Stress vs Burnout: How to tell the difference and find relief
Stress and burnout are interconnected and have overlapping symptoms. Stress is a response to any kind of tension in life, be it educational, occupational, interpersonal, or financial. Burnout is physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged stress which wasn’t dealt with properly in the first place. Stress and burnout together can become a vicious cycle.
Living with either can be very difficult as it affects a person’s well-being and productivity. Sometimes, it may seem like the lines are getting blurred and it can be confusing to tell the difference between stress and burnout. Knowing the symptoms is crucial to managing or coping with the strain or exhaustion appropriately and seeking treatment if needed.
What is stress?
Stress is the physical or mental tension one feels when they are faced with difficult and distressing thoughts or situations that seem perturbing. Stress signals the body of danger and thus the fight or flight, or freeze response towards the stressors get activated. Stress can be both good and bad.
Eustress, also known as good or beneficial stress, motivates us to do better. For example, eustress can lead one to study vigorously the night before an exam or prepare for a job interview. Reactions to stress also vary from person to person as for some, work deadlines can be motivating while for others they could be debilitating. However, stress can become a cause for worry when it affects day-to-day functioning and impacts our physical or mental health. Some signs of stress could be difficulties in sleeping, fatigue, panic attacks or heartburn.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a form of persistent distress at the extreme end of the stress spectrum. It is the enduring stress that hasn’t been successfully coped with, addressed or mitigated. Prolonged stress may lead to burnout but not always. Burnout can be occupational or faced by caregivers or social workers among others. While it is possible to ground oneself or restore one’s equilibrium when stressed, it can be difficult to do so when burned out due to excessive stress. Burnout causes one to feel pervasive, chronic stress with the inability to restore oneself, find direction or a reset button.
Burnout develops gradually over a period of time, and one might initially dismiss it as just a phase. At some point, the realisation slowly sinks in of not being very efficient at work and recurrent feelings of hopelessness.
While the symptoms of burnout vary among people, the most common is the feeling of extreme exhaustion, not feeling excitement or enthusiasm towards work and the inability to muster the energy to do simple tasks such as fixing a snack. People with burnout start losing touch with the activities that were once pleasurable. Days get increasingly mundane and nights restless as life seems like a monotonous routine to stick to.
How to get relief from stress and burnout
1. Be aware of warning signs
Being aware of prolonged stress and its warning signs can be helpful in trying to cope with it on time before it progresses into burnout. One should take note if they haven’t been getting enough sleep, are feeling tired and have lost appetite for a while.
Finding the source of stress or burnout, becoming aware of it and accepting the current thoughts or feelings might lead to insights on possible solutions or changes required to be done in their lives. One might try to assess if their goals are the cause of distress, and if they are not aligned with the purpose or meaning of their lives anymore.
2. Don’t hesitate to seek support
Venting to family members, close friends or colleagues and seeking help with chores or work can be beneficial as one continues to figure out the major stressors in life. Bottling up emotions for a long time can also be detrimental to mental health. Not being critical towards self during rough times helps in developing self-compassion.
3. Take control of your life
Reinforce boundaries by prioritising work deadlines and saying no to work calls or emails after office hours in a bid to maintain a work-life balance. Try to slowly re-engage in the hobbies or activities that you once enjoyed. Going for a walk or reading your favourite book may provide you with much-needed relief or relaxation from stress.
It is important to maintain a healthy diet, ensure adequate sleep and maintain an exercise regimen to stay fit.
4. Resort to relaxation techniques
Yoga, meditation or practising mindfulness can help one steer clear of worries and ground themselves in the present moment. Grounding techniques such as deep breathing, like the 4-7-8 technique or the 5 senses activity are known to help bring down anxiety. The 4-7-8 technique involves breathing in and counting to four, holding the breath for 7 counts and exhaling for 8 counts.
The 5 senses activity requires us to direct our attention on observing 5 things at the moment of doing the exercise, 4 things we can touch or feel, 3 things we are able to hear, 2 things we can smell and 1 thing that we can taste. This technique can also help provide quick relief from anxiety and help in calming down the nerves.
If the burnout persists, it is important to seek professional help to work on eliminating the stressors and developing additional coping mechanisms.