Mike examines the end result of constant over-stress, burnout and how to avoid this debilitating condition.

Burnout is a term which has come into popular usage in the last 40 years. The most common definition of burnout is, "a state of physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual exhaustion."

It is most evident in people who work in the "helping" professions: nurses, doctors, social workers, teachers, ministers as well as public safety individuals.

Everyone, however, is subject to burnout and its effect on the individual. For example, athletes burnout from the pressure of intense competition, parents burnout from the insistent demands of providing for their family (especially young children), students burnout because of their need to succeed and the many deadlines that they have to meet.

In the relationship between stress and burnout we can say that burnout is the final stage that overstress produces. In this chapter we are looking at things that cause not just stress, but burnout.

Burnout

Let's talk about the experience of burnout itself, what it feels like and what the symptoms are. The experience of burnout is more like a "fizzle" than an explosion. It resembles a balloon that is slowly losing its air.

It is important to identify and understand the process because, like grieving, much of the pain is caused by ignorance and many times burnout victims are their own worst enemies. In most cases they do not realize what is happening and double down on the very behavior that is causing the problem in an effort to find relief (i.e. working extra overtime in order to earn enough to take a vacation and relax).

There are four stages in the "burnout" process:

1. Mountaintop

The mountain top stage usually starts with a new beginning, a new job, a new marriage or a new career. It is a time of high idealism, enthusiasm and energy. In many instances this intense enthusiasm and idealism begins to grate against the unexpected grind of every day life. This leads to stage two in the burnout process.

2. Reality Check

This is the moment when our expectations and idealism come into contact with reality. There is usually a dip in enthusiasm, we become emotionally and physically tired. We become detached from people that we care about and things that are important to us.

For example, I used to see this happen to Freshmen in college when I worked as the dean of students for Oklahoma Christian University. They would arrive at orientation with the recruiting brochures in hand and were full of energy and enthusiasm.

  • girls, girls, girls; boys, boys, boys
  • freedom from parents, curfews, regular chores and limits for screen time and the phone
  • life in the dorms with friends staying up late, midnight pizza and talking till 4:am

Then the five-week grades would come in (D-D-F-C-Incomplete) and many students hit the "reality check" wall and began to sleep all the time, lose interest in class requirements and even ignore their friends in their downward spiral.

If there wasn't some form of intervention at this point these students would easily slip into the next stage of burnout.

3. Depression

This stage is characterized by chronic exhaustion. People become so physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of a "normal" day that sleep is not enough to restore them.

This is also the stage where there are various physical symptoms as well:

  • headaches and heart palpitations
  • increased blood pressure and stomach problems
  • also emotional symptoms like irritability, resentfulness and depression

Some people get to this stage and stay there for a long time before getting help or getting worse. They're not themselves but they do not know what is wrong so they "gut it out" as best they can and eventually slide down to the next stage.

4. Obsession

This is the most serious stage and one where the burnout becomes evident to everyone except the person suffering from it. The individual begins obsessing with what is happening to him and can no longer see what is occurring to anyone else. He becomes completely self-centered and inwardly focused, obsessive, totally apathetic and tries to avoid work or responsibility. He changes into an impersonal, detached person with little sympathy towards other people. Physically, the symptoms of burnout can become life-threatening. It is at this point that those with burnout are emotionally and spiritually worn bare.

There may be some people reading this book who have been at this point or are on their way. I've been to stage three several times in my ministry life but thanks to God and a wonderful wife, I've been able to find my balance again before entering the fourth stage of symptoms.

Three important things to realize about burnout, however:

  1. It is not a sin. There is no shame involved. It is usually a result of too many things happening too quickly and not enough personal resources to handle them.
  2. The sufferer is usually the last person to know. It seems that everyone recognizes the problem except the one with the problem and the individual suffering only accepts it at the final stage when it can no longer be denied.
  3. There needs to be some changes made in order to recover and avoid it in the future. I kept going around in the same cycle myself of reaching the mountain top and then slipping down into depression until I changed some things in my life.

