it had gained enough scientific validity to be identified as a specific issue to be addressed. That means it has a fairly standard definition and way of assessing it, which is helpful so we are all talking about the same experience.
What characterizes burnout are three core symptoms. First is a feeling of exhaustion. When you’re burnt out, you feel like you have nothing left to give and each day can feel like a struggle to approach. The second is a feeling of disengagement or disconnection. This means that as much as you know you care about the tasks that you’re doing, you can’t really get yourself to care emotionally. For those that work with people (and this does in fact make you more susceptible to burnout), you start to experience a sense of isolation and lower empathy. And third is a feeling of low self-efficacy. Regardless of your actual performance, you start to feel like you can’t do anything right or well.
Burnout can show up with many of the same symptoms as persistent stress — including a lot of the physical manifestations — but there is a core difference. Whereas in stress you are still in a cycle of almost caring too much, in burnout your brain and body have tried to protect themselves but trying to shut down and stop caring as much. You’re no longer flailing your arms in the water; you’re letting yourself sink.
If you’ve experienced an episode of depression in your life, you’ll likely notice that many of the experiences that are part of stress and burnout tend to show up here as well: the feelings of exhaustion and disconnection, your physical wellbeing suffering, the spiraling thoughts and concentration challenges.
And indeed, depression can emerge after a period of chronic stress or burnout, or both. And it can also emerge separate from these experiences, such as after a significant loss or life transition, or seemingly out of nowhere.
Depression is marked by a persistently low mood. Some think that depression means you can never have good days, but that’s not the case for most people. People having depression will, though, find it very hard to experience joy, even in things that previously always did make them happy. They also often experience strong feelings of guilt for things that don’t warrant it, and have a very bleak view of the future. Other signs of depression are irritability, changes in appetite, and trouble sleeping.
One of the major risks of depression, of course, is a desire to or attempts to end one’s life. Somewhat interestingly, burnout is not correlated with suicidal thoughts. This doesn’t mean that someone experiencing burnout can’t experience these thoughts. However, it’s likely that if things are feeling hopeless to this point, depression may be at play. The illness of depression is like rapids not just letting you sink, but quickly pulling you under.
Each of these experiences is majorly challenging and creates pain in our lives. However, they do look different and can benefit from different interventions. For example, medication might be an important part of your treatment plan for depression, while burnout might require considering a career change. Every situation is unique, however, and deserves a thoughtful, individual approach to see what factors are creating distress.
Regardless of the type of distress, you deserve to feel better and there are lots of helpful tools available.