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What’s the difference between stress and burnout and how to overcome them – a therapist explains

In honour of Stress Awareness Day, HELLO! spoke to therapist Abby Rawlinson about how to notice the symptoms of stress and burnout - plus, we tapped her for her tips to manage the two

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Melanie Macleod
Wellness Editor
November 1, 2023
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We hear the phrase 'burnout' everywhere at the moment, with our hectic work lives and never-ending to-do lists at home causing us to feel seriously frazzled. But are we all in the throes of burnout, or are we stressed?

There's an important distinction between the two, says  integrative therapist Abby Rawlinson, a member of the BACP. "Burnout isn’t the same as stress," she says. "It may be the result of chronic stress, but it’s not the same thing.

"Stress is a natural response to a challenging or demanding situation. It can be short-term and is often a reaction to external pressures. Burnout is more of a chronic condition, characterised by prolonged exposure to stress.

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Abby Rawlinson is an integrative therapist

"Stress involves too much: too much pressure and too many demands, whereas burnout is about not enough," explains Abby. "It’s about feeling empty and emotionally exhausted, devoid of empathy, caring and compassion.

"Stress makes people feel that they have too much on their plate, but burnout makes people feel depleted, like they have nothing left to give. If excessive stress feels like you’re drowning in responsibilities, burnout is a sense of being all dried up."

Are we all burnt out?

Burnout has become something of a buzzword in recent years – perhaps in part due to the fact that in 2019 'burnout' was added to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Classification of Diseases, meaning it became a globally recognised medical condition.

But Abby said the increase in clients with burnout could also be down to blurred home and work life boundaries, an increasing awareness of mental health in the workplace, or simply high expectations, intrusive technology and a 'hustle' culture at work.

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Stress is a feeling of having too much on

Why is it important to know the difference between stress and burnout?

Given that neither stress nor burnout is desirable, you might wonder why a distinction between the two is important.

"Misdiagnoses can lead to people not receiving the appropriate support or adopting incorrect coping strategies," warns Abby.

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"Stress management typically involves short-term interventions, while burnout often requires longer-term support and changes in work conditions. Burnout can also have severe health consequences so it’s important to recognise it early before it leads to worsening conditions.

To easily spot the difference between stress and burnout, Abby identified the symptoms of each.

How to tell if it's stress or burnout

"Stress comes and goes and can typically be pinpointed to a situation," Abby says. "Burnout, on the other hand, doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a slow accumulation of exhaustion and cynicism. It creeps up on us over time like a slow leak.

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Burnout can leave us emotional

"Stress is often short-term and characterised by over-engagement, hyperactivity and over-reactive emotions," Abby continues. "Whereas burnout accumulates over time and is characterised by disengagement, no motivation and a numbing of emotions."

What does burnout feel like?

Emotional exhaustion - the fatigue that comes with carrying too much for too long.

Decreased sense of accomplishment - the feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.

Cynicism and detachment - the depletion of empath, caring and compassion.

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Stress and burnout leave us feeling exhausted

How to overcome stress

Because stress and burnout are different beasts, they need to be dealt with differently, Abby says.

"For clients suffering with stress, I like to explain the ‘stress bucket’ analogy," she says.

The stress bucket

"Imagine that you have a bucket that represents your capacity to handle stress," Abby explains. "Various stressors - the drops of water - fill up your bucket. Some everyday stressors include workload, exams, difficulties in relationships or money worries.

"If these stressors exceed your capacity to cope with them, your bucket overflows, resulting in the symptoms of stress.

"The goal of reducing stress is to keep your bucket from overflowing by regularly emptying some of the water out. Every time you exercise, see a friend, rest, eat a nutritious meal, or meditate, you empty out some of the water and prevent the bucket from overflowing.

"So, it doesn’t matter if the stress keeps coming, as long as you regularly practice self-care, the bucket will never overflow."

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Unfortunately, burnout cannot be dealt with in the same way, according to Abby.

"People suffering from stress can often feel better when the stressor is removed or when they practice some self-care. Burnout is different. It’s a prolonged state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, which doesn’t dissipate simply by taking a break or removing the immediate stressors," she says.

"Given the gradual onset of burnout, we should adopt a long-range strategy for recovering, rather than expecting to eliminate it with temporary fixes," Abby advises.

Woman looking tired on her computer© Shutterstock
There's a distinction between stress and burnout

How to recover from burnout

Check in with yourself

Start checking in with your stress levels on a daily basis and learn to notice when you’re starting to become depleted.

Accept support

Let people know when you’re feeling overwhelmed and try to trust other people’s abilities to support you.

Reassess your standards

Notice when you’re setting yourself unrealistically high standards and identify the obligations you can let go of or say ‘no’ to.

Schedule me-time

Schedule in regular self-care activities and communicate your plan to your loved ones – this can help with accountability.

 Find the perfet therapist for you at BACP and visit HELLO!'s Happiness Hub for inspiring stories of people who have overcome stress and burnout.

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