A young therapist sits hunched over her keyboard, frantically completing a case note on the client who just left her office. She has only a few precious minutes before her next client checks in.
She is surrounded by piles of paper – notes she must file, documents she must scan, faxes she must address. The piles grow larger with each client, as does the sinking feeling that she will never, ever catch up.
Her fingers fly furiously over the keys as she pushes away the thought that plagues her – she is never fully present with her clients because she’s distracted and overwhelmed by her ever-growing to-do list. Even though she resents her clients for rarely following through on their treatment plan, she believes it’s her fault and she is failing as a therapist.
As she finishes her clinical summary and clicks save, her phone beeps twice, notifying her that her next client has arrived. She leans back in her chair, exhausted and numb, wondering how she will dig herself out of this hole.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she thinks. “This stress is burning me out.”
That young therapist?
That was me, roughly a decade ago. I started that job enthusiastic and excited, ready to help people and change lives. But only a few months in, I felt crushed by the weight of my never-ending responsibilities. I was fighting burnout – and losing.
And why was I losing my battle? Because I confused burnout with stress, and my usual stress management techniques were failing me.
It’s not just semantics – stress and burnout are two very different things, and knowing the difference is critical to successfully managing burnout. I learned the hard way that stress management techniques don’t always help with burnout –sometimes they can even make it feel worse.
Okay, so what's the big difference between stress and burnout?
When we talk about feeling stressed, we generally mean the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual impact of an event. Stress results in overload – too much work, too much pressure, just too much.
Consequently, our response typically involves too much as well. We get overinvolved emotionally, believing that if we just do more, have more, be more, we can figure out a way out of our stressful situation. Stress increases our need to respond to whatever is stressing us out, creating anxiety in the process.
So where stress leads to too much, burnout leads to too little. We are less emotive, we have less energy, and we have little to no desire to respond to whatever is stressing us out. And so we detach – from our relationships, our work, and ourselves – and are more likely to feel depressed and alone.
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Why does it matter?
Because knowing the difference between stress and burnout is critical to managing each one effectively.
Stress management calms our body’s agitated state. Think about all of the common recommendations to manage stress – exercise, deep breathing, meditation, talking to a friend, doing something we love… these strategies reduce our stress by reducing our body’s anxious response.
And since chronic stress can lead to burnout, stress management techniques can sometimes be helpful in managing burnout. But that's only if we can get ourselves to do them, and that’s the problem.
Burnout leaves us feeling hopeless and stuck, so it’s even more difficult to engage in healthy behaviors. We simply don’t have the energy or motivation to do it.
And that's exactly why, ten years ago, I was losing my battle against burnout. I knew all about stress management, and I thought if I could just do more – exercise more, meditate more, plan more – I could get through it.
But in my burned out state, I found the thought of doing more of anything completely overwhelming. I didn't have the motivation to meditate, and I damn well didn't have the energy to exercise. But I knew I was supposed to do these things, and so not doing them made me feel more frustrated, more guilty, and more helpless.
I had convinced myself that I could stress-manage my way out of burnout. Yet the fact that I couldn't do it made me feel more burned out and more like a failure than before. I had dug myself into a hole, and I didn't know how to get out.
Ten years later, I know so much more about burnout than I did then, and I've made it my mission to help others find their way through burnout. Simply put, burnout is an energy management issue. And so the best way to effectively beat burnout is to build up helpful, healing energy while reducing draining, negative energy.
Sounds great, right? But how? Click here to learn more.