Depression or Burnout?

I am trying to figure out what is wrong with me for about two months now. After seeing 4 different doctors, I have finally found the one that doesn’t feel the need to send me to another one, a doctor that is actually willing to help me. Therapy started, however, my psychologist, as well as the psychiatrist overseeing her work, are not exactly sure what is wrong with me. To both of them I told my story, I opened up, spoke about my feelings and my experiences, my life and my struggles. But the question remains unanswered, am I depressed of just completely burned out?

My psychiatrist asked me what I believed, she asked me if I felt more connected to the word depression or if I would prefer a burn out. A difficult question I hoped she would answer for me. My problems seem to be too big for me right now to figure out what is going on. There are feelings of complete sadness and darkness but also of tiredness, exhaustion even, besides, my ADHD seems to be out of control, with chaos filling my brain and draining my energy.

It feels strange to think about my diagnosis. Until now I just described it as a breakdown, a way of my whole body to tell me I’m living my life in a wrong way. I never really considered a real diagnosis, a real mental health problem I’m suffering from. If I have to choose between depression or burnout I would go for the second one, just because it sounds less severe. A burn out seems less fucked up than the image that pops up in my head when I think about a depression. But as I know from the global image of ADHD, an image is often wrong, besides, I shouldn’t choose based on what scares me less. I have to start understanding the meaning of these two diagnoses.

What is a burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.

Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give. You may be on the road to burnout if:

  • Every day is a bad day.
  • Caring about your work or home life seems like a total waste of energy.
  • You’re exhausted all the time.
  • The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming.
  • You feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.

What is a depression?

Feeling down from time to time is a normal part of life, but when emotions such as hopelessness and despair take hold and just won’t go away, you may have depression. More than just sadness in response to life’s struggles and setbacks, depression changes how you think, feel, and function in daily activities. It can interfere with your ability to work, study, eat, sleep, and enjoy life. Just trying to get through the day can be overwhelming.

While some people describe depression as “living in a black hole” or having a feeling of impending doom, others feel lifeless, empty, and apathetic. Men in particular can feel angry and restless. However you experience depression, left untreated it can become a serious health condition. But it’s important to remember that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are symptoms of depression—not the reality of your situation.

What is the difference?

Depression and burnout seems very similar to each other. They both come with issues in concentration, memory and sleeping and they both create a feeling of exhaustion. Both create a feeling of being physically and emotionally drained, easily irritated by small problems, misunderstood and underappreciated. If you go back to the original paper that was published about burnout, by Herbert Freudenberger one of the ways he described burnout was: ‘It looks like depression.’

However, with a burnout, most problems are related to work and adjustments made in relation to work will typically help. A burnout can eventually also influence other parts of life, similar as depression, but it is more likely to occur in a later stage. (Iacovides, Fountoulakis, Kaprinis & Kaprinis, 2003). Depression develops in a more general way, it can have a quick and large influence on several parts of life. Besides, depression also has certain symptoms that burnout doesn’t usually exhibit, including, low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts.

What do I have?

To be honest. I have no idea. I am not suicidal, but I do have a low self-esteem and I feel pretty hopeless. On the other hand, I know that my problems are not work related, in fact my work used to be my safe place, the place I used to run away form my problems and find some peace. My problems are not in the first place work related, which makes me not really matching the symptoms of a burnout. However, there is also something that’s called a Caregiver burnout, a type of burnout that is not related to work but a result of caring for other people too much, something I have been doing for a long time.

A caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. It may be accompanied by a change in attitude, from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned. Burnout can occur when caregivers don’t get the help they need, or if they try to do more than they are able, physically or financially. Many caregivers also feel guilty if they spend time on themselves rather than on their ill or elderly loved ones. Caregivers who are “burned out” may experience fatigue, stress, anxiety and depression.

If I look at the symptoms of the caregiver burnout, I feel some connection. The symptoms seem to cover everything I feel, everything I experience. I do get angry, I am tired, I am extremely forgetful, lonely, hopeless, anxious, uninterested and I don’t sleep properly. I feel like this is the diagnosis that fits my mental state. The funny thing is that a depression is one of the symptoms of a caregiver burnout, so in a way, I don’t really have to choose anymore.

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