How To Tell If Your Burnout Is Actually Depression

woman, tired, burnt out
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If you're regularly experiencing fatigue, loss of motivation, and stress related to ideas you have of the future, or expectations of the world around you (such as in the workplace), you may be experiencing what's known as "burn out syndrome." You may also be experiencing depression, which leads me to this quandary: What is the difference between burnout and depression, anyway? Mental illness manifests differently in everyone, and there's no "one size fits all" diagnosis when it comes to depression. Burnout itself is a term that has a malleable definition which makes its usage more inclusive, but perhaps more difficult to pin-down the specifics of the label.

However, as a recent study discovered, it appears there are a lot of similar symptoms between "burn out" syndrome and depression. These symptoms include sadness, anxiety, self-blame, loss of motivation, lack of satisfaction from achievements, and loss of interest in previous passions. Now, I'm not a mental health professional, so I wouldn't be the most qualified person to ask anyway, but if a friend came to me and described those symptoms, I would be genuinely unsure if they were simply burn out at work, or actually suffering from depression.

It seems I'm not alone with my confusion between the two: There's been a lot of research done on the difference between burn out syndrome and depression, but not a lot of major conclusions have been made. Still, here are examples of when burnout may be turning into depression. If you're experiencing any of them, it's worth seeking help from a professional or trusted person in your life.

1. Time Off Isn't Making A Dent

If your burnout is related to your job, it's possible taking time off will help alleviate your symptoms. In general, Americans aren't good at taking our vacation days, so it's not a surprise many of us are feeling overworked and stressed. If you're experiencing burnout, taking some much needed time to focus on yourself and nurse other aspects of your life (say, your relationship or catching up with friends you haven't seen in forever) may feel revitalizing for you and help put things in perspective. If time away from your stressors doesn't make a dent in how you're feeling, it's possible your burnout is actually depression.

2. Talking It Out Isn't Helping

In my opinion, talking about the hard things in life is important, even if you'd rather bury your feelings in a sea of Netflix and ice cream (which, admittedly, I sometimes do as well). If you're experiencing burnout, talking it out with friends or a loved one might do the trick; after all, if we set high standards for ourselves or have high expectations for performance at work or in school, it's very possible we'll experience a lot of stress and anxiety about the outcomes of our daily tasks.

In fact, the term "burnout" was coined in the 1970s by Herbert Freudenberger in reference to the high expectations those in "helping" professions set for themselves; doctors and nurses, for example. Eventually, all of the self-sacrifice and high pressure led to burnout symptoms like exhaustion and listlessness.

If you're experiencing burnout, talking these issues out can help give us some perspective on the big picture and help us manage our expectations and reactions when things don't go as planned. If you're experiencing depression, however, simply talking things out might not help; this may be a sign it's time to talk to a professional.

3. A Change Of Pace Isn't Helping

While changing careers or leaving a job can be scary prospects, Kylie Gilbert at Shape suggests it as a possible means of rectifying burnout. The logic here is that if you change your behaviors (like, for example, your workplace) you should see a difference in your feelings of burnout. Ideally, if you move positions, you'll do so with the knowledge of what environments are best for you and what tasks and responsibilities you feel comfortable with handling. This, in turn, will prevent you from putting too much on your plate or setting an unrealistic standard for yourself from the start.

Of course, there are ways to manage burnout without quitting your job — having a dialogue with your boss about transferring responsibilities or adjusting your schedule are possibilities, for instance. The key distinction here is that if you're suffering from depression, these changes are unlikely to offer you real relief and your symptoms will continue in spite of the new path or circumstances in front of you.

4. There's A Difference in Your Weight

Now, I think you should love and embrace your body no matter what your weight is, because your weight says nothing about you as a person, your value, or even necessarily your health. However, when it comes to depression and burnout, some psychologists point to weight as a possible indicator of underlying mental health issues. Sherrie Carter at Psychology Today points out that for many people suffering from burnout, there's a pattern of skipping meals (perhaps because people are too anxious to have an appetite, or possibly because they feel too tied up at their desk to eat lunch), which she argues can lead to weight loss down the road. Other mental health professionals point out a tie between women who experience burnout at work and emotional eating. In terms of depression, there have been studies that show a correlation between depression and both weight loss and weight gain.

All in all, if you're experiencing burnout or depression, you are not alone. As Aviva Patz suggests over at Prevention, it's possible the distinction between burnout and depression doesn't matter as much as actually getting help. Burnout is real and serious, as is depression, and it's clear there are many overlapping symptoms between the two. In terms of long-term treatment and action, the distinction and correct diagnosis is likely important, but if you're still in the stages of seeking help, it might be best to reach out to a mental health professional and not focus too much on whether you think you're experiencing burnout or depression. Either way, you're hurting, and it's important to get mental health support when you're in a rough place, whether it ends up being burnout, depression, or something else entirely.

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