Is it Burnout or Stress?

Many of us confuse burnout with stress, because we think that they’re basically the same thing. However, these two are actually two very different concepts, and knowing the difference between them is crucial in helping yourself to get better.

What is stress?

 Stress is a physical response to some kind of pressure or strain that is being placed on you. A small amount of it is a good thing – it can motivate us to work harder to accomplish a bigger challenge. Once we’re over the hump, we feel almost instant relief. However, when the tension gets so high that it exceeds our ability to deal with it, we feel stressed out. Overloaded.

Our response to that kind of stress is usually to kick ourselves into gear, to work even harder. But the more tasks we finish, the more that seem to bubble up in its place. Soon, your heart starts beating a little harder, and your thoughts are coming faster. We start to feel anxious that there’s no way we’ll be able to finish everything that needs to get done.

What is burnout?

While stress often feels like too much energy, burnout often feels like too little. With burnout, we feel physically and emotionally exhausted. We move slower, and our emotions feel dull. We procrastinate on tasks we would normally complete quickly. We feel ineffective and cynical in our jobs, like nothing we do really makes much difference. Soon, we start detaching from our work, our relationships, and the things we enjoy.

While stress and burnout are two different ideas, too much stress can eventually LEAD to burnout.

I’m still a little confused on this. Do you have a cheesy metaphor to make it a little clearer?

You bet I do. Let’s pretend we’ve plugged in a hair dryer, switched it on, and left it running. Over time, the device is going to start overheating – it’ll feel hot to the touch, and we’ll know that it’s been working too long without a break. If we intervene right away by unplugging the hair dryer and giving it time to cool off, it’ll probably be just fine. This is stress.  The anecdote to stress is to unplug and get back to it later.

On the other hand, if we allow the hair dryer to constantly run with no break, the device will continue to get hotter and more stressed, until there are sparks and smoke and then it completely burns out and goes dead. At this point, it will need a whole other type of intervention in order to function again. This is burnout.

I get the difference now, but why does it matter?

 It’s important to understand the difference between stress and burnout because the two are treated in different ways. Intervening when it’s still “just stress” will be much easier than trying to treat burnout.

For stress, you need some strategies in place to help yourself get grounded again. Maybe you take deep breaths, and get some space from what’s stressing you. Maybe you go for a run or take a long shower. Whatever your strategy, it probably doesn’t take long before you’re feeling like yourself again. (Or, at the very least, you feel less crazed.) Remember the hair dryer metaphor – the anecdote for overheating is to unplug.

The same strategies often don’t work with burnout – after all, unplugging the hair dryer after its gone dead will not do much. Similarly, breaks from work may not help you. Burnout feels hopeless and infinite, which makes it very hard to motivate yourself to engage in healthy behaviors. The mere idea of exercising or meditating sounds overwhelming, but not doing these things makes you feel even more frustrated and guilty, which lessens your motivation even more. Then the cycle repeats.

Then how do we treat burnout?

For the sake of my imperfect metaphor, let’s pretend throwing out the old hair dryer and buying a new one isn’t an option. This is the only hair dryer you’ll ever get. In order to help the burned out machine, we would probably start by telling someone what happened – the story behind it. Some people might attempt to read up on electrical work and fix the problem on their own – and maybe they’d be successful, maybe they wouldn’t. Others would seek the help of a professional who knows who to rewire it and get it functioning again.

The same goes for burned out people – it’s not always possible to toss out your current job or lifestyle and trade it for a new one. You may have success treating your burnout on your own, by consulting books and websites and other resources. However, if you’ve tried to get better on your own and still aren’t feeling like yourself, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional. You don’t have to go at this alone.


More resources on burnout:
Tell Tale Signs of Burnout: Do You Have Them?
Burnout in Mental Health Professionals
Preventing Burnout: Techniques for Dealing with Overwhelming Stress

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s