Is It Depression or Burnout? Mental Health Experts Break Down the Difference

Is It Depression or Burnout? Mental Health Experts Break Down the Difference

At some point, everyone has experienced temporary feelings of sadness, exhaustion, and irritability. When these feelings settle in for longer stretches, though, it can be difficult to pinpoint what exactly you’re experiencing and what you need to do to address it. In the Venn diagram of depression and burnout, several symptoms overlap, with both depression and burnout often manifesting as a loss of interest in things you normally like, perpetual emotional exhaustion, and feelings of emptiness and hopelessness.

From longer work hours to increased demands at home, stress has permeated nearly every aspect of our lives. If you’ve been feeling numb or overwhelmed and can’t tell whether you’re depressed or burned out, you’ve come to the right place. POPSUGAR spoke with experts to better understand the differences between burnout and depression and how they’re treated.

What Is Burnout?

“Burnout is a slow leak of your energy over a prolonged period of stressful time related to being overloaded and overwhelmed,” therapist and author Bridgit Dengel Gaspard, LCSW, tells POPSUGAR. “Simply put, burnout is exhaustion. You feel depleted and have no bandwidth for anything extra beyond getting through the day, and when it’s really bad, there isn’t even the ability to get out of bed.”

While burnout is often related to work, Gaspard says it isn’t limited to those settings. Caregivers for family members or friends often struggle with burnout, too. Because burnout sneaks in slowly and builds gradually, you may not realize you’re headed for burnout until you’re feeling completely at capacity. Gaspard explains that once you’ve hit that point, what you really need is rest. If your circumstances don’t allow for that, this can fuel feelings of powerlessness, which feeds the burnout loop.

Burnout Symptoms

According to LaQuita McNickles, LCSW, a psychotherapist at Eden Health, burnout symptoms can show up in a number of ways. You may experience physical symptoms of burnout, as well shifts in your emotional and mental well-being. McNickles says the following are all potential symptoms of burnout:

  • Feelings of anger or sadness
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Feeling numb
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate
  • Indecisiveness
  • Feeling tense or on edge
  • Appetite changes
  • Cynicism
  • Feeling detached or disengaged
  • Decreased motivation
  • Feeling physically unwell, including increased digestive issues, teeth grinding, cold symptoms, and headaches

“The symptoms of burnout can vary from person to person but often include feeling overwhelmed and stressed, having little energy, feeling cynical or negative about your work, and struggling to focus on tasks,” Jed Turnbull, PhD, LCSW, a psychotherapist in New York, tells POPSUGAR. “Burnout is usually associated with something specific, like your work, your work environment, or your fellow coworkers and supervisors.”

If you think you may be experiencing burnout, Dr. Turnbull says there are a few important questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do I feel chronically exhausted?
  2. Do I find it difficult to enjoy my work or hobbies?
  3. Do I feel like I’m constantly under pressure?
  4. Am I withdrawing from social activities or relationships?
  5. Do I have trouble sleeping?

“If you answered yes to most of these questions, you may be experiencing burnout,” Dr. Turnbull says.

Depression vs. Burnout

While depression shares many of the same symptoms as burnout — including loss of interest in things you once enjoyed, changes in appetite, and insomnia or hypersomnia — the root cause is quite different. “Generally speaking, burnout is focused and related to occupational areas, while depression can be triggered, exacerbated, and maintained by a variety of factors like genetics, negative life events, and traumatic events,” Vivian Oberling, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, tells POPSUGAR. “Burnout is also not a medical diagnosis, although left unattended, it can begin to impact a person’s mental and physical health.”

If you remove the biggest source of stress from your life — by getting a new job, for example — and notice immediate relief, it’s likely that you were experiencing burnout, Dr. Oberling says. With depression, it’s not guaranteed that removing a specific stressor would alleviate symptoms without other treatment and lifestyle changes, especially because some people are genetically predisposed to depression.

“If you notice that you are experiencing symptoms of depression or burnout and it is significantly impacting your ability to function day-to-day, then it is highly recommended you speak to a professional,” Dr. Oberling says. “A professional can help you better understand what may be occurring and how to best treat your symptoms to provide relief as soon as possible.”

How to Treat Depression

When you’re feeling numb, hopeless, and exhausted, it can be extremely difficult to address your needs — but it’s important that you do. Talk to a doctor or licensed therapist about your symptoms. If depression seems to be the most likely culprit, treatment is focused on three areas, according to Donovan Wong, MD, medical director for Minded: lifestyle modifications (like staying physically active or changing your environment), talk therapy, and medication.

“Typically, people who have a clinical diagnosis of depression who address all three areas — lifestyle modification, therapy, and medication — see the best outcomes,” Dr. Wong says. “However, individuals vary and preferences vary as well. Some people may prefer to start with one treatment and layer another on if needed, while others opt to start with multiple treatments.”

How to Recover From Burnout

“Since burnout is usually related to external demands, it’s important to stop and take inventory [of your commitments], Gaspard says. To do this, she challenges her clients to a simple exercise: make a list of your daily obligations. Then, ask yourself what absolutely needs to be done. What can be postponed? What can be delegated? What can be permanently canceled?

“Identify which parts of you are triggered as you review this,” Gaspard says. “Is your perfectionist, inner critic, and pleaser asking you to be a superhero, which is unsustainable? What do other parts of you need? Rest? Fun? Assistance? This exercise gets you off the express train that people who are overdoing it are usually on, and don’t make time to get off and reassess. And that is exactly what is needed.” The key is to assess what’s on your plate, figure out what to prioritize, and also make time to nourish yourself. It can be helpful to talk to a licensed mental health professional to help you take inventory and work together to lighten your load.

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