Burnout and chronic stress

Burnout and stress are pretty closely linked, but they are not exactly the same. Find out what the signs of both ongoing stress and burnout look like and how to prevent reaching breaking point.

This can help if:

  • You've been feeling stressed for a long time
  • You’re not sure how to deal with stress
  • You're worried that you might be approaching breaking point
  • You would like to understand the difference between stress and burning out

Burnout vs. Stress

When you experience stress, your whole nervous system reacts and specific hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) are released into your blood stream.  These hormones speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism.

This can be a good thing - stress can help you get through tough situations. Changes in your body as a result of stress can increase your ability to feel:

  • Alert
  • Energised
  • Switched on
  • More resourceful
In the long term though, the extra pressure that is put on your body from stress can have some pretty negative impacts on both your physical health and emotional wellbeing. Eventually, too much stress on your body over a long period of time can lead to you burning out - a state of complete mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. 

Ongoing stress

It will be easier for you to prevent becoming overwhelmed or burning out if you’re able to look out for signs that stress is beginning to have a negative impact on your health and wellbeing. If you’re stressed out, you might feel:

  • Angry or annoyed
  • Anxious or worried
  • Like you want to withdraw from people
  • Extra sensitive to things that wouldn’t normally get on your nerves
  • Useless or incapable

Or you may notice physical effects such as:

  • Stomach issues, such as indigestion or even diarrhoea
  • Headaches
  • Muscle and back pain
  • Problems with getting to sleep
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Raised heart-rate
You might not experience all of these signs, but any one of them could be an indication your stress is getting to a level that needs some looking after. 

Burnout

If you’re repeatedly and chronically stressed over a long period of time, it puts a lot of pressure on your body, and can lead to a tipping point where your exhaustion prevents you from taking part in activities that used to mean a lot to you. This is burnout. Some of the signs of burnout include: 

  • Feeling exhausted and feel unable to perform basic tasks
  • Losing motivation in many aspects of your life, including both work and social
  • Feeling unable to focus or concentrate on tasks
  • Feeling empty or lacking emotion
  • Losing your passion and drive
  • Experiencing conflict in your relationships with co-workers, friends and family
  • Withdrawing emotionally from friends and family
Essentially, when you've reached the point of burnout, you can really feel like you’ve had the life sucked out of you. Your ability to care, to make an effort, and to find motivation no longer exists. 

What to do about it

Prevention is better than a cure, but there are things you can do whenever you're stressed to keep yourself mentally and physically healthy and to avoid reaching the point of burn out. These include:
  • Taking regular time out for yourself and learning different ways to relax and unwind
  • Setting aside some time each day to 'switch off' from technology
  • Developing skills like problem solving to prepare you to handle tricky situations
  • Setting boundaries, so that you reduce how often you overextend yourself
  • Keeping an open line of communication with colleagues, family and friends about how you are feeling 
If you reach the point of burning out, you need to take it seriously. There are a lot of things you can do to look after yourself, but they boil down to three points:
  • Slow down and force yourself to take a break
  • Reach out for support, whether that’s from friends and family, colleagues, or a health professional
  • Re-evaluate your goals and priorities, so that you tip the balance back to including activities that provide you with happiness
If you’re worried about a friend, check out how to help a stressed out friend.

What can I do now?

Last reviewed: 28 April, 2016
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