You’re Not Stressed, You’re Burnt Out: The Difference Between Stress and Burnout

If you’re reading this, you might be familiar with the feeling of stress and have experienced it in numerous moments in your life. You might be feeling it right now, you might have felt it yesterday, and you might feel it again tomorrow. Take those feelings up another level, and you’re at risk of burnout. Stress and burnout are as undesirable as they are confusing. The line that separates both always seems hazy and confusing, leading us to underestimate conditions that call for more serious action.

In this article, we’re going to talk about what stress and burnout is, how they are different from each other, and how we can prevent and mitigate both before they completely take over our lives.

What is Stress?

Before we differentiate both, it’s important to understand what stress and burnout is. Starting off with stress, the more common between the two. Stress is defined as a natural human response characterized by worry or tension in difficult situations. Usually, stress is experienced in situations where people have little to no control over, wherein the feeling of anxiety sets in when challenges or threats arise.

Signs That You’re Stressed Out

Most of us experience stress in our daily lives, yet we may not know how to spot its signs. They may seem like normal, day to day feelings, which make them easy to overlook. Signs of stress may include:

  • Stomach problems.
  • Body pains.
  • Change in sex drive.
  • Lack of motivation.
  • Restlessness.
  • Feeling overwhelmed.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Increase in heart rate and blood pressure.

It’s important to remember that all of these are natural human responses to stress that are mostly out of our control. However, when stress becomes continuous or chronic, it may lead to more serious problems concerning our mental health.

Stress and Mental Health

Being in constant stress can cause or heighten existing mental health conditions. If your mental health condition has been suffering, it may be due to persistent stressors that continue to affect your life. This can lead to effects in your daily functioning in school, work, and with other people.

Stress becomes a problem when it turns from being acute to chronic. Acute stress, meaning when stress lasts for a short period of time, typically a few minutes or hours after the event, and Chronic stress when stress continues to persist typically for months or years. 

Experiencing a lot of stress might lead to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Conversely, dealing with mental health problems can be a cause of stress in our daily lives. Worrying about medication, triggers, and day-to-day symptoms can become especially stressful. If prolonged and not addressed right away, excessive amounts of stress may be at risk of leading to burnout.

What is Burnout? 

Burnout is described as a state of extreme mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion caused by excessive amounts or prolonged stress.

How is it different from stress? Aren’t both the same? 

Differentiating stress from burnout may seem confusing, since both have the tendency to feel the same. Burnout is the built up, accumulation of stress over a long period of time. Being stressed can feel anxious and physically draining, while being burnt out means a total loss of motivation leading to emotional tolling. Think of it as a car running non-stop at extreme speeds, with the engine breaking down and overheating after long durations on the road. Similarly, when we experience an overload of stress, it will ultimately lead to us breaking down, resulting in burnout.

Signs That You’re Burning Out

The negative effects of burnout may greatly affect your personal, social, and professional life. Because of its undesirable consequences, knowing how to spot when it’s happening is crucial in preventing it from totally taking over our lives.

How do you know if you’re experiencing burnout? Some signs may include:

  • Frequent illnesses/lowered immunity.
  • Insomnia.
  • Feeling dissatisfied with your work.
  • Feeling helpless and trapped.
  • Detached and isolated from the world.
  • Emotional distress.
  • Disregarding personal needs.
  • Frequent absenteeism. 
  • Practicing unhealthy ways of coping (Alcohol, drugs, unhealthy eating).

What Causes Stress and Burnout?

The first thing that comes to mind when we think about experiencing burnout is that it would always stem from stresses in our work lives. Though it may be true, stress and burnout can be caused by different things. From overtraining for a certain sport, hefty amounts of school work, to a frantic family life at home, stress and burnout can happen in any aspect of our lives. Stress and burnout can happen when:

  • A lack of recognition for the work that you do. 
  • Overly demanding job expectations.
  • Taking on too many responsibilities. 
  • Doing repetitive or monotonous work.
  • Lacking meaningful or supportive relationships. 
  • Being in a high-pressure work environment.

Stress and Burnout Prevention

Going back to the engine analogy earlier, a car wouldn’t break down if it’s constantly being maintained, repaired, and kept in check. Here are simple preventive measures that you can do to check up on yourself and others:

  • Acknowledgement. Recognize right away if you’re experiencing any of the signs stated above. 
  • Make a list. List down everything that makes you feel stressed or burnt out. 
  • Structure and solve. Structure out where and how you distribute your energy. Come up with solutions to take control, create balance, and set boundaries.  
  • Reach out. Connect with those who are closest to you. Open up to them and most importantly, avoid negative people. 
  • Reevaluate and explore. Take time off to explore, rest up, and nourish your creativity by immersing yourself in new projects. 
  • Prioritize a healthy and active lifestyle. Exercise and a healthy diet is a recipe for boosting mood and energy levels. Start slowly incorporating exercise into your life, throw out unhealthy eating habits and replace them with more nutritious options.

With a lack of guidance and self-awareness, experiencing stress and burnout can make us lean towards harmful ways to cope. Coping mechanisms such as excessive amounts of alcohol, dangerous substances, and over-eating unhealthy food can only lead to the worst of conditions.

It’s crucial that we do our diligent research to know what works and what doesn’t before we start practicing them. It’s also important to note that on average, it takes three months to a year to recover from burnout. But all will depend on how emotionally and physically exhausted you are or if you experience phases of stagnant recovery. Moreover, a more proactive approach and spotting signs early on can speed up your recovery period, such as getting in touch with a medical professional. Seeking help from your physician or psychologist is the best step in contributing to your recovery. 

Keep in mind that the signs of stress and burnout that you’re experiencing are natural human reactions that can manifest in different aspects of our lives, with most being difficult to manage or control. But knowing the difference between both can mean knowing when to take action before it’s too late. Always stop and assess how you feel, and never hesitate to check up on the people around you. Stress happens because life happens, and that’s completely normal.