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Stress vs. Burnout: Spot the Difference and Bounce Back

By Shradha Shendge

In this day and age, value is placed heavily on one’s output and efficiency. Whether you are a full-time student or in a work setting, chances are that these demanding environments are taking a toll on you. You’ve probably heard a friend or colleague say, “I’m just so stressed right now, I have so much to get done,” or “I’m feeling exhausted and burned out.”

You might have even been the one voicing these concerns.

Throughout high school and transitioning to college, I’ve definitely experienced my fair share of stresses. From maintaining grades to extracurriculars and social life, it can be overwhelming. I felt extra stress during my junior year while applying to university.

Stress and burnout are both detrimental, but it’s essential to distinguish the fine line between chronic stress and burnout because the latter can often go undetected. Being able to identify the root problem is the first step towards getting back on your feet.

This simple chart above compares some of the main differences between stress and burnout. On the one hand, someone who is stressed is in overdrive mode and will often overexert themselves in a short duration of time. Stress comes and goes in waves depending on workload and urgency of tasks. Frequent stress can even lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach pains, and tachycardia. It’s as if you’re in a car and your foot is glued to the accelerator.

Burnout, on the other hand, can have deeper and more long-lasting damages. Someone experiencing burnout might feel disconnected whilst working and lose their sense of purpose. Burnout is mentally taxing: if left unchecked it can lead to depression and loss of motivation. Continuing with the car analogy, if you’re out of gas, it doesn’t matter if you try pressing on the brake or the accelerator—you’ll find yourself stuck in place.  

So how is it that seemingly stark-opposite struggles like stress and burnout are often confused with one another and mislabeled? Someone encountering burnout might simply brush it off as temporary lack of motivation. Additionally, both stress and burnout affect quality of work output and mental health, so it’s easy to lump the two together. What blurs the line even further, though, is the cause-effect dynamic between the two. For instance, prolonged stress leads to loss of energy which, if left unreplenished, causes burnout. Branching off of this, burnout makes it incredibly difficult to keep up with daily stresses one would normally be able to cope with.

Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between burnout and stress, here are some ways to take action and bounce back stronger than ever:

1. “Check-in” with yourself. Take some time out of your day to periodically conduct a quick self-assessment on how you’re feeling.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to see if you might be stressed:

  • Does my body feel healthy, well-rested, and strong? If not, what can I do to nourish myself? 
  • Is the work I put out only quantity focused? How can I space out my tasks so that I can provide quality content efficiently? 
  • Are my actions driven by fear and anxiety of completing a task? How can I make my task more enjoyable whilst still completing it in a timely manner?

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you might be burned out:

  • Do I face increased resistance to complete tasks that used to be doable in the past? 
  • Am I lacking satisfaction from my achievements? 
  • Have my sleep habits changed? Am I getting less sleep or sleeping lighter than normal? 
  • Do I feel cynical about my work and work environment? 
  • Do I feel alienated, as if no one can help me or has the time to listen?

Answering these questions doesn’t have to take too long. Either jotting down answers or honestly reflecting in your mind can give you a starting place to overcome these challenges. And if you answered yes to any of these questions, it might be a sign to reach out for help.

2. Prioritise physical and emotional well-being. Practicing mindfulness and exercising as an outlet for stress can help you cope with stress and burnout. When you’re in overdrive, it can be helpful to slow down and be present on your current task. Some activities that can help you put this into practice are meditation, journaling, and yoga. These can also help with burnout, in addition to methodical activities like running and hiking in nature. 

3. Seek out Interpersonal Support. As always, one of the most helpful resources to cope with stress and burnout is to talk with people in your emotional support group. Whether that’s close friends, family members, teachers, or coaches, it can be really beneficial to get another person’s perspective. Therapy and counseling can also be useful tools in this scenario. 

And most importantly, if you find yourself suffering from stress and/or burnout, remember to treat yourself with compassion and patience on your road to recovery as you would with anyone else!