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Whether a person works in a bustling office, from a virtual office or even is taking care of kids at home, sometimes the demands of the job can start to take their toll. Highly demanding roles can lead to sleep disturbances, feeling apathetic and blue and difficulty in remembering. Does this mean that the person is depressed or are they experiencing burn-out? The two can appear quite similar but studies show that there are differences between them.

Burn-out is not actually a diagnosable condition, but there are manifestations that reveal it is present and those often resemble depression. One Swedish study attempted to untangle these two conditions by setting a group of women with depression side by side with women who were experiencing burn-out. The two groups shared several symptoms, but with slight variations.

The Swedish researchers administered a memory test to both groups and found that among both sets of women there was difficulty in concentration and recall. However fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) revealed that the brains of women with burn-out showed significantly lower levels of activity compared to the brains of depressed women. Similarly, both groups of women were having trouble sleeping. However, it was discovered that while the women with burn-out had trouble getting to sleep, the depressed women had more trouble staying asleep.

It is believed that burn-out could result from a toxic accumulation of minor stresses. The brain simply becomes exhausted by the pile up. Studies have shown that levels of cortisol – a stress-related hormone – can differentiate between burn-out and depression. Cortisol could be called the “fight or flight hormone” because under healthy conditions, it is released in order to combat a stress threat. Depressed persons usually have elevated levels of cortisol while those with burn-out have low levels of cortisol. In the person with burn-out, the body has worn itself out fighting against a never-ending stream of stressors and stops sending the hormone, which stimulates responsive action.

It has been well-established that stress negatively impacts learning and performance. Stress is a response to the way a person interprets their present situation. If the situation is perceived as threatening, the body releases chemicals to stimulate action. Thus the person who views their work environment as consistently stressful and threatening can literally exhaust their body’s responsiveness. Obviously, a brain in this mode is not assimilating, organizing and recalling new information well.

On the upside, it also means that burn-out can be dealt with by learning to re-interpret the work environment. Taking small breaks throughout the day to decompress is also a way to avoid accumulating stress to toxic levels. Dealing each day with what seem like minor stresses as they arise through resolution and rest can prevent a major exhaustive collapse somewhere down the road.

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