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The Thin Line: Differentiating Stress, Anxiety, & Burnout

As a disclaimer, EnvisionCo Blog is reader-supported. Some links on this site are for additional informational purposes whereas some others are affiliate links (don't worry, these will be clearly marked as such). When you click through an affiliate link on our site and sign-up for a service or finalize a purchase, we may earn affiliate commissions. This of course is at no additional cost to you. Additionally, EnvisionCo Blog is for informational and educational purposes only and is in no way intended to be a substitute for therapy by a trained mental health professional.

Forty-six-year-old Lecia has been having trouble sleeping. She works 12 hour long swing shifts at the local yarn spinning factory. She just recently made the switch from day shift to night shift; the pay differential will assist her with getting ahead on some bills. It will also minimize the amount of paid time off (PTO) she will need to request in order to transport her mother to and from doctor's appointments. She has been quite concerned about her mother, who has diabetes and has recently been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Lecia is a single parent of two children, a daughter who has begun her freshman year at college and a son in middle school. With her daughter away and her mom now on oxygen, Lecia has to carve out more time in her already overpacked schedule to handle more of the cleaning and cooking duties. She doesn't have time for friends. She doesn't have time for something as simple as trip to her favorite hair salon. She has been feeling quite overwhelmed and has been feeling exhausted all day every day. Is it stress? Is it anxiety? Is it burnout?

We often used the terms stress, anxiety, and burnout interchangeably. I have caught myself doing so on occasion. "I'm stressed," "I'm so busy," "I'm overwhelmed," "I'm so burned out." There is an inherent danger in us using these phrases so casually in this day and age of TikTok diagnosing. How so you may be thinking? Unfortunately, we have reached times critical when it comes to work and life balance. Concerns of wanting and needing more time away from work site are downplayed as more and more companies have jumped from expecting 40 hours a week from their workers to the expectation of 50 or even 60 hours a week for workers. Don't believe it? Just sit down and have a chat with your child's teacher about how many hours per week they are putting in just to help those growing minds flourish. Just talk to the local factory worker who is guilted into taking extra shifts. Just talk to the office worker whose last performance review was marked "needs improvement" in the area of consistently stepping up to the plate and being a team player by taking on extra projects and duties (that would require more and more time away from their homes and families). These things alone can lead to stress and burnout. Flippantly using the phrases socially reinforce the message that it is okay for people to endure constant cycles of stress and burnout. Well, I'm here to tell you, it is not okay.

Is This Stress?

Symptoms of stress and anxiety can look similar. The source of our stress is often external. It is the physical, mental, emotional, and relational factors that can lead to us and our nervous systems to feel overwhelmed. Stress can come on suddenly, sometimes without warning. Physical signs of stress include muscle tension, jaw clenching, fatigue, headaches, restlessness, and general aches and pains. Emotional signs of stress include feelings of overwhelm, frequently being emotionally reactive, racing thoughts, forgetfulness, and diminished problem-solving. Behavioral signs of stress include decreased sleep quality, changes in appetite or weight, substance use, and sexual difficulties. Stress is often more short term in nature. Meaning, ideally once the stressor is removed or resolved, it isn't too long before our stress symptoms begin to resolve or decrease.

Is This Anxiety?

Whereas the source of stress is often external, anxiety tends to be an internal response. The intensity and duration also differs from stress. Physical symptoms of anxiety include elevated heart rate, nausea and stomach pains, rapid breathing, shortness of breath, trembling or shaking, and even an exaggerated startle reflex. Emotional signs of anxiety include constant worry, rumination and racing thoughts, feelings of helplessness, fear, and panic. Behavioral symptoms of anxiety include insomnia or disrupted sleep, changes in appetite, substance use, inability to complete normal daily functions, and avoidance of people and activities that cause distress. I know that in reading both the descriptor for stress and for anxiety, there is some overlap which can make deciphering the two a little complicated. One difference is that with anxiety, there tends to be a lack of belief in one's ability to cope with the stressor. There is also difficulty in believing that one can use their support systems (internal and external), solve the problem, or even self-regulate. This is what helps separate stress from the diagnosis of anxiety. Also, versus stress, anxiety tends to have a longer duration that affects normal daily functioning (there is a difference between sleep difficulties and going to work tired and insomnia that makes it impossible for the person to even go in to work).

Is This Burnout?

