What’s the Difference Between Depression and Burnout?

I’m sitting at my desk on a Saturday trying to get work done. It’s November of 2019. But just like every day for the past three months, I can’t complete a single task. Just opening my email inbox has become painful. I have little to no motivation, energy, or joy.

When I describe this apathy and fatigue to a therapist, she says: “If we’re anxious for long enough, we’ll eventually become depressed.”

That must be itMaybe I’m depressedResearch shows that low to mild levels of anxiety can be normal and healthy; they keep us alert, safe, proactive, and productive. Manageable anxiety drives us to overcome challenges at work, propose effective solutions, and collaborate on shared goals.

But now my tank reads empty. I procrastinate on everything. I’m too tired to be anxious. Since anxiety no longer has a productive place to go, it disappears.

After a year of living this way, I decide to make a major career shift. I withdraw from my Ph.D. program. And for the first time, I have no concrete plans for the future. My sole focus becomes rediscovering what makes me happy. And then something amazing happens.

Healthy anxiety returns in the form of motivation. My passion to write and create is reignited. I’m inspired and excited about the future again. And from this excitement erupts a realization: I hadn’t been clinically depressed at all. I was burned out.

But what’s the difference? And why do we — including clinicians — often confuse the two?

What is depression?

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and impacts over 264 million people, according to the World Health Organization. Although depression can arise at any point in one’s lifetime (and more than once), it typically first occurs between ages 18–25.

Symptoms include depressed mood, anhedonia (i.e., diminished pleasure or interest in things), change in appetite, insomnia or hypersomnia, feeling worthless or guilty, fatigue, poor concentration, psychomotor agitation, and thoughts of suicide or death.

Although symptoms fall on a spectrum of severity like any clinical disorder, one must experience at least 5 symptoms for at least 2+ weeks to meet diagnostic criteria. Depression is pervasive; it makes it difficult for one to experience joy in nearly all areas of life for much (if not all) of the day on most days.

Some people can pinpoint exactly what they believe to be the cause of their depression such as a major life transition, stressful life event, or past abuse and trauma. It’s important to note that major depressive disorder is different from grief and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although these things can certainly coexist.

Others experience depression and have no idea why. This can lead to feelings of guilt. Maybe you’ve thought “I have everything I need. I shouldn’t feel this way” or “Others have it much worse than I do”. But discounting the reality of our mental health only worsens symptoms. There are often other factors at play beyond our control like genetics and biochemistry.

The good news is that depression is one of the most widely researched topics in mental health. It is also one of the most treatable. There are many scientifically validated interventions and strategies to improve daily functioning.

What can I do?

1. Self-employed strategies

In some cases, it’s possible to minimize or eradicate symptoms of depression through self-employed strategies.

Changes in diet have been shown to improve overall mood and alleviate depressive symptoms. Increasing one’s intake of selenium (e.g., Brazil nuts, whole grains), vitamin D (oily fish, eggs), Omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., flaxseed, walnuts), antioxidants (e.g., berries, vegetables), and protein (e.g., animal or plant-based like tofu, lentils, and chickpeas) can improve mood and sleep.

The benefits of exercise in treating depression are also well-established. For example, one study found that depressed adults who began walking for 20 to 40 minutes 3x per week for at least 6 weeks showed a significant reduction in symptoms compared to a group that did not exercise regularly.

If you’re not yet ready to consider psychotherapy or medication, implementing a healthier diet and regular exercise into your routine has shown significant benefits. Setting and accomplishing small goals is also helpful in alleviating depression.

2. Psychotherapy

None of these treatment approaches should be considered in isolation. Indeed, many doctors and clinicians recommend a combination of therapy, improved diet and exercise, and medication.

I’m a major advocate for the importance of therapy in treating mental health. Research shows that people who engage in therapy have better psychological outcomes compared to those who do not.

Although cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common modalities for treating depression and anxiety, there are additional approaches guiding therapeutic intervention.

No matter which approach works best for you and your therapist, the process is designed to be a collaborative effort to identify unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors that may be contributing to your depression.

I’ve seen a handful of therapists throughout my lifetime and can personally attest to its immeasurable benefit to the quality of my life. No need to wait until you’re depressed either. There’s a reason we go to the doctor for check-ups, not just when we’re sick. It’s preventive. Here are some tips on beginning your search for a therapist.

