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The Sneaky Way Your Work Stress Could Spiral Out Of Control

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What's The Difference Between Stress & Burnout? How To Stop Feeling Overwhelmed At Work Before You Get Burned Out

Are you stressed, or is it burnout?

Everyone experiences stress in varying degrees; it's a natural part of life ;and human functioning.

Constantly feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, on the other hand, isn't stress — it's burnout.

And while some people may use the terms synonymously, there are qualitative differences between being stressed and being burned out.

RELATED: 7 Tips For When You Feel SUPER-Stressed And Overwhelmed At Work

What is stress?

According to WebMD, stress is "the body's reaction to harmful situations — whether they’re real or perceived. When you feel threatened, a chemical reaction occurs in your body that allows you to act in a way to prevent injury. This reaction is known as 'fight-or-flight,' or the stress response."

You can experience an increase in your stress levels when you take up a new job, when you're engaged in an exciting and demanding project at work, or when you're tasked with increased responsibilities.

These types of stressful experiences unleash possibilities for you and new ways to expand your knowledge, expertise, and to contribute further to your work. They feed your desire to be more personally engaged in the movement of your work and careers.

These types of experiences also require energy, focus, and time — all of which can produce varying levels of stress as you integrate these new challenges into your day-to-day life.

These levels of stress tend to be motivating, as well as demanding, stimulating and challenging. When there is a congruence between the demands of the activity and your potential to do that same activity, the stress you experience is manageable. You remain personally connected to the purpose and value of your work, despite its demands.

This congruence strengthens your awareness of the stress you're experiencing. You have the capacity to step back, put the stress you're experiencing in perspective and take subsequent decisions and choices that feel personally appropriate. You have the energy and motivation to make any necessary adjustments to deal with this stress, including seeking help, delegating tasks and demarcating time to recoup, replenish, and restore yourself.

Burnout, however, is a very different experience from stress.

What is burnout?

Burnout is defined as "a reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress and is characterized by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism (less identification with the job), and feelings of reduced professional ability."

When you are burned out, you feel constantly overwhelmed by your work. You feel exhausted day-in and day-out, and you feel emotionally “flat” and/or angry and cynical toward yourself and others.

You function at the bare minimum, your productivity plummets, and you feel personally disconnected from your jobs. The personal capacities, motivations, contributions and interests that bring your work to life are no longer present.

When you experience burnout, you begin to lose an important personal connection to what you're doing. You lose passion and commitment for the work you do — which is one of the trademark signs of burnout.

When your work begins to lack purpose and meaning, when it no longer resonates with your personal convictions and values, when you are trying to do your best but there is more work than time to complete it or you're facing more problems than solutions, the results are often levels of sustained stress over long periods of time.

This chronic stress and overwhelm is what leads to burnout.

RELATED: How To Make It Through The Day (And Life) When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

You can experience burnout at several different levels of your life and, very often, they overlap.

Here are some signs of burnout you might be dealing with:

  • In your specific workplace, the daily demands, procedures and sustained pressures may be too much. You may think, “I cannot do more, the quantity of my work and the demands to do more are too much,” “The pace of my days is too hectic."
  • Your attitudes toward work may shift substantially, along with what your work means to your life. Thoughts like, “I do not feel any joy in my work,” “I am bored with the work I am doing,” and “I have issues with my colleagues," may come up.
  • At a very personal level, you may question your abilities and your confidence may drop. You could be thinking, “I cannot relate to my work — I do not feel like I have any mastery over what I am doing.” You might also carry a heavy burden from your own self-imposed demands, telling yourself things like, “I cannot make mistakes,” “I always have to be the best,” and “I have to do more.”
  • You may feel your level of personal freedom has been affected and that you have no personal input in what you're doing day-to-day or aren't the leader of your own life. You might find yourself thinking, “I am never asked for my opinion, input or perspective,” or “I am never asked if I want to do that job or task.”
  • Very often, burnout is very experienced at the level of meaning and purpose, as these are key motivators in your lives. You're probably thinking, “What I am doing is meaningless.”

In order to stop feeling so overwhelmed — before it leads to burnout — it's important to rediscover you own "inner consent."

This will help you learn how to relieve stress before it can really take root.

Inner consent is a personally felt “yes!” It's an internal affirmation or experienced “rightness.” It means thinking, "This decision, this direction I have chosen to take in my life, this activity I'm engaged in, corresponds with my internal compass, it resonates experientially with me."

You are more fully present when you heed this internal “yes,” when your actions are in concert with your sense of self, your feelings, your experiences and your values. Inner consent means being perceptually mindful of what resonates within “me.”

With inner consent, you're able to say:

  • “I feel the value of what I do.”
  • “I am fully present with my feelings, my thoughts, my body."
  • “I feel myself present in my life."

When you experience inner consent, you feel authentic. You feel connected to your diverse talents, to what you value, to the actions you take and the commitments you make to others and to your work.

When you experience it, you have the capacity to look realistically at your expectations and actions with a sense of, “I accept that I cannot do everything.” You may still feel tired from your work, but not exhausted: “I had a heavy work load today, but I feel good about the work I accomplished. I did what was possible at work today and I feel good about that."

When you experience inner consent, you're open to and accepting of your limitations or the limitations of a specific situation at work, which can help with stress management. But you can also contemplate and put into action alternate possibilities.

Inner consent is a strong antidote to stress, and especially to burnout.

It enables you to become more yourself, to re-connect with the value of your life and the value of your capacities. When you re-connect with the movement of your life, when you rediscover the experience of inner fulfillment, you are more fully present and decisive in your life.

Stress and burnout are very different experiences. If you feel consistently overwhelmed in your daily life, or if you resonate with some of the descriptions and experiences outlined above, reach out and seek help from your family physician, a therapist, and/or career counselor.

RELATED: 9 Scary Warning Signs You're Completely Burnt Out

Britt-Mari Sykes is an integrative career counselor with an extensive background in existential psychology, career counseling and teaching, who helps clients create personally empowered solutions to career transition, burnout and the building of meaningful careers. To inquire about individual sessions send her an email.

This article was originally published at Britt Mari Sykes. Reprinted with permission from the author.