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Burnout vs. Depression: Understanding the Difference and Finding Hope

Burnout or depression? This can be a very confusing question and something that can fill you with dread and fear. When you're emotionally drained and mentally exhausted, how do you know if you're battling burnout or grappling with a long-term mental health condition like depression? The lines can most definitely blur, and understanding the difference is vital for seeking the right help and support.

Don’t worry, if this resonates with you, I have got you. The purpose of this article is to give you a better understanding of the link between Burnout and Depression. Some of the potential drivers of both and a few realistic everyday behaviours you can implement that can help to deal with your symptoms or condition.

So let’s get into it…

Way back in 1974 Herbert Freudenberger, observed that people experiencing burnout often appear and act as if they are depressed. Meaning that the similarity can make it challenging to distinguish between the two. After all, some burnout symptoms bear an uncanny resemblance to depression.

Symptoms like loss of interest or pleasure, a persistent sense of sadness, fatigue, poor concentration, feelings of worthlessness, changes in appetite and sleep disturbances are found both in burnout and depression. When you're caught in the grip of either, the emotional weight can be crushing.

The connection between burnout and depression can be a bit of a puzzle, researchers have found links and similarities between the two and they are still delving into this intrinsic link. With some researchers suggesting that burnout may be a precursor to depression. Which makes sense- feeling burned out for a long period of time will have a negative affect on your outlook and mood.

Digging deeper, at the biological level, more specifically focusing on our DNA, we can find more clues as to the links between burnout and depression.

The world of epigenetics indicates that burnout and depression share a common biological basis. Suggesting that DNA methylation, could serve as a biomarker of stress-related mental conditions.

So not sure what DNA methylation means or epigentics, then don’t worry, many don’t. In simpler terms, both burnout and depression could be highlighted by similar biological processes in the body. Although this sounds very complicated and like something you don’t have control over don’t fret. There is an amazing world of nutrigenomics where we can introduce nutrition and lifestyle change to support your DNA expression and have an impact on how this affects our physical and mental health.

So for example some things that can be done to support DNA methylation include-

Moderate to low intake of alcohol

Ensuring adequate levels and intake of b vitamins

Ensuring adequate intake of magnesium- which can be taken in supplemental form or found in foods like green leafy veggies, wholegrains, nuts and seeds.

Some have gone as far to suggest that burnout might be a dimension of depression rather a separate psychological condition. This suggests that the two may not be as separate as we might think. But to be honest the research is not very strong to uphold this theory.

Outside of that let’s just take a moment to consider where the distinctions lie in the nature of both of these conditions. Burnout is intricately tied to your life stressors and will present itself when you have been trying too hard for too long without the results or outcome that you are hoping for. It's like a mirror reflecting the stressors of your life back at you. On the flip side, depression can manifest regardless of the circumstances around you. It's context-free and can creep into your life, irrespective of what is going on.

So, despite the overlapping symptoms and shared biological markers, the critical difference lies in the root cause and the impact on your day to day life. If you're feeling the weight of the world primarily because of life stressors, you're likely dealing with burnout. If the cloud of despair seems to follow you wherever you go, regardless of your circumstances, depression might be the culprit.

If you are concerned that you have got depression reach out and speak to someone close to you- a friend or family member and tell them how you feel. It is also essential that you make an appointment to speak to your GP. If your symptoms are more extreme and you are concerned about your own safety please visit your nearest A&E or call a designated helpline like the Samartians (UK 116 123)

To finish off this short review about the links between Burnout and Depression I wanted to shed some light on some findings that both conditions are associated with a particular pattern of memory recall. Those affected by either Burnout or Depression tend to remember more negative words and also recall less positive words. This shows a link between emotional memory and both of these conditions, adding another layer to the puzzle.

So if you take one positive nugget away from this article let it be this: the way you speak to yourself matters. Being kinder to yourself, even in the toughest of times, can have a profound impact on your recovery.

Let’s be realistic it may not be easy to be kind to yourself and I will straight up tell you right now I am definitely not an advocate for toxic positivity. But I do want to give you three short tips that could help you shift your internal dialogue and make you feel like being a bit kinder to yourself.

1. Acknowledge your feelings- recognise and accept your emotions, positive or negative. It is okay to feel bad and give yourself space to ride that emotional wave.

2. Emotional Freedom Technique or Tapping is an excellent tool that can tap into (excuse the pun) your inner dialogue. There are a mountain of resources on tapping on you tube with one of my favourite one minute tapping videos being linked in the article notes below.

3. Prioritise self care- when we treat ourselves better it can transfer through to how we speak to ourselves. This might be giving yourself a bit of time to do tapping, meditation or breathwork. Or it could be following a skincare routine or going for a walk. However this presents for you. But do include this everyday in some way shape or form.

Hopefully you have found this article useful. Please do remember you're not alone in this journey. Seek help, try to speak kindly to yourself, and remember that there's hope even in the face of burnout and depression.

References and links-

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