Burnout isn't easy to identify. It's a syndrome that manifests itself as exhaustion. The difference between it and anxiety is the fact that it's long-term rather than short-lived. However, when you're experiencing this feeling of emptiness, the signs can be similar to depression. It's not uncommon for the two conditions to coexist in one individual, which makes it challenging to identify. But here are some of the key differences between burnout and depression.
- Depression is an ongoing problem, while burnout is temporary
You're exhausted, and you just don't have it in you to do anything. You're irritable, and you can't seem to get your thoughts straight. You've lost interest in doing the things you used to enjoy. Before you assume the worst, take a moment to consider that what you're experiencing might not be depression—it could be burnout.
While burnout and depression share many of the same symptoms, they are different conditions with different causes and treatments. Burnout is usually rooted in exhaustion from overwork or being stretched too thin across multiple responsibilities, while depression is rooted in an imbalance of chemicals in the brain.
Generally speaking, depression is a long-term condition characterized by a constant low mood and loss of interest in things that were once enjoyable. Burnout is more temporary and often manifests as briefer periods of feeling overwhelmed or like you can't deal with something. Burnout can easily morph into depression if it's not addressed quickly enough, which is why knowing the differences between the two is essential to getting the right type of treatment and recovering as soon as possible.
- Depression affects your brain chemistry, while burnout doesn't
Depression has been linked to a variety of chemical changes in the brain, like increased levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and decreased levels of serotonin (which helps regulate mood). Stress-induced burnout doesn't cause any permanent changes to the brain's chemical makeup.
The two are different conditions, but they can share similar symptoms. Others include insomnia, irritability and exhaustion that doesn't go away with rest. You may feel a sense of hopelessness or an inability to find joy in things you once did. You may stop taking care of your basic needs including food and sleep. And the motivation to do your job or other tasks may be gone, which can lead to procrastination and avoidance of responsibilities. Both have similar symptoms like sleep disturbances, decreased ability to concentrate, fatigue and feelings of hopelessness—and both can be treated with medication and therapy. But the origins of the two are different enough that it's important for doctors to make an accurate diagnosis in order to give you the best chance at recovery.
Depression is a mood disorder that involves changes in brain chemistry.
Depression can stem from any number of causes including genetics, brain chemistry issues, stressful life events or trauma (like losing a loved one), side effects from medication or medical conditions like thyroid issues or vitamin deficiencies. Whereas burnout is a condition brought on by long-term exposure to stressful situations at work or home.
- You might not see signs of depression until years after it develops, but you'll start to notice burnout soon after it happens
Depression symptoms develop slowly over time, so you might not realize you need help until they've already got worse..
A lot of people use the words “burnout” and “depression” interchangeably when they're actually two very different things. While both can cause similar symptoms, they're two separate types of emotional distress.
Burnout, on the other hand, is a kind of chronic stress condition that can be caused by a variety of factors that lead to an unhealthy amount of daily stress. The symptoms are much more visible and immediate, not to mention specific. They include:
A feeling of exhaustion. You feel like you're always tired and have no energy. You might even feel unable to meet the needs of your family or social life because you're too worn out from work.
A loss of enjoyment in what you do. In the past, you found work enjoyable and stimulating. Now, it feels dull and like a burden.
An inability to complete simple tasks at work or home—or both—because you're distracted and unmotivated to do them.
- Burnout tends to be more related to work, while depression is more rooted in your general life
When you're feeling sad, exhausted and hopeless, it's easy to assume you're depressed. But sometimes, these feelings are actually indicators of a different issue: burnout.
Burnout is often caused by stressors in your work environment and may be solved by changing jobs or improving your situation at work. If you feel like any aspect of your job is causing you to feel run down, maybe it's time to make a change. Burnout can come from the pressure you put on yourself, or when other people put it on you. You might have a boss who's constantly pushing you to work harder and longer hours. Or maybe you're working on a big project with an impossible deadline. Those are the external factors that lead to burnout—the feeling that you've got nothing left to give and no motivation to keep going.
