The Difference Between Stress and Burnout Symptoms
We live in a culture that seems ever faster paced, in which we are expected to fulfill multiple roles. Work invades our lives even when we go home, and more people find that they have to work two or more jobs just to make ends meet.
Burnout is not just limited to those in a demanding career. It can happen to anyone. Research shows that women and those who are caregivers, regardless of gender, are the most likely to be impacted.¹
Added to that, we live more isolated now than ever. Nowadays, 40% of Americans agree with the statement "Nobody knows me well."² The lack of social and community support directly correlates to higher rates of depression and other mental health issues. As the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. Without that support, all our responsibilities become even more burdensome.
But how can you know if you are feeling stressed or whether you are beyond stress and experiencing burnout?
In this article, I cover eight key areas to show the difference between burnout and stress symptoms. As stress and burnout are on on a continuum, as you read you may find that you exhibit some stress responses and some of the responses and symptoms of burnout. To know where you are on the scale, ask yourself which of the symptoms and responses do you feel most often.
1. "Pull" Response to Stress
Stress triggers a push response, a move towards the stressor to tackle it. Burnout triggers a "pull" response, a reluctance to look at the stressor because the brain-body is already overwhelmed. This is not simply a psychological reaction from the brain, but rather a response triggered by the nervous system in a state of collapse. After a long period of burnout, the nervous system becomes so depleted that it cannot generate a more typical "fight or flight" stress response.
2. Energy: Permanent Exhaustion
With the nervous system exhausted, what used to be simple and straightforward requires more time and effort. In a state of burnout, every day feels like an uphill battle and even a standard day feels like a series of exhausting tasks that require exceptional mental and physical effort.
And, different to stress, completing tasks no longer feels rewarding or gives a sense of relief.
3. Sleep: Insomnia and Constant Exhaustion
Those suffering from stress may struggle to either fall asleep or stay asleep, and those suffering from burnout may suffer from disrupted sleep patterns too. While a stressed person will feel some level of being refreshed after sleep, when a person suffering from burnout does sleep, they will wake up still feeling exhausted. The burned out person will feel as if they are carrying extra mental, emotional and physical weight all day and all night too.
4. Thought and Decisions: Brain Fog
Stress can create mental and emotional overwhelm. But after taking a rest, the stressed person can still make decisions. A stressed brain may make rash decisions and may show poor judgement at times, but they can still process and prioritize tasks.
In a state of burnout, there is no mental space to be able to take a step back and assess priorities or think clearly about the future.
Even the most basic cognitive tasks are slower. Every thought and decision feels like wading through mental treacle.
Even simple decisions seem more complicated.
Setting priorities becomes almost impossible as all of them seem to be urgent to the burned-out brain.
And this only exacerbates decision fatigue. The burned out person may simply do what is put in front of them. At other times they will hit mental wall and may feel unable to function at all.
5. Emotions: Eroded Resilience and Emotional Numbing
Both stress and burnout can erode the ability to provide a level-headed response when events don't go to plan or something unexpected comes up. While those suffering from burnout and stress can both experience anger and frustration, in the stressed person an outburst of anger may lead to heightened anxiety and emotional sensitivity. For the burned out person, temporary anger and frustration may give way to depression and emotional numbness, a sense of emotional emptiness.
As the nervous system has reached a state of exhaustion it simply isn't possible to sustain an emotional response. Think of a rubber band that has been stretched for so long that it has lost all elasticity. Mentally, with so little energy available, it is a struggle to replan and get back on track.
6. Relationships: Self-Isolation
With both burnout and stress, the individual may avoid socializing at times to avoid putting on a mask to disguise their true inner state.
However, someone going through a period of stress is more likely to reach out to a social network or a therapist for professional support. They will more clearly recognize the need to share their worries and lean on others during tough times.
A person going through burnout is more likely to self-isolate. This may be because of learned limiting beliefs that they must always appear strong.
Or there may be an unwillingness to share how they feel due to shame or a sense that there is no support available.
Or it may be because the burnt out person always puts themselves last on the list of priorities. Any sense of joy in life has been whittled away as life feels like one task after another. Socializing may feel like just another obligation.
7. Self-Image: Low Self Worth
During stressful times the average person may find that, now and then, the inner self-talk becomes harsh. Those suffering from stress and burnout may both find that the inner critic surfaces.
But those suffering from burnout may find that the inner critic gives way to silence: an inner void and a sense of emptiness and worthlessness.
