Burnout vs. Nervous Breakdown – How to Tell the Difference

Burnout or a nervous breakdown can have serious ramifications for a person’s life and professional career. Depending on the severity of the breakdown or burnout, it can even cause someone to lose their job or livelihood. 

Burnout is different from a nervous breakdown because it is not as severe. A nervous breakdown can result from stress and exhaustion, but it is usually an acute episode from long exposure to the stressors that result in chronic burnout. Untreated burnout can lead to a nervous breakdown. 

If you feel burnt out and on the edge of a nervous break, you could be pushing yourself through burnout and towards a nervous breakdown. Keep reading to learn more about the differences between burnout and a nervous breakdown and how to prevent them both. 

Burnouts vs. Nervous Breakdowns

Most burnouts and nervous breakdowns are not defined strictly in clinical terms, so there is a lot of interpretation when using the two words. 

However, generally speaking, a condition of burnout is a chronic state of stress resulting from poor work practices or exhaustion related to overwork. Nervous breakdown is associated with more serious mental health issues such as catatonia or a psychotic break. 

Is Burnout the Same as a Nervous Breakdown?

Even though burnout and nervous breakdowns can originate from the same environmental stressors and mental instability, they’re not quite the same mental issue. Burnout can occur over several months or years as constant cumulative stress erodes a person’s mental health and causes them to come to the brink of total exhaustion.

The state of mental exhaustion and stress developed through chronic burnout can eventually lead to a nervous breakdown. While burnouts are usually characterized by exhaustion and stress-related symptoms, nervous breakdowns can take the form of more severe mental dysfunctions such as catatonia, suicidal ideation, and psychotic breaks. 

Unlike people who experience some form of chronic mental illness such as schizophrenia or agoraphobia, people who have a nervous breakdown don’t necessarily have an innate mental illness. Instead, they have become so overwhelmed with stress, exhaustion, anxiety, and depression that these factors cause the person to experience an extreme mental health break. 

Burnout is sometimes classified as a less serious form of nervous breakdown. 

Types of Burnouts

Psychological burnouts are common. These mental conditions can be driven by many different environmental factors. Here are the three most commonly encountered types of burnouts (Source: Inc): 

  • Overload: Overload is a type of burnout where a person becomes exhausted from trying to take on too much work to handle or work too complicated and difficult to take on. This is a type of burnout often experienced by hardworking and ambitious personalities or people who become mentally fixated on a subject.
  • Under-challenge burnout: Even though this type of burnout isn’t caused by excess work, it can be just as psychologically stressful. Being under-stimulated at work and in life in general can cause chronic stress in a person’s life that can lead to boredom, disengagement from their work, and severe cynicism.
  • Neglect burnout: Neglect burnout affects workers at work who feel overwhelmed by the demands put on them by their job. They often suffer from a lack of motivation because they’re afraid of making a mistake. These workers languish because they aren’t given the attention and training they need to be confident in their work. 

No matter what the origins of the burnout a person is experiencing, burnouts always negatively impact how somebody views their work and their daily life. People suffering from burnout will often report hating their job. This isn’t necessarily reflective of the work itself, but about the level of stress the person is under while they’re performing it. 

Types of Nervous Breakdowns

While a nervous breakdown can originate from the same stressors that drive burnout, it can present in more serious ways, and in some cases, a nervous breakdown in response to stress may be a symptom of underlying chronic mental health issues such as depression, generalized anxiety disorder, or schizophrenia. 

Here are some of the types of nervous breakdowns (Source: Bridge to Recovery): 

  • Nervous breakdown resulting from untreated mental illness: Often, when people are dealing with undiagnosed depression or anxiety, they try to soldier through the negative symptoms of these conditions without medication or treatment until they become unbearable. It is often at this point that a person experiences a nervous breakdown.
  • Nervous breakdown resulting in a psychotic break: When people have a nervous breakdown resulting from more serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or post-partum depression, these mental illnesses can manifest in a psychotic episode. During these episodes, a person may or may not lose complete touch with reality. 
  • Panic attacks: Panic attacks are not a full-blown nervous breakdown, but panic attacks point mental health practitioners to larger issues with untreated anxiety or burnout. Panic attacks can sometimes be mistaken for a heart attack since they mimic some of the same symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest pains. 