Burnout is not sudden. It happens over time and is more internally focused. If a person has stress that goes unresolved, it can then develop into chronic stress. Unresolved chronic stress then crosses over into burnout. With stress, we feel that we have too much on our plates. With burnout, we feel depleted and as if we have nothing left to give. "I'm exhausted, "I'm done," or, "I'm in survival mode," are sentiments that may indicate that a person is experiencing burnout. Physical signs of burnout include fatigue, insomnia or interrupted sleep, changes in appetite, increased caffeine use, tenseness, heaviness in the body, and increased physical illness. Emotional and behavioral signs of burnout include irritability, numbness, feelings of apathy, sarcasm, self-doubt and self-criticism, lack of motivation, procrastination, isolation, loss of enjoyment in life, substance use/self-medicating, and disordered eating. Unlike stress or anxiety, burnout is not something that people have to live with; it is preventable. Because burnout sets in so gradually, a long view strategy will be required, meaning one should not expect to eliminate it overnight.

Let's turn our attention back to Lecia. We humans like to see a completion. We want our questions answered and the story completed. Is Lecia undergoing stress, anxiety, or burnout? From the information given, we cannot say. This is another danger of going onto Dr. Google or TikTok MD and searching our symptoms in an effort to self-diagnose. When it comes to mental health, there is so much more than just compiling a list of symptoms and seeing what sticks. In the opening vignette, Lecia's situation is indeed challenging, and the symptoms she is experiencing could be caused by a combination of stress, anxiety, and burnout. How so?

When we look at her situation, stress could be identified as the work shift change from days to nights, financial pressures with needing to get ahead on bills, and her varying responsibilities of the demanding job and being a caregiver to her children and her ailing mother. Anxiety pressure points for Lecia may include worrying about her mother's health, worrying about the needs of her college aged daughter, worrying about the needs of her middle school aged son and all the pressures he will face in middle school, and her overwhelming work schedule. Burnout could gradually sneak in as a result of her continual demanding workload of 12-hour shifts, lack of personal time, and continual work and home demands without sufficient rest. Prioritizing her health and well-being is crucial to manage her responsibilities effectively. Lecia's challenges are significant and addressing them will require a multifaceted approach. Much like Lecia, getting the answers you desire is a joint effort between you and your medical care team. But what can you get from Google, Tiktok or other sources (i.e. articles such as this one)? Is this article asserting that these sources should not be used? Not at all. Other people's lived experiences can often be a motivator or springboard for us to get our own selves together. Google, YouTube, and TikTok often have some very useful information and tips. However, the unspoken disclaimer is that the information should be considered just that-information. It is in no way recommended that these sources be considered a substitute for your connecting with a licensed medical professional for thorough evaluation.

Introducing a new Growing Together Master Class

In today's high-pressure environment, managing stress and avoiding burnout has become more crucial than ever. It involves our very health! On July 27, 2024 at 6:00pm CST, we will be hosting a fireside chat of sorts delving into stress, burnout, and solutions to regain balance and maintain your well-being. Whether you're facing the demands of a challenging career, juggling family responsibilities, or simply seeking ways to improve your quality of life, this webinar offers invaluable insights and tools to help you thrive. Join us by registering here.

The human condition is complex, and so are the ways stress, anxiety, and burnout manifest. While online resources and shared experiences can offer valuable information and support, they should not replace professional medical evaluation and intervention. Instead, such resources can complement a holistic approach that includes consulting healthcare professionals. Our upcoming webinar, "Taming the Fire: Managing Stress and Avoiding Burnout," on July 27th, 2024 is one such holistic approach. Slots will be limited to allow for a more personalized attention and meaningful discussion. So don't forget to register today!  The purpose of this webinar is not to serve as a case consultation or diagnosis of your specific circumstances, and it is not a replacement for professional medical or psychological advice. However, it can be a valuable resource to gain insights and strategies for navigating these challenges. But please remember that wherever you are on this wellness journey, do not worry about getting it perfect; just get it going. Until next time. Happy reading!

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"Burnout is not a badge of honor. It’s a sign that something needs to change." ~Arianna Huffington


Here at EnvisionCo Blog, we try to keep ads to a minimum making our blog entirely reader-supported. We may feature links on this site for additional informational purposes. From time to time, we may feature other links which are affiliate links (and these will be clearly marked). When you click through an affiliate link on our site and sign up for a service or finalize a purchase, we may earn affiliate commissions. This is of course at no additional cost to you. However, if you like what you see and would like to make a donation to help us keep ads to a minimum, we would greatly appreciate it! Nothing fancy. We accept the price of a cup coffee with as much gratitude as we would the price of a tank of gas!

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