With the stressful circumstances surrounding a global pandemic and its aftermath, burnout seems to be a frequent topic of discussion. Whether it is about frontline workers putting in extra hours to keep their communities safe, or families doing their best to make ends meet, most people have experienced feelings of burnout on at least one occasion. Unfortunately, for some people, burnout can become long-lasting and have a negative effect on mental health. This has led some people to question if burnout can lead to depression, and research from mental health experts suggests that it could.
What is burnout?
To understand the link between burnout and depression, it is helpful to know what burnout means. Psychology experts have described burnout as a state of emotional exhaustion, in which a person becomes cynical and begins to doubt their own abilities. Historically, researchers have described burnout as arising from chronic job-related stress, which causes a person to become exhausted due to constant demands on their energy and resources. A person who has become burned out may become apathetic, detach from their work, and feel less accomplished. Given that burnout leads to such negative feelings, it is no wonder that burnout is linked to depression.
The Relationship Between Burnout and Depression
While burnout and depression are related, the exact nature of the relationship between the two is difficult to determine. On the one hand, the feelings of emotional exhaustion that come with burnout could be a symptom of depression. On the other hand, burnout may simply be a form of depression, or it could be a cause of depression. One recent study that evaluated both patients with depression and workers with burnout and then compared them to a control group of people without burnout or depression revealed that burnout and depression shared similar symptoms. This suggests that the two could simply go hand-in-hand, meaning that someone who is depressed will show symptoms of burnout and vice versa.
That being said, it is also not unrealistic to conclude that burnout could lead someone to become depressed. For instance, people who are burned out often feel exhausted and detached from their work, leading to depressive symptoms like fatigue and loss of interest in or pleasure with usual activities. Furthermore, burnout tends to cause people to feel as if they are less effective and less capable in their roles, which can ultimately cause a loss of self-esteem. A review of studies assessing the link between self-esteem and depression found that the two were strongly related, such that individuals with low self-esteem were more likely to have depression. It is possible that burnout could take a toll on self-esteem and lead to depression.
To summarize, burnout may cause, or at least be linked to, depression for the following reasons:
- Both burnout and depression can lead to exhaustion and fatigue.
- People who are burned out may detach from their usual activities and appear uninterested in them, just as someone with depression may lose interest in activities.
- Burnout may have a negative effect on self-esteem, ultimately leading to symptoms of depression.
- In general, burnout and depression have overlapping symptoms.
Symptoms to Watch For
Whether burnout causes depression or the two conditions simply have similar symptoms, there are some signs to watch for if you are feeling burned out and worry that you might also be suffering from depression. Consider the following symptoms from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, which is used to identify cases of depression:
- Depressed mood
- Lack of pleasure from or interest in usual activities
- Change in weight or appetite, whether in the form of weight loss/gain or appetite increase/decrease
- Difficulty sleeping, or excessive sleeping
- Changes in movement, either in the form of excessive pacing, or psychomotor retardation, which describes slow, sluggish movement
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Fatigue and reduced energy
- Difficulty with thinking, concentration, and decision-making
- Thinking about death or suicide, or attempting suicide
The depression symptoms above may seem quite similar to those associated with burnout. For instance, someone who is feeling burned out at work or with family responsibilities may feel ineffective and therefore show problems with decision-making. The exhaustion from burnout can also lead to feelings of fatigue or sleep changes, mirroring symptoms of depression. Whether burnout causes depression or the two are simply closely related, the reality is that when a person shows signs of depression, they live with a legitimate mental health condition that warrants treatment.
Depression Treatment Options
If you’re experiencing burnout and it has led to symptoms of depression, seeking treatment can help you learn ways to cope and manage stress to alleviate depressive symptoms. Therapy, in which you talk through your concerns with a trained mental health professional, is a common treatment for depression. Some people may also benefit from taking antidepressant medications in combination with therapy.
While therapy and medication can be helpful for depression, some people will be resistant to these forms of treatment, meaning they may not see significant improvement. In this case, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can be helpful. This is a non-invasive form of treatment that uses electric coils to stimulate brain areas responsible for mood regulation. For those in the Los Angeles area, Pulse TMS can provide this treatment, with appointments scheduled at flexible times that meet your needs. Contact us today if this option seems like it might be a good fit for you.