Some nervous breakdowns are relatively mild and may require a brief period of rest and recovery (and sometimes medication). Others may result in an extreme nosedive in mental health that may lead to institutionalization or more intense medical treatments. For this reason, nervous breakdowns should be avoided by heading them off at the stage of burnout. 

Stages of Burnout

Unlike nervous breakdowns, which are a chronic mental health condition, burnout can occur very slowly over weeks, months, or even years. 

Professional burnout can start as a person experiencing mild dissatisfaction with their work and progress to the point of total nervous breakdown. Below you’ll find a breakdown of the five stages of burnout (Source: This Is Calmer). 

Honeymoon Phase

Even when someone is first getting started in a professional endeavor, they may begin to experience mild symptoms of burnout. This is usually in response to the extra stresses that are put on a person to learn new tasks for a job role or in response to their own ambition in learning or mastering a new job role. This tends to be a happy and productive time in a person’s job role.

Stress Onset Phase

Stress onset is associated with the common stressors in any job role and can lead to a decrease in both productivity and job satisfaction. Stress at work can lead to chronic stress back at home too, resulting in symptoms such as less interest in domestic activities or reduced sleep quality. 

Mild to moderate stress can also lead to chronic medical problems like high blood pressure, headaches, teeth grinding, and fatigue. 

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress, or onset stress that persists for several months or years, can lead to a major uptick in the severity of stress-related symptoms. This phase of burnout can cause increased escapist activities in an attempt to self-regulate emotions, random feelings of existential panic, persistent exhaustion, and often substance abuse.  


Once a person has reached a true point of burnout, they’re often unable to complete their job responsibilities or their responsibilities at home. People who are burned out may suffer from chronic digestive issues as a result of cumulative stress, and they often express a desire to drop out of their life responsibilities entirely. This stage of burnout can lead to a nervous breakdown. 

What Are the Symptoms of Nervous Breakdown?

As opposed to a period of professional or personal burnout, a nervous breakdown is acute and may present with much more severe mental health symptoms. These are the types of symptoms you could expect to see associated with a nervous breakdown (Source: Healthline): 

  • Extreme symptoms of despair and clinical depression such as the desire to commit suicide, or actual suicide attempts
  • Paranoid delusions, such as the belief that a person is being followed; this can sometimes result from the exhaustion and sleep deprivation associated with chronic stress and nervous breakdowns
  • Extreme mood swings or manic-depressive episodes without an accompanying diagnosis of bipolar disorder
  • Hallucinations and psychotic breaks
  • Social isolation and self-neglect in hygiene, feeding, and other self-care tasks 

If a person reaches the point that they’ve had a nervous breakdown, they’re in an extremely fragile mental state. Because of this mental fragility, they sometimes require extended medical treatment and mental health care in order to recover from the episode. Nervous breakdowns and burnout don’t occur overnight, and in most cases they can’t be solved overnight either. 

How Long Does Burnout Last? 

Unlike a nervous breakdown, which usually occurs over days or weeks, burnout is a chronic condition that can last for weeks, months, or even years depending on how long the person stays in the environment that is causing them to become burned out. 

In a state of burnout, the person who is being burned out will continue to experience burnout until the point that they change their environment or working conditions to be more conducive to a positive mental health profile. This sometimes means switching professions or taking steps to significantly reduce daily stress.

How Long Does a Nervous Breakdown Last? 

A nervous breakdown is the “snapping point” that people describe when they say someone “just snapped” from mental strain. While a nervous breakdown may involve a period of a few weeks of intense mental deterioration, it often can be a single incident or day in a person’s life which causes them to have a complete mental breakdown all at once. 

In this state, people with undiagnosed mental illness often find themselves reporting to a hospital ER to report themselves as suicidal, or in some unfortunate cases those experiencing a mental breakdown may lash out violently towards others. 

The length of a nervous breakdown depends on how quickly the person can be brought in for medical treatment. The sooner a person’s nervous breakdown is identified and addressed, the quicker they can be brought relief from the symptoms of their breakdown through a combination of medications, self-care, and talk therapy. 

