Is It Stress ... or Burnout?

Everyone experiences stress; it’s inescapable, whether it’s “eustress”—good stress that keeps us motivated and alive—or “distress” (John 16:33a). But at some point, stress crosses over into something else.

Prolonged or excessive stress can lead to burnout. There are some key differences between stress and burnout. Stress is characterized by over-engagement; burnout is characterized by disengagement. With stress, emotions are over-reactive; with burnout, they are blunted, dull. Stress usually indicates there is “too much” going on—too many pressures and everything is getting out of control. Burnout means there is not enough to keep a person going ... a person feels empty and beyond caring. Stress produces urgency and hyperactivity; burnout produces feelings of helplessness and hopelessness—a person feels overwhelmed. There is loss of energy with stress; but with burnout there is loss of motivation, ideals, and hope, and a person may become cynical and resentful. Stress leads to anxiety disorders, while burnout leads to detachment and even depression. The primary damage caused by stress is physical, but burnout’s primary damage is emotional. Stress may kill you prematurely. With burnout, you probably won’t die, but you may feel like it—life just may not seem worth living. The person in burnout feels he or she simply has nothing more to give, or nothing makes a difference. (“Stress and Burnout in Ministry” by Rowland Croucher.)

Burnout can develop because of lifestyle choices (working too much, relaxing too little, not getting enough sleep, lacking supportive relationships); or from personality tendencies (perfectionism, pessimism, control issues, etc.). Burnout can also have work- or ministry-related causes. It is particularly common in those who serve without saying “no,” or stretch themselves too thin.

With stress, simple stress management can help, but once the stress gets out of hand—once it becomes burnout—other coping strategies are needed.

Bouncing Back from Burnout

Recognize the symptoms of burnout (basically, listed above).
Re-evaluate your priorities. Do they match up with God’s priorities for you? What changes in your schedule might help you live in line with God’s design for your life?
Renew your mind with the truth of scripture (Rom. 12:2). Address problems biblically. Clarify responsibilities with God’s wisdom. Learn to catch the burnout process earlier so you can make proactive choices to prevent it.
Reflect on the causes of emotional burnout. Set boundaries. Learn how to say “no” to requests that don’t fit in with your priorities. Be careful not to “overspend” your time.
Reverse the damage to your body as you replenish your body. Eat right, exercise, and plan for sufficient sleep to build your resilience and recharge your “batteries” (energy).
Relax throughout your day. Slow down. Take breaks to meditate on scripture, write in a journal, stretch tightened muscles, sing praises, etc. Be still and rest (Psalm 46:10; Matthew 11:28).
Reach out for encouragement and support from friends and family. Don’t isolate yourself. Instead, share your thoughts and needs, and pray together (Ephesians 6:18; James 5:16).
Rediscover your dreams. What makes you happiest serving God? What are your highest hopes? Are you operating in your spiritual gifts? What great adventure lies ahead?

Perhaps you’re not dealing with burnout, but simple stress. If so, read: “Smooth Out the Knots of Stress.”


Marja said...

Awesome post Dawn, thank you for sharing this. I never really thought about the differences between stress and burnout. Now I have a much clearer picture. Thanks for the tips (I hope I'll never need them, but I might be able to help others)

Dawn Wilson said...

Thanks, Marja. Been there, done that, learned a lot! Yes, we need to always be ready to help others and to share the hope and wisdom that the scriptures give.

crazydaisy said...

It's good to discuss this kind of thing....

Just remember that STRESSED spelled backwards spells DESSERTS!!!

from your dyslexic friend!!!

Dawn Wilson said...

HA, crazydaisy!
Well, I've heard of people getting their "just deserts" when they've done something foolish, or when they've done something wrong, thinking that they are getting ahead. Maybe we get our "just deserts" when we don't respond to stress wisely.
[By the way, "deserts" is used as the plural of "desert," what is deserved ... but in your case, I'd say "just desserts"!]