Wondering If It's Stress or Burnout? Here's The Key Difference, Plus 4 Pro-Tips to Manage Stress
Updated: Mar 5
If trying to figure out whether you're stressed or burnt out is, well, stressing you out, then you're in the right place! In my conversations about burnout, this question comes up often, but the answer never seems straight forward.
My goal is to provide:
A simplified framework to differentiate stress from burnout
A free quiz you can take to quickly assess your personal stress levels
4 tips to prevent or heal from burnout and better manage daily stress
The Modern Stress Dilemma
First, let's acknowledge that not all stress is bad. Some stress is necessary for us to respond to threats, adapt and survive. When a threat is detected, our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol, the hormones that activates the fight or flight response. Our hearts race, our palms get sweaty, and we may experience dry mouth, nausea or the urge to release our bladders or bowels. This respons primes our bodies to flee or fight, and in dangerous situations can help us survive.
In our modern lives, the days of being chased by a lion are (mostly) behind us, but our biology hasn't quite caught up. Modern stressors like work, sitting in traffic, care-taking, and managing constant distractions from 24-hour news and social media can elicit this same stress response. Repeated exposure to this stress response without proper regulation can groove our neuropathways to stay in this activated state. Over time this can lead to chronic stress.
The Key Difference Between Stress and Burnout
We can think about chronic stress as living in "survival mode" or a state of hyper-arousal. "Symptoms" of hyper-arousal may include anxiety, over-production, irritability, sleep disruption, lack of focus, forgetfulness, physical ailments including illness, pain, headaches and digestive distress, etc.
Burnout happens when we've stayed in this state of hyper-arousal (chronic stress) for too long. We quite literally deplete (or burn out) our physical and mental reserves and downshift to this state of under-arousal out of necessity. Think about it like the body going into power saver mode or forced rest. Under-arousal "symptoms" include exhaustion, lack of motivation, apathy, neglecting self care, feelings of consistent negativity or hopelessness, etc. Burnout can mimic the signs of depression.
Physical and mental state of hyper-arousal
Physical and mental state of under-arousal
Body in fight or flight/survival mode
Body in "freeze" response: power saver mode; forced rest
Signs: Irritability, anxiety, over-production
Signs: Exhaustion, apathy, no motivation
Types of Burnout
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout as a medical condition. Symptoms listed include exhaustion and negative feelings/cynicism toward work. From a holistic health perspective, and from my personal experience, burnout isn't just about work or any one area of our lives in a vacuum. (Read more about my journey here). I was also recently reading about a phenomenon called mom burnout. If you're a working mom or parent, maybe you experience a bit of both! Regardless of how burnout is defined, the best thing we can do as individuals is tune in to how we feel, take a personal inventory of our stress levels, and create an action plan.
What's My Personal Level of Burnout
Speaking of personal inventory, there is a completely free, no strings attached, 15-question Burnout Self-Test you can take in 5 minutes or less here on mindtools.com. This is a great place to answer the questions "how stressed am I?", or "Am I burnt out?". Awareness is the first step to making a change.
4 Pro-Tips For Managing Stress
Whether you are stressed or burnt out, here are 4 key things that helped me recover from burnout and continue to be game changers in terms of managing daily stress:
Prioritize Sleep. I know. It's the thing no one wants to hear, but from personal experience it has been the number one game changer. We live in a sleep deprived and over-caffeniated culture, but our bodies need rest. There are key recovery and repair processes that only take place during certain phases of sleep, so if you're not getting enough sleep, you're missing out on that recovery and repair which can impact your physical and mental performance. If you want to learn more, check out why reknowned Functional Medicine docotor Mark Hyman says sleep is more important than diet here.
Prioritize things you want to do. Our adult lives are filled with responsibilities, obligations and things we have to do. Make time to reflect on what lights you up, brings you joy, laughter, lightness, creativity and fun, and take one small action each week to make time for whatever that is. Not sure where to start or don't have time? Try my 30 day 5-min. self care calendar. Experiment with the activites on the calendar. See what makes you feel good and keep doing more of that!
Take better care of you. What's one area of your health you want to improve? Maybe it's physical (you want to eat less sugar or get more fruits and veggies, or maybe you want to move your body more). Maybe it's mental (you want to speak more kindly to yourself or you've been putting off setting up that therapy appointment). Maybe it's spiritual (you want to find community and connection or more meaningful relationships, work or volunteer opportunities, etc.). Whatever it is, prioritize one area. Pick one small action you're going to commit to on a weekly basis to take better care of you. Write it down. Put a reminder in your calendar to check in on your progress or tell a friend or accountability partner.
Curate a morning routine. I have never been a morning person, but this has been an absolutely crucial step in my health journey. How we start our day, including our energy and thoughts, set the tone for the rest of the day. At my worst, I would jump out of bed and hop directly onto the stress hamster wheel. I would think about my to-do's, rush around trying to get myself and my daughter out the door and then hop directly into 45 minutes of traffic and then work. This type of wake up was training my body and my brain to activate the stress response. Unwinding that pattern has meant making time for activities that signal safety to my nervous system. I love waking up and doing 20-30 min. of yoga and then listening to a book on audible or a podcast while I get ready for work. I look forward to these things and to this time that's just for me, and I'm setting a positive tone for my day.
If you're ready to make some changes, resist the urge to boil the ocean. Pick one of these 4 areas to focus on for the next 30 days, and come back when you are ready to add on. Start small and remember that the biggest transformations start with baby steps. Stay consistent and see what happens!
Talk to me in the comments! How did you score on the stress assessment? Which aspect of your health are you prioritizing? What does your morning routine look like now? What does your ideal morning routine look like?