How to Recover From Burnout

To escape a state of burnout, you have to know how to get yourself out of it. Here are some of the steps you need to take to pull yourself out of personal or professional burnout.

Identify the Source of Your Burnout

Sometimes burnout is a result of not performing enough self-care at home, sometimes it’s the result of working in a job role that isn’t suitable. 

For example, autistic adults report a high level of professional burnout associated with sensory overload in environments such as office noise and fluorescent lighting, and the exhaustion of having to keep up socially with their peers. These individuals may require quieter working environments to prevent burnout or a nervous breakdown over gradual exposure to daily stress. 

For other people, burnout may be the result of giving up too much of your identity, time, and energy to your work rather than working on yourself. A renewed focus on self-care can help bring a person back from the brink of serious burnout if they’re starting to feel the effects of chronic stress associated with their work.  

Talk to People Who Care About You

One of the first steps in dealing with burnout is letting other people know that you’re dealing with a mental health problem. This can give you some much-needed emotional support from the people who care about you and the people you care about. 

In milder cases of burnout, just receiving emotional validation from a friend or partner can go a long way towards alleviating the feeling of being overwhelmed and bewildered by stress. 

Social interaction can also help diminish stress by allowing us to express ourselves. Many of our stresses and anxieties in life are blown out of proportion by our own perception, and receiving the perception of someone else can sometimes soften or reduce those burdens. 

Look At Your Job Options

If your burnout is originating from your profession, this is the point when many people have to consider a change of career. In some cases, burnout can occur from the result of being overworked in a career that you enjoy. However, in other cases, burnout can be the result of being under-stimulated in a job role or just generally being dissatisfied with your line of work.

For people suffering from chronic burnout, returning to school to pursue an alternative degree or seeking out a new job position can help prevent the burnout they’re feeling from escalating. There’s no reason for anyone to stay in a job that makes them miserable and negatively impacts their mental health no matter how much money it pays. 

Set Healthy Boundaries With Your Work

One way that people fall into the trap of professional burnout is that they allow their lives to become unbalanced between home and work duties. This is a particular scourge of modern-day life as instant communications make it easier and easier for our work responsibilities to encroach on our leisure time at home. 

To prevent this from happening over time, be firm and make sure that your down-time for self-care is sacred and can’t be interrupted by the stresses of work. This may involve telling your coworkers that you will not answer emails outside of office hours or you’re not willing to take work home with you. 

See a Mental Health Professional

Scheduling time with a therapist or psychologist may seem like a drastic step if you’re feeling burned out, but it isn’t. Just as you shouldn’t ignore symptoms of physical illness and avoid a doctor when you’re sick, you shouldn’t ignore the symptoms of mental stress when you become aware that they’re occurring. 

Therapists don’t just prescribe anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressants. These professionals can also help you identify the source of your feelings of chronic stress and reduce them in your life through lifestyle changes.   

How to Recover From a Nervous Breakdown

Recovery from a nervous breakdown is a little more serious than recovery from burnout, and it can involve more intense medical treatment. 

Recovery from a severe nervous breakdown may require a person to participate in in-patient treatment at a mental health care facility. It may also involve the person being taught relaxation techniques to use in their daily life, or daily medications to help them manage their extreme feelings of stress and depression. 

Recovery from a nervous breakdown will vary from person to person. Since nervous breakdowns can come in a wide range of severities and symptoms, the treatment for them will be very specific to the person experiencing the breakdown and is usually determined by a mental health professional. 

Is Burnout Mental Illness? 

Burnout is not generally considered mental illness, but it is considered a symptom of poor mental health. Poor mental health practices over time can lead to a person developing the symptoms of mental illness. 

A lack of self-care can also lead to a person who has undiagnosed mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia to start exhibiting symptoms of their disorder. 

Combat Burnout to Prevent a Nervous Breakdown

Burnout happens to most professionals at some point in their working career, especially if they’re in a high-pressure working environment or they have an ambitious, perfectionist personality. 

It’s important to identify the symptoms of burnout early and work to reduce them to prevent professional burnout from snowballing into a full-blown mental illness or nervous breakdown.

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