Illustration: Holly Lindem
You wake up almost as tired as when you fell asleep, four hours ago. After hitting the snooze button twice, you stumble to the kitchen and chug a quart of coffee. It doesn't help. Your face in the mirror looks like the child you might have had with Voldemort. You can barely squeeze into your last-resort "fat pants." Getting your kids off to school feels like climbing Everest; driving to the job you once loved, an uphill slog to the salt mines. You dread interacting with your coworkers. It's not that you aren't a caring, compassionate person; it's just that you hate everyone.
If this sounds familiar, you may think you're depressed. But you might be dealing with a subtly different problem: burnout. Scientists differentiate the two, and it's a crucial distinction. If you confuse burnout with depression and address it only with antidepressants or therapy, you'll overlook the behavioral changes you must make to restore your depleted physical and hormonal reserves. Left unchecked, burnout can be lethal. So if you're anywhere between lightly toasted and totally charred, it's time to chill.
The Biology of Burnout
There's no specific medical disorder called burnout, but every doctor knows that prolonged stress has negative consequences. One of these is adrenal fatigue, which comes from overstimulating the hormones that fuel high-energy behavior. Initially, it feels fabulous—you can work like Hercules, compensating for exhaustion with adrenaline, caffeine, or straight-up willpower. But eventually your high-activity hormones run low. You slow down while trying to speed up. Illness, memory loss, and accidents replace achievement. Jesse Lynn Hanley, MD, coauthor of Tired of Being Tired, has identified five levels of burnout. See if one fits you.
You're working flat-out, in a nonstop blur of accomplishment. You feel you can go on like this forever! You can't!
You're sucking up sugar and caffeine to fight fatigue, maybe popping over- the-counter sleep aids to help you "sleep faster," and feeling unpleasantly chubby.
You're definitely tired, visibly plump (or alarmingly preskeletal), and perpetually grumpy. You lie awake nights, thoughts racing, longing for sleep. At work and at home, you've developed a charming habit of biting people's heads off.
Hitting the Wall
You're racked by aches and pains, gaining (or losing) weight, prone to temper tantrums or crying jags, hard-pressed to remember things like computer passwords or your children's names.
By now you may have a serious illness (heart disease, an autoimmune disorder) or have been in a car accident. To stay marginally functional, you depend on drugs you obtain either from a shrink who innocently believes you're just depressed or from a man you know only as "Viper." Nobody likes you. The silver lining? As Hanley writes, "If you do not die during this stage, there is no place to go but up."