Stress is a natural response to everyday or extraordinary stressors. Sometimes, it can linger for a while and become chronic. This may lead to burnout, but not always.
You’ve felt stressed before. But this sense of exhaustion, brain fog, and lack of motivation seems to have been going on for a while now. Is this chronic stress or burnout?
It could be both. To address it properly, it may be a good idea to understand the similarities and differences between being stressed and burned out.
Stress vs. distress
Stress refers to your body’s natural ability to respond to internal or external pressures. Its purpose is to prepare you for challenges, both negative and positive.
Stress isn’t necessarily a negative reaction. In many instances, it’s referred to as eustress, and it can help you become alert and achieve your goals. For example, a project deadline can lead you to focus.
In other cases, the stress response leads you to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope, and it’s referred to as distress.
What causes you to experience one or the other depends on many factors, including how you interpret the stressor, your emotional resources, and the potential for support.
For example, the same deadline that helps someone focus can lead someone else to freeze and experience anxiety. The same amount of workload can motivate one person while distressing another one.
Chronic stress vs. burnout
When you’re exposed to persistent stressors, you may experience chronic stress, particularly if you’re not managing your stress from the beginning. Chronic stress refers to the stress response being activated for a long time or in a recurring way.
Burnout is considered a form of prolonged distress. The concept was first measured by social psychologist Christina Maslach, who defined it in 2003 as a “response to long-term emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job.”
Since then, research has found that burnout isn’t only related to stress in the workplace. It can apply to many areas of life where prolonged stressors are present.
“It is most common in high stress jobs that require constant vigilance and decision making,” says Dr. Jessica Myszak, a licensed psychologist in Memphis. “Burnout can also occur in […] teaching and social work, and autistic burnout is increasingly being recognized to be due to masking and sensory overwhelm.”
Experiencing chronic stress, however, doesn’t always mean you’re experiencing burnout.
Here’s how to know whether it’s chronic stress or burnout:
Because burnout is a form of negative stress, it shares some of its main signs and symptoms.
Chronic stress and burnout can have physical effects, such as:
- changes in sleep patterns
- body aches and pains
- heart palpitations
- shortness of breath
- constipation or diarrhea
- muscle tension
- sexual dysfunction
- low sex drive
- weakened immune system
Emotional and mental effects can include:
- lack of motivation
- trouble concentrating
- difficulty learning
- crying spells
- low impulse control
In other words, when chronic stress leads you to experience more intense and severe symptoms and it impairs your ability to function, it’s called burnout.
The same review indicated that the majority of examined burnout scales cited high levels of exhaustion (physical and mental) as the primary difference between burnout and stress.
In addition, the authors of the review identified three main features of burnout:
- overwhelming exhaustion
- cynicism and detachment from the job or task
- sense of not being productive, accomplished, or effective
So, for example, low work engagement — like feeling detached from a purpose and disinterested in your job — may point toward burnout and not stress.
Burnout can be impairing.
“Experiencing these reactions can create a downward spiral of despair and emotional turmoil,” says Dr. Mary Ann V. Mercer, a psychologist and author out of Barrington, Illinois. “It’s like a snowball rolling downhill, picking up more snow and velocity until it finally smacks into a tree at the bottom of the hill.”
She adds, “This is not to be taken lightly, and it is not just [a] ‘grin and bear it’ type of situation.”
If burnout is at the far end of the stress spectrum, the sooner you find ways to manage acute stress, the less likely you may experience chronic stress or burnout.
To better manage your reaction to significant stressors, consider these tips:
Try emergency stress-busters
To help manage acute stress, or stress you need immediate respite from, try:
- practicing grounding exercises
- taking focused, deep breaths
- practicing relaxation techniques on a regular basis
- taking a break from the situation
- going for a walk
- cuddling with your pet
- listening to relaxing music
- taking a night to “sleep on it”
Consider positive self-talk
Positive self-talk can lead to decreased levels of stress by improving and strengthening your coping skills. Negative self-talk can reinforce stress by leading to low self-worth.
Positive self-talk can be about changing an “I’m so worthless” to “I’m new at this. I’m learning.” In other words, challenging negative self-talk may be the first step.
Try setting boundaries
Personal boundaries can protect you from unnecessary stress exposure by indicating, upfront, what lines can and can’t be crossed.
If, for example, you cannot stay late at work or have a coffee chat with friends because you need to pick up your children, saying this from the get-go can make these instances more manageable.
Experiencing burnout isn’t your fault. It doesn’t mean you did or didn’t do something to prevent feeling this way.
If you’ve been exposed to significant stressors and haven’t had the emotional resources to cope, it’s natural that some of your symptoms may intensify.
If you feel as though you’ve already hit the limit on your stress continuum, coping is still possible:
Try to focus on solutions
Mercer suggests taking a solution-based approach when you’re feeling beyond overwhelmed.
You can ask yourself, “What can I exactly do to solve this?” as opposed to focusing on how you feel or the things you feel are challenging to do at the moment.
Mercer says people who focus on solutions are often optimistic. This may help them manage stress.
Focusing on how you can manage burnout may also make you feel empowered and that there’s a way out.
Making time for yourself may help
Burnout is a result of prolonged and persistent exposure to a stressor. You may need to create distance between you and said stressor.
This may not always be possible. If the stressor is your job, it’s natural that you cannot just pick up and go. But distance can also be emotional and mental.
Myszak suggests taking the time to do things for you.
“It’s important to take time for yourself and do things that make you happy,” she advises. “This might involve taking a break from work, spending time with friends and family, or learning a new hobby.”
Creating and honoring strict boundaries may also help. If you’re experiencing job-related burnout, consider leaving work at work once you get home.
Try to celebrate your achievements
Pessimism is often an effect of burnout, says Mercer. She recommends focusing on your progress and achievements whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed. Consider writing down your accomplishments in a list, and refer to this list when you need some perspective.
“When you read your list, you’re bound to feel excited and, importantly, wonder how you doubted yourself in the first place,” she says.
Because burnout can lead you to feel you’re not being productive or good at what you do, reassessing these thoughts can have an impact on your mood.
Asking for support is key
Facing your stressors can be hard enough; doing so by yourself can become overwhelming and lead to burnout.
If you’re feeling like stress is turning into something else, consider asking for help whenever and however you can.
Speaking with managers and trusted colleagues about how you feel can help, as well as coming up with ways they can support you with deadlines, projects, and time off.
Partners, family members, and friends can also give you a hand when feeling burned out. They can help you get groceries, pick up children at school, or give you a hand with chores.
The idea is that you feel supported in some areas of your life while you figure out how to champion your dominant stressors.
Speaking with a mental health professional is also highly advisable when you experience burnout. They can help you develop new coping skills and help you explore ways to actively solve the problem. Having a safe space to vent can also be a healing experience.
The difference between stress and burnout may be in the intensity of the symptoms you experience. Feeling burned out may mean you’re physically and mentally exhausted, lack motivation, experience mental confusion, and have a sense of being unproductive.
Managing stress early, taking time away from sources of prolonged stress, and speaking with supportive peers and professionals can all help you better cope with burnout down the road.