Diabetes Forecast

The Difference Between Burnout and Depression

By Allison Tsai ,


If you’re fed up with your diabetes self-care or feeling a sense of hopelessness creep in, you’re not alone. Burnout and depression are both common in people with diabetes. You may start to grieve for your “healthy” self, says Wendy Satin Rapaport, LSCW, PSyD, clinical psychologist and adjunct professor of medicine at the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. 

But diabetes burnout and depression aren’t the same thing. So, what’s the difference?

The Definition

Where burnout shows up as a lack of motivation for self-care, depression often feels like a sense of hopelessness and helplessness in life, says Barry Jacobs, PsyD, director of behavioral sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Residency Program in Springfield, Pennsylvania.

Signs of clinical depression include sleep and appetite disruptions, a lack of any enjoyment in life, and feelings of sadness, loneliness, and anxiety. “I think burnout is a prelude to depression,” Jacobs says. “And sometimes people feel so much dread and so beaten down by the disease or just by any life circumstance [they begin to develop depression].”

The Treatment

Treatment for burnout and depression may overlap, but the biggest difference is that, unlike depression, burnout isn’t typically treated with medication. Instead, it often can be addressed with counseling or group therapy, regular exercise, or switching up your diabetes routine.

Burnout is a natural feeling, but it can be hard to manage, and this can lead to depression. Satin Rapaport suggests seeing a psychologist or other mental health professional immediately upon diagnosis—they can give you the tools you need in order to grieve and move on. “Grieving means that you get over it,” she says. “You fit it into your persona.”

Another tool? Get moving. Exercise is a powerful de-stressor and antidepressant, says Carl Tishler, PhD, ABPP, adjunct associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. And it’s a good treatment for both conditions.

While it can be difficult to find the motivation to exercise or make lifestyle changes when you’re burned out or depressed, Tishler says all it takes is “a jumpstart.” For burnout, this may mean taking a step back and reevaluating your self-care habits. Jacobs suggests asking yourself these questions: How do I rethink my diabetes? How do I take charge of my diabetes in a way that can fit into my lifestyle? You may need to meet with your physician or dietitian to revamp your routine and experiment with different ways to allow more spontaneity and choice in your meals and activities, while still meeting your diabetes goals.

If you’re depressed, jump-starting your motivation may require you to meet with a clinical psychiatrist, psychotherapist, psychologist, or social worker. You might need medication in order to feel more like your old self—particularly if you who feel overwhelmed with racing thoughts, says Tishler. “Hopefully the endocrinologist or primary care physician would be sensitive enough to do a good mental status exam to see when in fact extra services, such as psychological or psychiatric services, are needed,” he says.

Learn techniques for motivating a loved one who has diabetes burnout.



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