3. Medication

Although there is still a stigma surrounding the use of medication in treating mental health, antidepressants can literally save lives. After consulting your doctor or psychotherapist, you may find it helpful, even imperative, to supplement treatment with an antidepressant. Others find their depression lifts over time without medication.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are among the most commonly prescribed medications worldwide. It’s always important to discuss potential side effects with your doctor and/or therapist. Since I am neither, this article won’t outline the pros and cons of antidepressant use. However, I encourage everyone to do their own research and advocate for their needs.

Ultimately, this decision should be between you and your healthcare professional(s). If you or someone you know is in crisis, here is the link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

What is burnout?

The term “burnout” was first introduced in the 1940s but was not systematically analyzed until the 1970s by a psychologist named Herbert Freudenberger.

Thanks to the research of psychologist Christina Maslach, three major clusters of burnout have since been identified.

1. Emotional and physical exhaustion

2. Cynicism and depersonalization (i.e., perception of observing oneself from outside one’s body)

3. Diminished sense of personal effectiveness

Other symptoms include fatigue, body aches, headaches, and gastrointestinal disorders. Cynicism may manifest through anger, frustration, or feelings of isolation. Changes in appetite and sleep may occur as well.

Unlike depression, burnout is not traditionally recognized as a medical diagnosis. Most countries, including the United States, describe burnout as an occupational condition. Indeed, this is a key difference; the cause of depression may be unclear or arise “out of the blue”, while burnout more clearly results from an occupational source or work stress.

One report argues the five main causes of burnout are: 1) unreasonable time pressure, 2) lack of managerial support, 3) lack of role clarity, 4) unmanageable workload, and 5) unfair treatment.

So, who is most likely to experience burnout?

Freudenberger (1974) argues it is primarily “the dedicated and the committed”. This is why those in the helping professions (e.g., physicians, nurses, social workers, counselors) are experience burnout at higher rates. These are roles marked by long hours and excessive demand of one’s energy, resources, and emotional capacity.

More women than men tend to experience burnout in their lifetime. Some studies suggest this is due to differences in work conditions; women make up more of the helping profession/human services job sector and have been shown to have, on average, less authority in the workplace.

My experience as a burned-out graduate student looked like cynicism, irritability, disillusionment, and dissatisfaction. I was emotionally exhausted and felt unable to focus on even the most mundane tasks. I had lost my sense of purpose, direction, and meaning in the work I was doing.

Of course, I didn’t attribute this to burnout at the time. I didn’t yet have the language for it. It seemed neither did my therapist.

What can I do?

Researcher and author Brené Brown shares she once heard a priest say: “If you don’t want to burn out, quit living like you’re on fire.”

We live in a culture that prioritizes hustle and productivity at the cost of employee or student wellbeing.

Unfortunately, because burnout is not considered a clinical mental health disorder like depression, it’s harder to obtain an accurate diagnosis and receive proper solutions.

When my exhaustion first arose, I thought the problem was me. I believed if I just pushed harder, worked more, and stuck it out things would magically improve. Or at least I would adjust to the pressure.

But I was wrong. Who wants apathy in place of misery? I wanted to feel alive again. So, after a year, instead of continuing to drown, I chose to get out of the water.

When I left the culture of academia, I regained my sense of clarity, purpose, and drive. I took my intellectual curiosity with me and utilized it in ways better suited to my values and goals.

It’s clear in retrospect that not only was I not the problem but neither was my burnout. The problem? A profession or work environment that doesn’t fit and leads to depletion.

Indeed, Freudenberger argued that since burnout is linked to undesirable job conditions, it should therefore be approached at an organizational level not just at an individual level. His suggestions include shorter working hours and more staff supervision, support, and training.

Quitting one’s job is not always the feasible — or even optimal — choice in many cases. There are other science-backed strategies to alleviate symptoms of burnout.

1. Prioritize self-care

This includes everything from improving our diet (i.e., meal planning over vending machine runs) and making time for exercise. We make time for things we prioritize. Those 20 minutes spent scrolling could be reallocated to a brisk walk outside the building. Five minutes of a lunch break could be spent practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, meditating or praying.

One thing I’ve started doing is tracking my daily activities in an Excel spreadsheet. In the evenings, I give the day an overall rating from -2, -1, 0, +1, +2. At the end of the month, I track how much time spent on which tasks were most likely to result in a higher rating for the day. Then I schedule my time accordingly.

2. Change your circumstances

This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to put in a 2-week notice.

