Depression – or burnout? How to tell the difference
Depression – or burnout after all? A psychologist explains how you can tell the difference
Those who are affected by burnout suffer from symptoms that are in part also typical of depression. That's why it can be difficult to figure out which of the disorders is present.
Psychologist Hanne Horvath knows the problem. She knows: Only recently has burnout been listed as a separate syndrome in the official diagnostic catalog of the World Health Organization (WHO) – and this allows treatment providers to better differentiate between the two.
In an interview with Business Insider, Horvath explains which symptoms you can recognize burnout by and what options you have if you feel like you're going to burn out (soon).
As bad as burnout may feel for those affected, for a long time the medical community did not recognize it as a mental illness. Feeling burned out has only been officially considered a problem for which sufferers need professional help since January 2022: That's because on that day, the so-called ICD-11 came into effect – the updated catalog in which the World Health Organization (WHO) lists all common diseases and diagnoses.
Although you've probably heard the term many times – or perhaps even been affected yourself – burnout is still a real newcomer to the long list of mental illnesses. To be more precise, in the ICD-11 it is not listed as a disease, but as a syndrome. Means: A burnout includes a number of certain symptoms that often or always occur together and probably have the same cause.
Hanne Horvath knows from her everyday work what the symptoms are. Horvath holds a doctorate in psychology. Co-founded the online therapy platform HelloBetter. "The ICD-11 lists three factors that are considered typical of burnout," she explains. And they are:
1. Exhaustion and constant fatigue 2. A perceived mental distance from one's job. "What is meant by this is that someone is shaken just thinking about work," Horvath explains. "Sufferers have become alienated from their work over time and reject it completely." 3. The feeling of being able to perform only inadequately – in other words, a loss of productivity.
For the first time, Hanne Horvath explains further, burnout is now also seen as a problem that relates specifically to work. "Burnout patients are no longer able to adequately process their workload," Horvath explains. Some of them, on the other hand, could still cope well with stress in other areas of their lives. This makes a big difference to depression: Those who suffer from it usually feel equally listless in all areas of life – at work as well as in their private lives.
"To describe a burnout simply as a kind of 'protracted depression' is therefore simply wrong," says Hanne Horvath. It would not do justice to either of the two disease patterns. Comparing the two illnesses with each other often makes little sense. "There's this common preconception that burnout patients are the busy ones who work so much and eventually burn out," she says. Depressives, on the other hand, are considered by some people to be the "lazier" mental patients in comparison -. Would be further stigmatized by the mere existence of the butnout syndrome. "This is, of course, nonsense."
Although there are many overlaps between burnout and depression – fatigue, listlessness, exhaustion – it is therefore important to always look at the differences. However, it is also important for Horvath to emphasize: "The individual does not divide himself into work and leisure time."
There are many examples that make it clear what she means by this. A common one is working parents, for example: Who has a demanding job and at the same time must look after his children at home, can not consider these two stress factors separately from each other. If such a person burns out, it is not usually due exclusively to work stress.
Work can stabilize – even when stressed
So the preliminary conclusion is: Yes – by definition, work is the decisive trigger for burnout. But Hanne Horvath warns against viewing the workplace in this context as something thoroughly harmful. Because even if it sounds ironic, the job actually stabilizes many of those affected – primarily through three factors:
Routine. "Routines maintain our health," says Horvath. You don't necessarily have to get through work – but the job just automatically brings a lot of habits with it. Social contacts. We humans are social beings. The Corona pandemic recently showed how much we depend on contact with colleagues, customers and superiors, says Hanne Horvath. Appreciation. "We derive a lot of self-esteem and self-confidence from the role we take on at work," says the psychologist. If, on the other hand, we are not appreciated at work, neither by our boss nor by our colleagues, then this is also something that can lead to burnout. But what to do if you feel that your work is slowly but surely making you ill, despite all these strengthening elements?? First of all, congratulations on feeling it! With this you have something ahead of most people who are slipping into a burnout.
This "slipping into it" is usually a gradual process – so gradual that those affected can easily suppress it, explains Hanne Horvath. "I often hear from burnout patients: 'Oh, that started a few years ago. But I kind of ignored it. '" This repression tactic is used by most people in this context – no matter what mental illness is involved. On average, as several studies show, sufferers wait a full seven years before seeking help. "This is a disaster," finds Hanne Horvath.
According to her, this catastrophe has its origin in a primal human need: We want to solve our problems ourselves, if at all possible. One fallacy that many people fall prey to is that therapy prevents us from doing this: After all, psychotherapy is nothing more than support for self-help, says Hanne Horvath. Their psychology company, the therapy platform HelloBetter, also offers such support – online. This is the only digital burnout therapy in Germany that is officially recognized and reimbursed by health insurance companies. You can have it prescribed by your family doctor.
You can learn something from Hanne Horvath and her team's approach to burnout treatment – but only if you don't yet feel so burnt out that only professional support can help. Essentially, therapy is about two things, says the psychologist: the problems that could theoretically be solved, and the problems that those affected cannot change themselves.
Let's start with what you can do with the problems from category one, the ones that can theoretically be solved. First write down all the problems that you would classify in this category. It doesn't necessarily have to be work-related either, says Hanne Horvath. Then pick one of your challenges. First describe the problem (for example: "My washing machine is broken"). Define your goal (for example, "Get the washing machine working again by a week from now"). Think about what possible solutions you have to achieve it. (for example, "I can call my buddy who fixed it for me before" or "I can find a repair service and call them."). Then tests all possibilities – until the problem is solved.
The whole thing may seem trivial to you; but psychologists would explain to you that by doing this, you have had what is called a control experience: You have solved a problem by taking care of it – thus proving your self-efficacy. "This is something that burnout sufferers have often not felt for a long time," says Hanne Horvath. Control experiences are a good remedy for feelings of listlessness and listlessness.
Allow yourself negative emotions
That leaves the problems in category two: those that you can't solve yourself. Here is the key, which Hanne Horvath also practices with her therapy patients: emotion regulation. First of all, it means that you allow yourself to feel negative emotions such as anger, sadness and shame.
For example, let's say you're annoyed with a colleague but just can't avoid working with them. Then don't suppress that feeling, but get into it. "It's very helpful to notice that negative emotions get weaker as you experience them," says Hanne Horvath. "No emotion stays for three hours."
After that, it's a matter of working out techniques that will help you work through your negative feeling. This can be breathing exercises that you do at home after a day in the company of your annoying colleague. It can also be a certain sport you like, or a delicious meal you prepare mindfully for yourself.
By the way, all this is advice that you can also follow as a non-stressed person. They help to prevent burnout – so that it doesn't have to become an ie for you in the first place.
This article was last published on 14. February 2022 updated. He was born on 8.