Burnout is the result of prolonged stress. In the discipline of psychology, the term stress is defined as a state of psycho-physiological arousal. It is virtually impossible to discuss psychological stress without describing the physiological state that accompanies it. The dynamics of stress demonstrate the close interaction between the mind and body in human behaviour. Thus, before we discuss stress, let us first briefly take to task the mind/body problem.
During our everyday conversation, we tend to use the term body for all that is concrete and tangible about ourselves (the shape of our limbs, colour of hair, etc) The term mind on the other hand refers to the intangible part of our experience (the private store of our emotions and thoughts). Thus, in our everyday life, we tend to use these two terms as though they refer to entirely separate entities which exist independently of each other. This, however, is not the case. They are interrelated and highly inseparable! For example, when we feel stressed, we tend to exhibit both physical and psychological symptoms. Depression can cause tension in muscles which in turn can lead to a sore back or headache.
Stress or tension is a state of psychological and physiological arousal. As the Oxford Dictionary describes, it is "a state of affairs involving demand on physical or mental energy". This can in fact be misleading, because the human being is always in a state of stress (arousal). When we encounter the term stress in magazines and books it often really refers to excessive stress rather than everyday arousal. According to psychologists, extremely stressful conditions are detrimental to human health but stress in moderation is normal and, in many cases, proves useful.
Generally speaking, the word ‘stress’ has negative connotations. We use the term ‘distress’ to indicate negative stress, which can lead to harmful effects, such as being fired from ones job. The term ‘eustress’ is used to refer to positive arousal which provides a healthy challenge, such as being promoted in one’s job.
The level of stress differs from one individual to another. Certain individuals experience a higher degree of stress than others (e.g. a job promotion may cause eustress for most people but for some it could cause distress). The level of stress also changes over time, for example, you might be experiencing less stress now than you did a year ago.
A person can be in a state of low arousal, or high arousal. Some people tend to be one or the other most of the time. For instance, someone who needs more sleep will tend to be more relaxed (low arousal) most of the time. An extreme case would be someone who lacks energy (lethargy) and fails to notice much of what is happening in their immediate environment.
People who are generally in a high state of arousal are those who cannot help but wake early, who are full of nervous energy, and perhaps tend to fidget and move about. In an extreme case, this person might jump at the slightest sound. Most people fall between these two extremes, being in a moderate state of arousal. The group to which a person belongs is closely related to the functioning of their nervous system (how fast impulses travel from one neuron to another). This is largely inherited.
Burnout is not the same as stress, but it is the result of continuous stress. Stress usually involves too much of things (too much is demanded of you physically and psychologically). A stressed person can still imagine that if they get their life under control, they will reduce their stress and feel better.
However, with burnout it is a feeling of not having enough (not having enough energy, motivation or ability to care). The person with burnout may not see any hope of a positive change to their life. It is almost like this: a person with excess stress may feel as though they are drowning in their responsibilities, whilst a person with burnout will feel dried up, as if they have nothing left.
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