High or “extreme” stress affects about a quarter of the U.S. population in recent larger surveys1 of people in the United States. With this, plus the additional stressors and pace of modern life, the word “stressed” or the phrase “stressed out” are part of common conversation. In some circles these have replaced the less dramatic “busy,” perhaps because so many people juggle more, work more, try to do more, and continue feeling that they just can’t keep up.
Chronic high stress alone can be challenging and dangerous enough, with health effects that can include a weakened immune system, digestive issues, and headaches, among many others. But when is it high chronic stress alone, and when does high stress become burnout?
Stress and burnout are related, but they are not the same thing. Being able to tell the difference means being able to choose the most appropriate action to shift the stress or burnout dynamics the fastest.
“But wait!” you might protest. “I can’t change my job right now!” “I can’t change all of the things I have to do that are burning me out!
That may be true for the time being. But most important during stress or burnout is a truth that can be hard to recall while things feel so difficult, but is a key reality:
Even while external circumstances remain challenging, we always have the ability to shift and change the meaning we give to what’s occurring, the ways we keep options in mind – or not – all of which determines how we feel.
In other words, we’re in charge of our internal world, and grabbing the reins of our mind again can help us feel better and more in control. When we do that, and make skillful internal choices, we have more bandwidth to deal with the outside realities.
We’re always doing this interpreting and meaning-making anyway; it’s just usually on autopilot. It’s our interpretation, or the meaning we make of something, that affects not only our mood or our outlook, but also our physiology and biology.
When we recognize this, we can get more control quickly over how we feel, and then come back to the decisions we need to make on the outside with more capacity. This is stress relief and burnout recovery from the inside out, which I would argue is the most powerful way to go about it, and often the only way for lasting results.
So if you’re stressed, and especially if the stress has been more chronic, here are three key ways to tell the difference between Stress and Burnout, so you can get clearer and take steps to begin to feel better from the inside out.
1) Revved up vs. Run Down
When you’re dealing with high stress situations in a short-term way, you may feel challenged (even positively) for a while. In those cases you know the situation is short-lived and time limited, so it can be more of a sprint, and not so problematic.
But when things feel stressful over the longer term, it can become chronic stress, and often becomes more of a problem. High chronic stress can include physical symptoms like headaches, digestive problems, and sleep issues. There may be a feeling of being chronically revved up, while at the same time it’s challenging to calm down the mind and body, even when the day is done and there is time to relax.
When burnout becomes part of the picture, both your body and mind can begin to feel run down or depleted. It can feel hard to get going; it can feel difficult to create, problem-solve, or produce. With burnout you feel more like you’re running on empty, mentally, emotionally, and physically, and it’s usually hard to “run” at all.
2) Anxious vs. Hopeless
When you are dealing with stress for longer periods at home or at work, your system often moves into high alert. At that point your body’s “fight or flight” response is switched on, and often stays on. Because the body doesn’t get a chance to fully recover from this revved up, alert mode in which it’s scanning for danger and problems, this can begin to weaken the immune system and affect the overall health of your body over time.
The underlying feeling of this pattern — often masked by busy-ness, sometimes numbed with alcohol, prescription or street drugs, food, or sex — is one of agitation or anxiety. These underlying emotions also can show up as restlessness, as not being able to sit still without picking up the phone to check it yet again, or playing a game mindlessly. Or it can look like needing the computer or television on to be able to fall sleep. Underneath all of these behaviors and attempts to cope is the emotion of anxiety, whether it’s recognized or not, acknowledged or not.
With burnout, the underlying, driving feeling is may still include anxiety, but there is another, different component too. Instead of, or in addition to, feeling anxious or agitated, with burnout you are more likely feeling an underlying lack of energy or heaviness. You may feel discouraged, generally down, or even somewhat depressed. There can be a sense of futility or hopelessness, and a growing sense that nothing can or will change.
When you’re experiencing burnout, instead of high, revved up energy or constant static in the body and mind, it feels more like the wind has been taken out of your sails. With the hopelessness that can accompany burnout, people can start to isolate, not reaching out or spending time with friends, colleagues or loved ones in ways that used to feel more natural or enjoyable. Burnout includes a lower energy level, a dragging yourself around kind of exhaustion, instead of the more anxious restlessness of chronic stress.
3) Worry in Stress and in Burnout
Worry can show up with both stress and burnout, but with some key differences.
When you’re feeling stress or might call yourself “stressed out,” the worry is a behavior driven by the mental activity connected with a higher strung, nervous energy. It’s the mind in overdrive; the mind that has so much going on that it’s hard to slow it down, much less turn it off, when it’s time to relax or sleep. Worry during high stress is more connected with anxiety; in fact worry can be precisely described as “the mental level of the emotion of anxiety.”
With burnout there can be worry in the mind too, but it tends to have a different quality. When you’re worried in a state of burnout, it may have less of the “busy mind in overdrive” feel to it. More often it has a quality of despondency, and the worried thoughts can become more like rumination about feeling down or hopeless, depleted or alone.
In addition, with burnout there can be more negative thoughts about yourself and others running through the mind. This type of worry can include questioning whether it’s worth it, or will I be able to keep this up. There can be more critical or negative or sarcastic thoughts about yourself or others. While this can be present in high stress, with burnout these types of more negative statements and trains of thought can end up adding to depletion, discouragement, and feeling depressed.
If you’re concerned about stress and burnout, it can be important and helpful to notice your thoughts and the feelings underneath them, and check for patterns, either on your own, or with some skillful support. You’ll be able to notice and learn what information is in your mind and your body that points to what’s needed first, and where you have more choice and control than you may realize.
1 Stress in America Survey, 2011. American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C.