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The Difference Between Stress and Burnout

Written By Page Lauer • 2 min read

By Page Lauer, LMFT

What is the difference between STRESS and BURNOUT? What might you need to know?
Why does it matter?

Consider this information and how it might help you or those you love!

Many of us are experiencing tremendous levels of both stress and burnout (especially with Covid-19 realities and effects). These concepts are often used synonymously or to reference the same experience. While they exist in the same arena, there are some key differences.

Stress, for example, is commonly known as significant tension and is meant to be temporary, not enduring. It is usually experienced as pressure related to specific circumstantial events (i.e. financial deadlines, bad news, getting a new job, illness, etc). Stress inevitably occurs when our physical, mental, or emotional capacity is stretched beyond our comfort level or threshold. Many of us can endure this for a while, similar to a stretched rubber band, and then return to a calmer state as stress resolves. We may even cope well with stress through exercise, quality sleep, relational support, meditation, and activities that rejuvenate us. For those of us that endure stress too long, or do not have stress-relieving coping skills in place, burnout is commonly the result.

Burnout, in contrast, is not temporary and passing in the same way stress is. Burnout is more commonly known as an extended state of distress, fatigue, or breakdown, as a response to enduring excessive stress. Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling mentally and physically drained without being able to bounce back
  • Being cynical or negative in ways that are not normal or usual
  • Being detached from others or situations you once cared about
  • Shutting down emotionally, withdrawing, or ‘hardening’
  • Losing motivation, interest, and energy for loved activities
  • Overall, being less effective in life, particularly at work
  • Not caring and feeling that nothing works or matters
  • Noticing a sense of dread or forebodingIf left unresolved, burnout can give way to severe withdrawal from life as well as mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or physical conditions like chronic fatigue.

    Author Sherrie Bourg Carter, blog writer for Psychology Today says, “The difference between stress and burnout is a matter of degree.” She goes on to say that while stress can be seen as temporary over-engagement burnout is can be seen as enduring disengagement. Knowing the difference between stress and burnout can help us take better care of ourselves before burnout becomes our reality. Also, stress is highly responsive to intervention, while burnout takes prolonged care and sometimes professional attention. Check out these strategies to manage our stress before burnout is upon us:

  • MOVE: stretch, exercise, walk, yoga
  • SELF-CARE: prioritize sleep, massage, pleasurable activities
  • INCREASE SUPPORT: connect more with dear friends, coaches ortherapists (people that can listen and give back to you)
  • MEDITATION and PRAYER: breathe deeply to cleanse the body andoxygenate the blood, pray to release concerns, and invite help and peace
  • SET BOUNDARIES: be willing to say no and set limits
  • IMPROVE NUTRITION: eat whole, natural, well-balanced meals, giveyour body good energy!
  • ASK FOR HELP/DELEGATE: what or who might help or take the edge off, even temporarily?
  • LET SOMETHING GO: if it is not a priority, but a preference, let it go
  • TAKE BREAKS: whether it is ten minutes or two hours, taking breaks gives the brain a break and allows the body to catch up with the speed of stress! Take a break and go outside, enjoy hot tea, listen to music, etc.

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