Depression—which can cause symptoms like irritability, a loss of interest in things that usually excite you, and changes in appetite or sleep patterns—is a mental illness that's more related to sadness than stress. It often comes from your internal thoughts and feelings about yourself, your circumstances and the world around you. So if a friend asks how you're doing and all you can think is “I'm worthless” or “Nothing good ever happens,” these thoughts could be signs of depression rather than burnout. Depression makes it difficult for you to be happy, no matter what you do. It isn't necessarily related to any specific event or person; it's an internal issue that requires medical attention.
- Burnout may disappear as you get more sleep and take time for yourself
If you're spending all your time focused on work, you're probably not having any fun. That's because burnout can cause you to feel like you have no energy at all—and it can make you believe that you don't have time for anything but work. But the thing is, when you finally find yourself in a position where you can take a break from work and actually relax, it's quite possible that burnout will disappear. A recent study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology examined whether taking time off from work helped reduce feelings of burnout. The researchers found that people who took time off experienced less emotional exhaustion when they returned to their jobs than those who didn't take time off. In other words, giving yourself a chance to recharge your batteries can help prevent burnout. This study also looked at how sleep was related to burnout and found that people who got more sleep at night were less likely to feel burned out at work. So if you're feeling burned out, try taking a nap or going to bed earlier each night. The extra sleep might help you feel less exhausted when you return to work in the morning. And if you're feeling especially stressed out at work, consider taking a vacation—even if it's just for a few days or a week.
- Burnout has a clear cause: Overwhelming stress. Depression does not have a clear cause (and neither do other mental illnesses)
Burnout is not a mental illness. It's a state of physical and emotional exhaustion caused by chronic stress. In order to recover from burnout, you need to take a break from the stressful situation or activity that's causing you to feel burned out.
Depression, on the other hand, isn't as easily resolvable. While it may be possible to reduce depression symptoms through therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes, there's no clear cause and effect relationship between stress and depression. That means you can't just stop doing whatever's causing your depression symptoms in order to “recover.” Depression often has a mysterious origin; it could be triggered by any number of factors, including genetics, childhood experiences, trauma, or physical health problems.
- Depression requires treatment from a mental health professional. Burnout does not
Burnout can be improved by taking some time off, unplugging from work, getting enough sleep, and making some lifestyle changes that help you feel more fulfilled in life.
There are some similarities between these two conditions: Both depression and burnout lead to feelings of exhaustion, hopelessness, and apathy. These symptoms can be so intense that they interfere with your ability to go to work or care for yourself. And both are due at least in part to stress. But there are also key differences.
While the symptoms of burnout and depression may look the same, they have different origins and require different treatments.
Depression is a medical condition that typically results from a combination of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors, like stressful life events or trauma. And it has more complex symptoms than just exhaustion or loss of motivation. For instance, people with major depressive disorder may feel very sad or empty; lose interest in activities they used to enjoy; have trouble sleeping or sleeping too much; gain or lose weight unintentionally; feel unusually slowed down (or on edge); feel worthless; have trouble concentrating; have recurring thoughts about suicide or death; and experience bodily aches or pains without an apparent physical cause. A person with depression may also be suffering from a co-occurring disorder like anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or substance use disorder.
- Burnout makes you want to avoid people; depression makes you feel isolated from other people no matter what you do
Burnout can go hand-in-hand with depression, but it's important to realize that the two are not the same thing.
When you're burned out, you're still capable of enjoying time with other people, but you lack motivation to do so because you're exhausted from whatever circumstances are causing the burnout.
When you're depressed, on the other hand, you may have no desire at all to socialize even if you feel relatively energetic (and even if your friends are willing to come to you). You might even feel that your friends and family would be better off without having to deal with your depressed self.
Depression can also lead to what's known as “paradoxical insomnia” (a misnomer because the symptom is neither purely paradoxical nor purely insomnia), in which a person gets plenty of sleep but still feels tired. With burnout, however, a good night's rest is generally enough to get your energy levels back up.
Burnout and depression are both debilitating conditions, but they are different diseases that require different treatments. It's important to understand the differences between these two mental disorders so that you can better identify your symptoms and seek treatment.
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