It starts with consideringwhich elements of my job are fixed, and which ones can I alter? Can you delegate certain tasks to others? What projects can you put on hold? Can you temporarily work from a new environment or at home? Sometimes implementing these changes requires advocating for your needs to a boss or supervisor. Don’t be afraid to do so. It will likely improve the quality of your work.

3. Seek support

One of the hardest parts of both depression and burnout is feeling like you’re in it alone. There can be shame wrapped up in our exhaustion, which inhibits us from reaching out for support.

Research shows that support systems help us better cope with stress and improve our motivation. Support can come from anywhere: friends, family, colleagues, or therapists. It can also provide us different but equally important things such as emotional support, comfort, advice, information, or a new perspective.

Much like depression, burnout leaves us feeling trapped and helpless. But we get to choose how we respond to our circumstances.

It’s important to a) name what we’re feeling, b) take steps to change/improve our circumstances where we can, and c) establish connections to those who can help in circumstances we cannot. Then we will be on the road to recovery.

If it feels like you’re drowning, look for a life raft nearby to catch your breath. And if that doesn’t help, it might be time to get out and swim in new waters as I did.

How Technology Uses Our Psychology Against Us

We’ve all been there. You’re sitting at your desk working when a notification pops up on your phone. Maybe Sally liked your Facebook post. Maybe James followed you on Instagram. Maybe it’s an email, a celebrity tweet, or a news alert. You open it mindlessly and before you know it, 20 minutes have disappeared. It will likely happen while you’re reading this article.

You scold yourself for not having enough willpower. You try to set a time limit on scrolling social media. You vow to check your phone less. But the cycle continues. The habit is too hard to break.

Below are 5 questions you’ve probably asked yourself in the last few years. Understanding more about the way technology hacks our neuroscience is critical in taking back control of our lives. The first step to finding a solution is recognizing the problem.

Why is it so hard to not check my phone?

The average person checks their smartphone 150 times every day. It’s not just a notification buzz that sends us tapping or swiping. It’s merely the sight of our phone in our periphery that creates the psychological urge to check for messages or alerts. But why?

This urge is based on behaviorism principles, which posit that human behavior can be predicted by antecedent stimuli (e.g., triggers) or subsequent stimuli (e.g., rewards and punishments). Positive intermittent reinforcement occurs when a subsequent reward is random and unpredictable. Just like a mouse keeps pulling a lever in hopes the next pull will result in food, a gambler keeps playing the slot machines in hopes the next round will result in coins.

Our smartphones are no different. They are designed to exploit a vulnerability in our basic psychology. Every time you subconsciously check your phone, your brain is hoping for a potential reward (e.g., text message, friend request, email, dating app match). This reward results in an immediate dopamine hit to the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for boosting mood, motivation, and feelings of pleasure.

So, it’s not necessarily that we are failing at willpower. It’s that tech companies are succeeding at keeping our attention with enticing designs, addictive apps, and targeted advertisements. When it comes to our devices, we are the product and our attention is the currency.

To quote Edward Tufte, “There are only 2 industries that call their customers users: illegal drugs and software”.

Why is the country so divided?

Just like we create social networks of like-minded people in the real world, we do the same online. Although we want to believe we’re exposed to a range of differing viewpoints from which we use logic and discretion to form our opinions, this is simply not the case.

According to a 2016 study, the information we receive online is largely based on our own search history, personal preferences, geography, and social network. It is generated through complex algorithms that allow users to receive their own version of reality.

In other words, not all Google searches and newsfeeds are created equal. Yet we wonder: why is the other side so ignorant?

Internet activist Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” to describe this virtual echo chamber in which we continue to receive information that confirms our views. The filter bubble enables a cognitive fallacy known as the confirmation bias to occur more frequently.

Confirmation bias is the human tendency to search for, believe, and recall information that supports previously existing opinions. Simply put, our brains don’t want to read stories that contradict or undermine our worldview. Algorithms on search engines make it easy for us to unknowingly hunker down in this bubble until disputing evidence is no longer effective.

Different political opinions have existed throughout all of history. But with the advent of social media, we can now share things anonymously and behind a screen. There is less of a need to back up claims with facts.

President Donald Trump’s Twitter account is an example of those in power encouraging false accusations, name-calling, and fear-inducing tactics from the comfort of their home. Fear is a strong motivator for human behavior and an effective political tool in persuading the public.

It’s not a coincidence that the current political rhetoric encourages the right to view all liberals as violent anarchists burning down cities and the left to view all conservatives as neo-Nazi white supremacists. Politicians know fear and division can work in their favor, and technology is a way to expedite the process.

