A question that many people ask is if burnout and depression are the same. Although it’s true that the two share some common symptoms, there are some key differences. In this article, you’ll learn more in-depth about these two conditions, what to look for and when to seek out help.
The difference between burnout and depression
The main symptoms of burnout are exhaustion (emotional), cynicism and inefficiency. The psychologist Herbert Freudenberger gave the definition as emotional exhaustion, inefficacy, or a decreased sense of accomplishment, and depersonalisation.
So what exactly do these mean?
Emotional exhaustion happens when you’ve been carrying too much for an extended period of time. This eventually leads to depletion of energy, followed by fatigue.
A decreased sense of accomplishment is usually related to your professional life. You can recognise it by the feeling like nothing you do at work matters, even if you work hard. This eventually results in decreased performance which often triggers or intensifies anxiety.
Depersonalisation can be described as a decrease in compassion, empathy and caring for others. This often leads to you isolating yourself, feeling irritable and/or misunderstood. Other common emotions are guilt and anger, both towards yourself and others.
When you instead take a look at depression, there is a constant feeling of sadness, a feeling like nothing matters and a sense of worthlessness. In severe depression, you might get suicidal thoughts and sometimes, people, unfortunately, act on those thoughts and decide to end their life.
Since burnout can lead to depression, it’s important to recognize the signs of both and find someone to talk to who can help. Talking is the first step, even if it’s talking with a trusted loved one at first, matters tremendously. Although your partner, friend or family might not be able to give you professional help, their support is important. Finding someone who listens without judgment is key since feeling understood and safe is essential.
Why does it happen?
A burnout happens due to a stress reaction in your body. What many people believe is that by removing the stress triggers in your life, your body will return to normal. But it’s not that simple. You have to complete the so-called “stress cycle” that moves you from stress into safety. There are many ways to do that, including physical activity, breathwork and positive social interactions. When the cycle isn’t complete, the stress accumulates in the body which can eventually lead to burnout.
Depression is more unpredictable and more related to your personality and your personal experience of yourself and life. It can happen at any moment in life and although some people are more likely to suffer from depression, it can happen to practically anyone if the circumstances allow for it. Overactive negative thinking is the main trigger.
What to look for
There are a few things to look out for with both depression and burnout. Depression usually starts slowly and can be put into three categories: mild depression, moderate depression, and severe depression.
When it comes to burnout, early symptoms can come in form of headaches or a constant of low energy. In burnout, your emotions play a key role. When you are depressed, there is a bigger focus on mental activity. But the two are connected, and in both cases, your body has a negative reaction. This affects your hormones and important organs such as your heart.
The common symptoms of depression are:
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Changes in sleep patterns (you sleep too much or too little)
- No sense of pleasure for life or activities
- Constant feeling of sadness
- Lack of motivation
- Low energy
- Brain fog and trouble thinking straight and solving problems
- Low to zero interest in activities or socializing, even with loved ones
- Suicidal thoughts
- Feeling agitated
The common symptoms of burnout are:
- Fatigue / chronic fatigue
- Anxiety and constant worry
- Insomnia (trouble falling asleep or staying asleep)
- Difficulty concentrating and completing tasks (such as work projects)
- Lack of productivity
- Feeling restless
- Irritability, pessimism and anger
- Isolation and social anxiety
- A feeling if hopelessness
- No sense of accomplishment
Prevention early on
If you know what to look for, it will be a lot easier for you to prevent that your burnout or depression goes on for too long. Burnout is related to stress and your physiological reactions as a result of external stress factors. When you’ve been pushing yourself too hard for a long time at work, this can put your body under constant stress.
The same is true for things that go on in your personal life that affects your emotional state negatively. If you’re experiencing problems in your family life, financial life or with your partner, over a longer period of time, it takes a toll on your emotions.
When you don’t work through these emotions, you reexperience the same emotional distress over and over again. Because emotions have a beginning, a middle and an end, it’s important to complete each emotion, whether it’s sadness, anger or fear. Expression, for example through dancing, artwork, and crying, is a way to do that.
If you’re beginning to feel depressed, there is a way to prevent it from leading to moderate or severe depression. Finding the reason behind the feelings and working through trauma, developing better-thinking patterns and working towards creating more joy and self-love all help in preventing and curing depression.
When to seek help
If you have been experiencing several of the symptoms earlier described for an extended period of time, it’s important to get help. There is no “appropriate” timeframe between the symptoms and getting help. Because every person has their own experiences, a professional can help with personalised attention and healing. For some, a holistic approach is favourable, for others, the focus is more on nutrition, trauma or CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). If you find yourself having suicidal thoughts, and that your work, finances, and/or relationships are being impacted negatively by your state, ask for help.
You are not alone
Remember that there is nothing to be ashamed of if you suffer from either burnout or depression. It doesn’t happen because there is something wrong with you or because you are weak. It can happen to almost anyone who doesn’t know what to look for and therefore doesn’t have the tools to prevent it. Especially for those who have never dealt with these conditions before, the signs and healing process aren’t always clear. That’s why getting guidance and advice from a professional matter.
There is a way back and it’s more common than you might think. According to WHO‘s latest statistics, about 280 million people suffer from depression worldwide and at least 50% of workers have experienced burnout at some point. Considering that burnout isn’t always work-related, those numbers are probably even higher. Depression and burnout feel lonely. It’s as if you’re the only one in the world experiencing it. That’s why knowing that you are not alone is important.