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Dealing with Burnout – Spiritual or Otherwise…

John Gilman April 14, 2016

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Overwhelmed, extremely weary, easily frustrated, hopeless…

All words used to describe the path to burnout. No one is exempt from the overdrive that can lead to burnout. Particularly people in ministry positions, whether it be leadership or lay leadership, are highly susceptible to finding themselves in a place of extreme weariness that can precede a dark season of spiritual burnout.

We all have ups and downs – seasons where we feel on top of the world and seasons where we can’t seem to come out of the dark. It is normal for there to be an ebb and flow; but when we can’t seem to lift our own heads out of the darkness, there comes a time for recognizing our own need for change and sometimes help.

The stress and emotional intensity associated with “helping professions” are often factors that lead to burnout. These positions usually require long hours with high emotional and physical demands. People that “help” other people for a living often have a hard time asking for help themselves. This can lead to isolation, cynicism and emotional fatigue. If left unaddressed it can lead to full blown depression.  

“Burnout moves fatigue and the darkness from a place where it was in your control to a place where you can no longer control either.” Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a pastor and author that writes about emotional burnout from personal experience and his road to recovery. Some common signs he identifies that signal you could be headed to emotional burnout are:

  • Your motivation has faded. What used to excite you and “fill your tank” now leaves you empty. You are out of new ideas and annoyed by things that used to bring you joy.
  • You long to isolate. People drain you instead of energize you. You may normally enjoy being around certain people for encouragement and socialization but now you would rather simply be alone. Even for an introvert, burnout can take this to an extreme level.
  • You become angry easily. Things that normally wouldn’t bother you now bring you to the point of inappropriate anger. You surprise yourself and those closest to you with how short-tempered and snappy you have become.
  • You self-medicate. Instead of using healthy coping mechanisms to deal with your everyday stress, you find yourself turning to overeating, overworking, overspending, excessive use of social media, or whatever helps you “check out” for a bit.
  • You don’t laugh anymore. Suddenly you don’t even have the energy to laugh and you don’t understand how other people do.
  • You just can’t seem to get enough sleep. You have never felt so exhausted and yet, somehow, even when you have a good night’s sleep, you can’t seem to feel rested.

Maybe you can identify with some or all of these signs. So what can you do to bounce back and recover from a place of burnout? Carey Nieuwhof speaks in depth on this topic frequently, but some specific keys he shares to recovering from burnout are:

  • Tell someone you need help. This might be a friend, your spouse or a professional counselor, but someone else needs to know how you are feeling. You need help to work your way back to being strong and emotionally healthy. They can help you take the steps you need to be well again.
  • Lean into your friends. The people that used to help you enjoy your life, are most likely still there and wanting to do it again. Let them in and allow yourself to experience joy and laughter again. They may need to share some tears also on your road to recovery but let them do life with you. You need them and they need you.
  • Allow yourself to rest. You feel exhausted because you are exhausted. Your body, soul and spirit all need rest. Make sleep a priority and decide what helps you rest your mind.
  • Keep turning to God. Many people feel numb when they are burnt out and often feel God has gone silent. While you may not be hearing Him, it does not mean He is absent. Just don’t give up coming back to the disciplines you relied upon before; Bible reading, prayer, journaling, corporate worship, private worship. Those feelings and times of intimacy will return, just as your joy and motivation will appear again.
  • Take responsibility for the health of your soul. Identify what feeds your soul and what drains you. Do what fills you up and avoid what drains you as much as possible during this season. (John Ortberg wrote a great book, Soul Keeping, that teaches much truth on this topic.) When it comes down to it only one person can take care of you and that is you!
  • Hope again. When you are in the midst of your burnout it feels risky to hope, but part of the recovery process is taking that risk to hope again. Focus on the things that help build your faith. Surround yourself with positive things that point you toward hope; whether it is a song that lifts your spirit, a quote that inspires you or your children’s laughter.

Recovery takes time. It will not happen overnight and it requires work and the support of those you choose to include. Baby steps in the right direction lead to strides. Many leaders share stories of realizing they were in a place of emotional burnout and their journey back to recovery.

You can read some other stories and journeys to recovery here and here and here.

If you are experiencing burnout you are certainly not alone. If you identify with this post please share your story with someone you can trust and start your own road back to wellness. We would love to hear from you in our comments if this is a post that resonates with you or someone you love.

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