When you’re used to high stress, burnout can sneak up on you. It’s what makes burnout a little mysterious, and therefore even dangerous. It can be a gradual process that you don’t even notice is occurring over time. You may feel you’re just stressed out, or just need a vacation to recover, or maybe just a long weekend without obligations.
Then you may notice that a break or a vacation is not enough. Even if you’re lucky enough to get some time off or get some time away from your usual life, you still feel run down. Or maybe you return from a break still feeling dissatisfied and unfulfilled in your work, or even with your life as it is right now.
High stress and burnout are related, but they are not the same thing. This difference matters, because the strategies for stress relief and for recovery from burnout can be somewhat different, and may need to be to help you feel better in a lasting way.
Here are a few similarities and some important differences between the signs and symptoms of feeling stressed out and burned out:
1) High Stress
While stress underlies both feeling stressed out and burned out, there is a key difference. When you are under a lot of stress for a shorter period of time, there may be some overwhelm, but there usually still is some awareness that the stress is time-limited. When you’re stressed out you’re usually more on the anxiety end of the emotional spectrum. You may be running too fast and finding it hard to slow your mind down when it’s time to relax.
When you’re heading into burn out, the high stress has generally been chronic for longer. While anxiety and worry can still be present because of everything that’s going on in your work or your life, when burnout develops, you are likely to start feeling more depressive emotions as well. You may not feel like doing the things you once enjoyed. You may feel more hopelessness, or in more extreme cases, despair. You may feel more like you’re running on empty if burnout develops from a situation that has been chronically stressful.
Fatigue can show up with both stress and burnout, but with some key differences.
With chronic stress, you are likely to feel tired but also wired at the same time. It can be difficult to get to sleep because both your body and mind may still be keyed up from the day.
Many people under high, chronic stress find it difficult to relax at night (or at all), and alcohol, or prescribed or street drugs, become one way to force the body into sleep. (This can create a backlash, however, since the body can’t rest as deeply when medicated into sleep). Others develop a need to watch videos or have a TV or other device on the background to be able to distract their overly busy mind and fall asleep.
When chronic stress is high, people will often still feel tired in the morning. Some develop patterns of getting wired or revved up again quickly, either because the mind begins to run as soon as they’re awake, or they use coffee, sugar, or energy drinks to get going, or they check their phones before they’re even out of bed, or some combination of all of the above.
When burnout is developing, these things can still be true. Someone developing burnout may still feel wired, or have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and may still use substances either to fall asleep or get going in the morning. But with burnout, one key difference is that the fatigue can develop a different quality.
An important feature of burnout is that that fatigue is turning into exhaustion, and that the exhaustion is never just physical. With burnout, the exhaustion includes feeling drained or depleted physically, but also mentally and emotionally at the same time. So there can be the sensation of “running on empty,” but this will also be true on the emotional and mental levels. People who are experiencing burnout can feel like they have nothing more to give. They may experience that they can’t think as clearly, partly because they can’t even summon the energy to problem solve.
3) Disconnecting from Others
With high stress, there may be a level of busy-ness that is shorter term, and doesn’t allow for as much free time. Friends and colleagues may get neglected when under a deadline, for example, or when a family member needs care over a longer period of time. In high stress situations, there just may not be enough time to socialize as much, or even pay as much good attention to a spouse or partner, children, or friends.
When burnout develops, there is a different quality to the “neglecting” of friends or loved ones. Instead of wishing there was more time in the calendar during a stressful time, for many people there is more of a disconnection or distancing from those they are close to. In burnout, people may just not feel like reaching out to friends they usually would be in contact with. There may be no desire to spend time with friends or loved ones in ways that would have been enjoyable before.
This level of emotional depletion and disconnection is another hallmark of burnout. It signals that renewal is required, not only on physical levels, but on emotional and mental levels as well.
If you are experiencing burnout, it can be important to get help or support. Burnout indicates that stress has not only been high, but also chronic over a longer period. And the stress may be creating more serious problems in physical and mental health, as well as impacting your relationships at home and at work, and draining your happiness.