Monday, March 13, 2017

Stress or Burnout? Why they’re Different and Why you Need to Know the Difference

Stress or burnout? Writers can suffer from both.

by Ruth Harris

Look at your to-do list.

  • WiP needs edits and revisions
  • Editor/cover designer to hire
  • Promo forms to fill out
  • First draft to finish
  • Get that new book/new series ready to launch
  • The next-to-final draft need polishing
  • Backlist covers need a refresh
  • A box set waits for formatting and covers.
  • An idea for a new series needs an outline
  • Time to write a new book for an existing series
  • Newsletter!
  • Writing a newsletter for your pen name
  • Writing a blurb / a blog post
  • Analyzing results of AMS and FB ads
  • Beta readers to be contacted

Now look at yourself.

  • Snapping at colleagues, the strangers at the table next to you in a restaurant, the checkout clerk at the supermarket.
  • Snarling at your dog who’s too afraid of your rotten moods to snarl back.
  • Fighting with your spouse/roommate/bestie over…nothing.
  • Can’t sleep.
  • Can’t eat or you overeat.
  • You’re losing/gaining weight.
  • Productivity has slipped to zilch.
  • You hate everyone.
  • And everything.
  • Including yourself.

We’re stressed out. Or are we burned out? 

We feel like hamsters trapped on an endless wheel. We’re tired, crabby, frustrated, uninspired, and unmotivated. Our anxiety-meter has topped out and we’re not even running on fumes any more—we’re running on empty.
We talk about it among ourselves, moaning and bitching and rolling our eyes. Our sense of humor turns blacker and blacker.
We can—and do—complain about our plight but we’re paying real consequences, physically and emotionally. Our friends and family suffer the fallout. So does our work.
Stress and burnout are related but they are different although, according to experts, some of the signs and symptoms overlap. Whatever the specific definitions, stress and burnout reveal themselves with specific symptoms and are more dangerous than you might think.

Stress or burnout: how they’re different.

Stress is a condition of too much and is characterized by over engagement.
Too many demands, too much pressure. Your emotions are overactive and hyped up, you face too many demands on your time and energy, and feel barraged by unrelenting pressure. The consequences of stress are primarily physical: your pulse rate quickens, your heart pounds, but you still feel a glimmer of hope. You think that if you can just get everything under control, you’ll be OK again.
Burnout, a result of continual stress, is a condition of too little and is characterized by disengagement.
You feel empty, emotionally drained, and devoid of energy. Burnout reduces productivity and leaves you feeling helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Your motivation is gone, your creativity kaput. You feel detached and depressed, and as if you have nothing more to give.

The Mayo Clinic lists the common symptoms of stress

Stress symptoms can affect your body, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Being able to recognize common stress symptoms can give you techniques for managing them.
Stress that’s left unchecked can contribute to health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Common physical effects of stress

  • Headache
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Change in sex drive
  • Stomach upset
  • Sleep problems

Psychological effects of stress

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sadness or depression

Behavioral effects of stress

  • Overeating or undereating
  • Angry outbursts
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Tobacco use
  • Social withdrawal
  • Exercising less often

The Harvard health newsletter describes the symptoms of burnout.

Burnout, which can be a result of prolonged stress, is a gradual process. The signs and symptoms are subtle at first and can mirror those of stress. However, over time they become more severe and destructive.

Physical effects of burnout:

  • Feeling tired and drained most of the time
  • Lowered immunity, getting sick a lot
  • Frequent headaches or muscle pain
  • Change in appetite or sleep habits

Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout:

  • Sense of failure and self-doubt
  • Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
  • Detachment, feeling alone in the world
  • Loss of motivation
  • Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment

Behavioral effects of burnout:

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
  • Taking out your frustrations on others

Type A personalities and burnout.

Psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D explains that high achievers—Type A personalities—often experience burnout. She describes the early and later stages of burnout as follows:

Chronic fatigue.

In the early stages, you may lack energy and feel tired most days. In the latter stages, you feel physically and emotionally exhausted, drained, and depleted. You may even feel a sense of dread for what lies ahead on any given day.


In the early stages, you may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep one or two nights a week. In the latter stages, insomnia may turn into a persistent, nightly ordeal. As exhausted as you are, you can’t sleep.

Forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention.

Lack of focus and mild forgetfulness are early signs. Later, the problems may get to the point where you can’t get your work done and everything begins to pile up.

Physical symptoms.

Physical symptoms may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches. (All of these symptoms merit a medical evaluation.)

Increased illness.

Because your body is depleted, your immune system becomes weakened. This makes you more vulnerable to infections, colds, flu, and other immune-related medical problems.

Loss of appetite.

In the early stages, you may not feel hungry and may skip a few meals. In the latter stages, you may lose your appetite all together and begin to lose a significant amount of weight.


Early on, you may experience mild symptoms of tension, worry, and edginess. As you move closer to burnout, the anxiety may become so serious that it interferes in your ability to work productively. It may also cause problems in your personal life.


In the early stages, you may feel mildly sad, occasionally hopeless, and you may experience feelings of guilt and worthlessness as a result. At its worst, you may feel trapped, severely depressed, and think the world would be better off without you.
(If your depression is at this point, you should seek professional help.)


At first, this may present as interpersonal tension and irritability. In the latter stages, this may turn into angry outbursts and serious arguments at home and in the workplace.
(If anger gets to the point where it turns to thoughts or acts of violence toward family or coworkers, people should get professional assistance.)

How to manage stress and avoid burnout.

Because the consequences of stress and burnout are serious and because so many of us feel overwhelmed and stressed out, recognizing the signs and symptoms is critical.
Learning how to manage stress and avoid burnout before it starts can save your marriage, your relationships, your job, and your career.
In Part Two of this article, I will turn to experts for advice about how to manage stress and burnout.

Meanwhile, my excellent blog partner, Anne R. Allen, asks:

What about you, scriveners? Are you suffering from stress or burnout? It’s so easy for writers to get stressed these days, since most of us have day jobs, and the job of being a writer involves so much more than actually writing. Do you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself or others?