Therefore, rising partisanship, tribalism, and even violence is unsurprising. When we keep others who think and look differently than us at a distance — through a screen or in the comments section — it’s easier for fear, hate, and blame to flourish.

It’s up to us to break that cycle. Not just whoever we refer to as them.

Why is it so hard to get the facts and the truth?

Experts say, when it comes to regulations of software companies, the law is far behind. With limited regulations, fake news and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire through various platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit.

Have you noticed friends, family members, or acquaintances posting significantly more political news in recent months? Have you questioned their sanity after reading some of the far-fetched conspiracies and blatantly false claims?

It’s not always the result of willful ignorance or malicious intent. In many cases, people are at the mercy of their own psychology being manipulated.

First, there’s a reason fake news is 70% more likely to be shared than true news. Fake stories are more attention-grabbing! They elicit intense reactions like anger, rage, fear, or sadness. With heightened emotions, we are more likely to share an article even if it hasn’t been fact-checked.

Second, there is a psychological phenomenon called the illusory truth effort. A 1977 study found repeated exposure to a statement increases our belief it’s true even when it’s false. Later studies suggest that this effect is maintained even when we know the sources are unreliable or unclear.

The world of social media makes repeated exposure to inaccurate information inevitable. At best, this might lead to some arguments among friends or family. At worst, the illusory truth effort plays out the way it did in 2016 when a conspiracy known as “Pizzagate” led a rifle-toting man into a restaurant to bust a child sex trafficking ring he and others believed was run in the basement by Hillary Clinton and a cabal of powerful Democratic pedophiles.

Conspiracy theories that originate online are dangerous because they don’t require any evidence to be believed. In fact, contradicting evidence can even be used to fuel conspiratorial beliefs.

Why do I feel so anxious and/or depressed?

Even those who don’t consume the news online experience the detrimental impacts of social media usage. We are subject to addictive metrics of attractiveness, popularity, and success via the number of likes, comments, and followers we have. We conflate these metrics with our self-worth and value.

We see others’ carefully curated images, profile pictures, and captions and compare our bad day with another’s highlight reel. Reality is distorted literally with the use of filters that change our faces and editing apps that morph our bodies to match an unattainable beauty standard.

Some research indicates this is especially problematic for younger generations who are learning to communicate online and thus experience more anxiety during face-to-face interactions.

Our nation has seen a 17% increase in anxiety disorders among adolescents between 1998 and 2018. According to the CDC, the suicide rates for males and females have increased by 28% and 55% from 1999 to 2018, respectively.

Additionally, social media usage has been linked to the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). One study found higher levels of FOMO are associated with more depressive symptoms and negative health outcomes.

Smartphones and the apps on them have become a “digital pacifier” used to soothe or numb us whenever we feel uncomfortable, unhappy, or bored. How often do you reach for your phone in line at the grocery store? In the doctor’s waiting room? On public transport? At the dinner table?

We have lost the ability to be uncomfortable or even sit in solitude with our thoughts. In seeking more online connections, we miss the opportunities that are physically in front of us. Yet we wonder why we feel so alone in the digital age.

What are the solutions?

Technology was not designed with malicious intent nor is it an inherently evil tool. But it has the capacity to draw out the worst in society. In many ways, we already see this taking place.

Tribalism triumphs over empathy, rage radicalizes political parties on both sides, and blame beats out open dialogue and honest discourse. We are in a war not only with each other but against ourselves.

But there is still hope. Real solutions for systemic problems can’t occur only at an individual level. However, understanding the psychological impacts of technology is a solid first step.

  1. When reading or watching the news, consider the source. Is this an Instagram live from a self-proclaimed health expert or independent journalist? Does this story include data to support it?
  2. When sharing a post or article, consider your motivations. Am I fueling division or calling for unity? Am I just blaming the other side and inciting fear or presenting important factual evidence?
  3. When it comes to mental health, there are many steps you can take to decrease smartphone usage. Turn off all notifications and silence alerts. This will minimize distractions. Keep your phone in another room while working. This will help break the intermittent reinforcement cycle of addictive phone checking. Delete social media apps off your device. This will help you be more intentional about posting.

Finally, a seemingly underrated yet powerful solution is basic human compassion. We cannot allow society’s addiction to technology rob us from engaging in open-minded discussions with other people in real life.

We all share the same cognitive fallacies, biases, and basic motivations. Instead of blaming the other side for succumbing to theirs, consider your own.