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The High Physical and Psychological Cost of Chronic Illness Burnout

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Most of us have felt burnout at some time in our lives. When we speak about burnout, we’re usually talking about occupational burnout. It’s discussed in relation to someone’s career and becoming burnt out in their professional life. We typically see this in those whose lives revolve around working for a living. But what about when your life revolves around your chronic illness? Many people who are chronically ill also experience a special type of burnout. However, this burnout can be extremely dangerous to the individual.

It was the summer of 2018 and I was so tired of fighting with insurance and doctors to be seen. I had been emailing and calling my doctor for months to get answers about results on a stress test that was performed six months ago, only for him to say the results weren’t conclusive and I had to do more tests. The more I emailed him and asked him questions, the more upset he got. The doctor ended up saying he couldn’t see me anymore and wanted me to see another doctor. I tried to file a complaint but kept getting the run around with the insurance company. I was tired, stressed and burnt out, and I stopped fighting to get the care I needed until I eventually ended up in the emergency room.

Burnout vs. Depression

Before we go into the specifics, it’s important to understand the difference between feeling burnt out and feeling depressed.

Burnout is the exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation, usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.

Depression is defined by feelings of sadness, loss of interest in daily life, and hopelessness; some depressed people also feel angry and irritable. These feelings can be pervasive throughout all areas of life. If you are feeling these thoughts, please seek out a medical professional.

While burnout is not a medically diagnosable condition, depression is. Burnout can sometimes mask depression so it is important to talk to someone professionally.

Understanding Chronic Illness/Medical Burnout

Chronic illness burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by dealing with Chronic illness and medical issues. This type of burnout can be extremely dangerous because if the person gives up or stops fighting, their life can be in jeopardy.

Texas Children’s Hospital speaks about this in their psychological complications of living with a chronic illness.

Symptoms include:

  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Exhaustion/fatigue
  • Detachment and depersonalization
  • Isolation
  • Procrastinating especially when it comes to making important appointments
  • Missing or not making appointments
  • Lack/loss of motivation in treatment or care plan
  • Cynicism towards doctors and medical professionals

Causes can include:

  • Gaslighting by doctors and medical professionals
  • Repeatedly having to explain disability or condition to those who question its validity
  • Constantly advocating to get care
  • Spending hours on the phone trying to get appointments and referrals
  • Medical PTSD
  • Depression


  • Talk to someone you trust
  • Therapy
  • Ask for help with care
  • Find an online community
  • Try to make one appointment at a time (if possible)

I eventually got the medical help I needed. I now have a case manager that helps advocate for me and makes sure I’m being taken care of. Every now and again I get super overwhelmed by it all and I just shut down and stop following through with referrals. But I’ve learned to notice the signs of my own chronic illness burnout, and I’ve found the best strategies for me are to try to focus on making one appointment at a time and talk to my family and therapist when I feel stressed about it all.

Find my writing and advocacy on Instagram and poetry book on Amazon.

Getty image by Prostock-Studio.

Originally published: June 13, 2021
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