a girl is feeling tired and stress

How to Tell if You’re Burned Out or Just Exhausted

By Jordan Stoyanoff, Australia

Jordan is the Youth & Young Adults Pastor at Kilsyth South Baptist Church, Melbourne and is passionate to see the next generation find their identity in Christ. This has been his focus as he ministered in churches, high schools and university campuses, and mission organisations. He completed his undergraduate studies at Melbourne School of Theology and is undertaking a Master of Theology at University of Divinity. He is husband to Clytie and dad to Isaac and Eliana. He enjoys good coffee and watching the English Premier League.

It hit me one afternoon, that feeling that I couldn’t keep going on anymore. The intense weight of the expectations—both my own and those from other people—felt so heavy that I believed the only way out was to end my life.

I was a young, eager pastor who wanted to change the world, and I tried my best to keep up with the demands that was required of my job. Little did I know how much it was eating away at me.

That afternoon, it felt like a candle had finally come to the end of its wick and, as my wife likes to say, “At the end of the wick, there is some dynamite”. The negativity that had been bubbling under the surface completely overwhelmed me. I hated myself because I had bought into the lies that I was useless and worthless.

My normally level-headed temperament became a roller coaster of mixed emotions and confusion. In an instant, I would feel deep sadness, raging anger, or become completely melancholic. This came as a shock to me because I considered myself a stoic person by nature, so the emotional breakdowns that were happening felt strange and uncomfortable. And then there were times when I just felt numb, and I stopped enjoying things that I normally would enjoy.

I didn’t know it then, but in hindsight, I think it’s safe to say I was experiencing burnout (thanks to my counsellor who pointed this out).

Burnout can seem like an umbrella term to describe being tired or overworked. However, burnout is not just another word for “exhausted”. According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, burnout occurs when three specific symptoms are present: emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and reduced personal accomplishment. [1][2]

Let me share a little bit more about each of the symptoms below:

How do we recognise the symptoms of burnout?

Emotional exhaustion involves struggling to regulate your emotions. You may find yourself under- or overreacting to situations, or responding to them in a way that is simply out of character. In its simplest form, you might be emotionally drained if you find yourself “crying over spilt milk”.

Once, I found myself exploding internally when my wife left the lid off a jam jar. I was filled with so much anger that I had to put the lid back on a jar that I didn’t use! It was a reaction that was completely out of proportion. I noticed that this was becoming a daily occurrence, and that was the first sign that something was not quite right.

As an extension of being emotionally exhausted, you might also feel physically fatigued, and find it hard to get up in the mornings and struggle to sleep at night. You could find it difficult to perform everyday tasks and are unable to do activities you would normally enjoy, such as seeing friends, sports, or hobbies.

When we’re emotionally exhausted, we seek to numb ourselves with anything from social media, video games, Netflix binges, pornography, excessive alcohol consumption or drug use. While these numbing mechanisms may promise to lift us out of despair and hopelessness, they simply hold us in our exhaustion.

When we experience emotional exhaustion, we need to turn to Jesus, The Living Water, as our source of rest. Get away and spend time with Jesus. Pray, read Scripture, journal about it, create space for your church community to speak into your life or to minister to you, participate in church life—do things that create opportunity for Jesus to bring restoration.

Depersonalisation involves a loss of empathy, and a desire to numb and detach from emotions. You can become unfazed by the suffering of others and unable to exercise compassion when people share vulnerably with you. You could also feel cynical towards other people and distrust their motives.

When I was burned out, I noticed that I was very suspicious of some people closest to me. I began to interpret every interaction as a personal attack, and would find ways to show how I was being undermined or manipulated by them.

I also found that people stopped becoming “people” to me, and I would disrespectfully refer to certain people as objects. For example, I often referred to a person behind their back as “the potato” because of its negative connotations of being bland and unhelpful.

Even though it was humorous at the time, I was denying the truth that every person is created in the image of God when I attributed their worth to their function. When I came before God, I was reminded that a person is valuable not because of their ability to do or not do something, but because of who their Maker is.

Reduced personal accomplishment means you become predisposed to be overly negative about yourself when it comes to fulfilling your roles and responsibilities. You find yourself focused on the things that are wrong and unable to acknowledge the things that are going right.

I really struggled with reduced personal accomplishment because every time I took a step forward, it felt like I had taken two steps back. Looking back, I see that I had set out to accomplish something that God had not asked me to. And when I failed to achieve it, I felt even more deflated. I focused only on what I couldn’t do, instead of what God was doing, or what was within the scope of my responsibility.

It reminded me of the story in 1 Samuel 15, where Saul (the king of Israel) was out on the battlefield, and made a sacrifice to God that God had not asked of him. He was rebuked by Samuel the prophet, who told Saul it was better for him to obey [God] than to make sacrifices to Him (1 Samuel 15:22).

I felt like I was sacrificing everything for God, but in reality, it was not what God had asked of me.

Over time, God showed me that it was important to be faithful to Him with what He had asked of me in that particular season. Nothing more, nothing less.

So, what can you do?

If you find yourself experiencing all three symptoms, you may be suffering from burnout (please do also seek professional help instead of trying to diagnose the problem yourself).

Or, even if you are just experiencing one of these three symptoms, it’s still worth attending to your condition to keep it from worsening.

If you’re emotionally exhausted, it could be that you’re over-extended. Consider how you can reduce your workload and do activities that bring you joy and fulfilment. Make more time for friends and family. Talk to someone you trust and share how you are feeling with them.

If you’re experiencing depersonalisation, it could be that you’re disengaged. Consider if your personal values and your organisation’s values align. If it’s to do with your role, you might need to clarify or adjust your job description. If it’s a culture issue, take it to your superiors. Or, if your values are in direct conflict with the organisation, it might be best to find another job.

Perhaps you may be experiencing unresolved conflict with your co-workers. My old mentor would always say, “In a conflict, intensify the relationship.” Instead of drawing away from that person, seek to befriend them. Take them out for a coffee, buy them a gift, treat them how you would treat a friend, and you will start to see ways to resolve the conflict.

Do you have unresolved trauma that is inhibiting your ability to empathise? Begin to process these painful circumstances with a mental health professional, your pastor, and close friends.

If you’re experiencing low personal achievement but not emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation, it could be that you are feeling ineffective. Consider if your job is suited to your passions, gifts, and skills. Are you receiving the support and training you need to succeed in your job? Could God be prompting you to use your passions, gifts, and skills for something that has more meaning to you?

Some of the symptoms of burnout are also symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses, which can influence the necessary treatment for recovery. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please speak to a healthcare professional, such as your doctor, trained counsellor, or psychologist. They can help you clarify your symptoms and determine the best course of action.

It’s been seven years since I burned out, and these days I’m aware of when the three symptoms pop up again. It reminds me to consider how I’m going in my quiet times with Jesus, if there is sin or dysfunction I need to confess, or if there are responsibilities that I have taken on that I shouldn’t have.

Burnout is a wake-up call to remind us that God didn’t create us to be self-sufficient—He created us to rely on Him. This means that we obediently trust what He has called us to do, and that we live and work out of our personal relationship with Jesus.

Relying on Him also means that we are interdependent on the friends, mentors, and pastors whom God has placed in our lives, and make use of the gift of health professionals as we seek to be transformed to the image of Jesus by the renewal of our minds (Colossians 3:10).

[2]According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory. The MBI presents a psychological perspective on understanding common factors to those who experience burnout.

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