We learned in the very first chapter of this study that stress is good and necessary in order to be productive. It is when we are overstressed that we have problems, and burnout is usually the extreme result of constant overstress or over stimulation.

Dealing with the Burnout Cycle

Everyone is subject to the burnout cycle because life has a variety of experiences that cause stress that can lead to burnout. Here are some practical ideas to help you, as Christians, deal with stress in general and the burnout cycle in particular.

1. Realize that there is a time for everything.

1There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—
2A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
3A time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
4A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
5A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
6A time to search and a time to give up as lost;
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
7A time to tear apart and a time to sew together;
A time to be silent and a time to speak.
8A time to love and a time to hate;
A time for war and a time for peace.
- Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

We are conditioned to think of life in evolutionary terms in our society. Things should just go smoothly from zero to 100 or from poor to excellent without interruption and when this doesn't we become upset, frightened, guilty, worried or stressed. There is and will be a time for everything in your life - happiness, sadness, prosperity as well as want. There is, therefore, no use being upset or worried about avoiding one or constantly maintaining the other.

Some people are stressed when they are in a state of prosperity because they are afraid of losing their wealth. Others are stressed in times of want because they are afraid that the good times will never return. Solomon teaches us that we have to learn to enjoy the times of our blessings and to be patient during our times of want since one usually follows the other.

We need to be thankful when the good times are here. We also need to trust God and know that He will sustain us when there are difficult periods. I've found that within each day, there is usually a mixture of sun and rain type events.

2. Realize that you may not be able to change what is happening to you but you can control how you react to it.

But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer;
- II Corinthians 1:6

Paul talks about the suffering that he has had to endure as an apostle. And this, not because he has sinned but because of the gospel that he has preached. He was a victim of the evil done by others.

Notice his attitude, however. He didn't simply accept his hardship as a grim reality or resign himself to suffer in silence. He was actively overcoming his ordeal and injustice by observing how his perseverance while in difficult circumstances was encouraging his disciples. We have to learn how to suffer, to move beyond simply enduring pain and loss and use our suffering to glorify God and edify others.

We need to see the difference between suffering that merely produces stress, and suffering that produces growth. The difference between these two outcomes is the attitude we choose to have towards our situation.

3. Realize that there is a relationship between how far we are from God and how stressed we are.

People report that one of the major benefits that they received from some form of suffering was that it drew them nearer to God. The results of both moral and natural evil is suffering (Romans 6:23). Suffering creates stress and in the context of this study stress creates burnout. Many times we can't…

  • change past events
  • heal the disease
  • repair the relationship
  • bring back what was lost

..in order to ease our suffering and lower our stress, but we can always "draw near to God and He will draw near to us" (James 4:8). In doing so we will receive not only the comfort we need to deal with the situation but the strength to handle it in a victorious way and in a manner where it builds us and others up as well.

Self-Evaluation

Burnout happens as a result of wear and tear on the individual from a variety of factors. Psychologists have been able to identify the things in life that are especially stressful and, when combined, can lead to burnout.

This chapter has two exercises that you can complete.

  • Exercise #1 - requires that you mark how frequently you have experienced each of the statements that are listed, and then make a total score. Once completed, compare your score with the legend at the end of the sheet.
  • Exercise #2 - helps measure the degree of stress that you may be under at the present time. In this exercise you circle the number of stress points awarded to each event that has happened to you in the last year and then total the points. Once done, compare them to the legend that is at the beginning of the sheet. A score of 150 points or higher indicates a high stress level.

These exercises will help you obtain a general idea of how stressed or how close to burnout you might be. Remember, one of the major problems with stressed out people is denial. They refuse to admit that they may be burned out or they may be extremely overstressed. Hopefully, these tests will help evaluate objectively the level of stress that may exist in your life.