8. Future Outlook: Pessimism, Hopelessness and Helplessness
While stress can, of course, affect mood and may be overwhelming, the stressed person can generally keep sight of the light at the end of the tunnel. They believe that the stressful times will come to an end and they remain hopeful about the future. More importantly, they feel that they can help change the situation and have control over their own life.
Burnout takes a deeper dive into a darker space. A person in a state of burnout has suffered chronic stress at such a pace and pressure for so long that all reserves have been drained by repeated disappointments; hopes dashed time and again. A sense of helplessness takes hold. This may be due to a specific person who seems to hold control over them - a horrible boss or obligations from family dependents - or it could be due to the shock of unexpected events or hidden trauma.
Whatever the reason or reasons, burnout can lead to a sense of hopelessness. Optimism has been eroded over time and pessimism takes hold.
And this dark view is not limited to their own life perspective. The world too is seen through the same darkly tinted lenses and seems relentlessly cruel, cold and uncaring.
The burned-out person is not cynical because it is their default state; far from it. I believe that any person suffering from burnout has had to sustain optimism and a positive outlook under intense pressure for months or maybe years.
But as hope is worn down over time, it may be a struggle to see a hopeful future or a path towards recovery. But positive change is still possible.
Summary: Difference Between Stress and Burnout Symptoms
Do You Recognize Yourself or Someone Else As Burned Out?
If, after reading this, you realize that you are headed towards burnout, first of all, there is no shame here. You are seen, you are recognized, and you have my support.
I firmly believe that those suffering from burnout are not the weakest but the strongest and also the least likely to ask for help. My intention with writing this is to raise awareness and encourage those experiencing burnout to seek professional support as soon as possible.
As mentioned earlier, both women and the primary caregivers in families are the most likely to end up in burnout.
Perhaps you recognize yourself as the one deemed the "doer", the one that everyone leans on, the one expected to have reserves of energy to keep going when others shrug off responsibilities with ease or automatically look to you to pick up the slack.
You are very conscientious and a high achiever but you most likely do not recognize yourself as such. And you are likely empathic and perhaps a people pleaser too. You may feel that you can never do enough and cannot meet the standards you expect of yourself or that others impose on you.
It is important to recognize your thought patterns, and your emotional and physical state, and respect them rather than berate yourself. Burnout most certainly brings about depression, and depression warps our self-image as well as our world view.
I am not denying that times have been hard, not at all. You have endured challenge after challenge. Burnout is a very real state too. Burnout and depression combined can rob the person of the ability to see a hopeful future. When the mind tries to convince you that it can predict the future and paints a bleak picture, it is time to take a step back and remember that you are more than your thoughts.
Support for Recovery from Burnout
If you need help, I encourage you to seek out professional support first and foremost.
If you know someone who is experiencing burnout, encourage them to speak up. Start by asking how they are and how you can help. Many suffering from burnout do not recognize this as the level of chronic stress they have endured has become the new normal state.
As I say in my second Burnout Recovery session, "The conscious mind can lead you to believe that the most unreasonable demands are rational." While systemic issues most certainly contribute to burnout, I believe that burnout persists, in part, due to the person's subconscious limiting and negative beliefs most likely embedded in childhood.
Your subconscious mind is the most powerful resource you will ever own, and whatever you feel you lack right now, you can always access this power within you. I wrote the meditation below to provide both immediate relaxation and long-term support for your recovery.
Thank You For Reading
Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Sarah Dresser and I am a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist. I am passionate about providing low-cost and no-cost support for all. I know from both working with my clients and my own first-hand experience that no matter how long you have lived with an issue, your subconscious mind has the power to help you heal, recover and flourish. You can retrain your brain and unlock your life! Almost a decade ago I began the process of completely redesigning my work and personal life. You can read more about those changes and my own experience of the power of the subconscious mind to heal even a decade-long issue here.
You can access over 200 hypnosis, meditations and affirmations sessions on my YouTube channel here. You can now download all my work as MP3s from the Unlock Your Life MP3 store. And you can also get all MP3s you purchase in your very own private podcast feed. Learn more here about how to get your own Unlock Your Life private podcast feed.
As always, I am here to support you on your journey, Sarah
¹ BBC. (2021, September 28). Why women are more burned out than men. BBC Worklife. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210928-why-women-are-more-burned-out-than-men
² Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression - and the Unexpected Solution