Is it Burnout or Depression?

Updated: Apr 5

By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND

Feeling exhausted, unmotivated and emotional can easily be viewed as depression, but if it is following a long period of high stress, your response may be more physiological than psychological. If you’re like many women I’ve worked with, basic testing wth you doctor has likely come back all normal, and you’ve been offered an antidepressant. Use this quick checklist as an indicator of whether what you’re really experiencing may be burnout (or in medical terms “HPA axis Dysfunction”).

Signs that can be BOTH burnout AND depression:

  1. Tired on waking in the morning

  2. Trouble sleeping (falling or staying asleep)

  3. Weight gain or loss

  4. Feeling irritated & easily annoyed

  5. Social withdrawal

  6. Difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness

  7. Mood swings

  8. Crying easily

  9. Lower sex drive

  10. Lack of passion for things you usually enjoy

  11. Feeling disconnected

Signs that point more to BURNOUT:

  1. Easily overwhelmed by small stresses

  2. Elevated resting heart rate

  3. Reduced tolerance for exercise

  4. Tight muscles – neck, shoulders and lower back

  5. New health issues have developed: allergies, rashes, ulcer, frequent colds, colitis

  6. Injuries aren’t healing

  7. Rapid aging over the past 2 years -deeper wrinkles, graying hair, under-eye bags

  8. Getting easily startled

  9. Your muscle tone has reduced

  10. Gaining abdominal fat


If you have at least three symptoms in the ‘Burnout’ category, it is possible that your low mood, fatigue and lack of motivation are more physiological, meaning a physical response to prolonged high stress levels. What this means is that the way you’re feeling right now is certainly not all in your head. Three mistakes to watch out for are…

Mistake #1: Treating the symptoms, not the cause

It’s easy to look at the lists above and start picking off symptoms to treat – anxiety, depression, low immune system, reduced muscle tone, and even as a naturopath it is tempting to give each of these areas support. What’ most important though is to treat the stress response as a whole, and provide the body with a strong foundation to heal.

Mistake #2: Pushing through it with an “I can do it” attitude, or more caffeine

Women tend to just keep going with stress. Even when you feel completely drained, depleted and burned out. Pushing for even longer, and keeping the body in a state of stress will only wear you down further, and can eventually create some very significant health issues.

Mistake #3: Starting a cleanse or new workout program to try to feel better

If you’re truly burned out right now, a cleanse is absolutely the wrong thing to do right now. Anything that is more depleting, where there is a calorie deficit, and perhaps not enough protein and healthy fats will actually do more harm than good and add to your stress. Similarly with exercise, when your body is burned out, overdoing it with exercise will actually add more stress to your body and make you feel worse. Gentle exercise is the best strategy right now – activities like walking, swimming, gentle cycling and yoga.


The good news, is that once we identify that you are suffering from burnout, there are some key steps to take to break the negative stress cycle, and to repair damage caused by stress. It starts with building a strong health foundation, and learning how to manage your stress energy.

Step #1: Build in Breaks

In order to balance out the day to day stresses that we all encounter in life, it is essential to build in breaks – in your day, in your week, in your workout schedule, and in your life.

A few simple places to start: your body needs a 10 minute break at least every 2-3 hours while working to create balance with your nervous system and present stress hormones from climbing. Set an alarm and take a conscious break – have a glass of water or tea, turn away from your screen, or better yet get some fresh air during your break.

Step #2: Practice Relaxation

Start with 10 minutes a day – think of it like training – your body doesn’t know how to relax effectively yet, so you need to train your ‘relaxation muscles.’ Some ideas – a guided meditation; a gentle yoga routine; breathing exercises; a relaxation App; or a gratitude practice.

Step #3: Stop Rushing

One simple practice to reduce your daily stress output is to stop hurrying. If you start your day running late, and rushing from meeting to appointment, you are activating a stress response many times in the day.

From this point onward, make a very conscious effort to stop rushing. Give yourself a little extra time wherever possible, and try to shift your attitude of constantly rushing and trying to catch up. This will instantly slow your breathing, your heart rate and allow your muscles to relax without putting you into stress-hormone overdrive.

and i said to my body, softly. ‘i want to be your friend.’ it took a long breath. and replied, ‘i have been waiting my whole life for this.’ — From “Three” by Nayyirah Waheed

Need more support?

Struggling with burnout, overwhelm & mood swings? Are you worried about how to ever get off the stress / burnout rollercoaster with all of life’s demands and so much to do in this lifetime?

Book an appointment with Dr. Darou online. Contact us: 416.214.9251,

Disclaimer Please note that content on this website is indented for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional. Do not use the information on this web site for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease. Always speak with your physician or other healthcare professional before taking any medication or nutritional supplement, or using any treatment for a health problem. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, contact your health care provider promptly. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking professional advice because of something you have read on this website. Information provided on this website DOES NOT create a doctor-patient relationship between you and any healthcare practitioner affiliated with our website.

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