Before we often know it, we find ourselves in a pool of frustration, anger, despair, anxiety, fear or mindlessness. Clouds fill our heads and we find that we are unable to cope as effectively as we did before. I studied Psychology for 10 years and was intricately interested in the aspects of depression, anxiety and burn out. As these three elements were things I frequently observed in my own life, I read a lot of material about them. The one thing I know to be true is that often before we realize it - we have what modern day psychologists call - burn out.
The following definition for burn out is one I particularly value, "Burnout is the index of dislocation between what people are and what
they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit,
and will and erosion of the human soul." It may manifest as depersonalization, low productivity, and feelings of low achievement. (Cole T.R, The suffering of Physicians 2009).
Here is the sad but statistical truth, many people experience burn out. However it has been proven that people in the "caring" professions or industries, experience burn out the most. The demands of people, frequent physical, emotional, spiritual and mental stress, lack of sleep, dishonour and de-valuing are all aspects which people in the caring industries are often facing. The caring professions include counsellors - both pastoral and secular therapists, doctors, nurses, care workers like Hospice care workers etc. Social workers, teachers, psychologists and religious leaders like Pastors and those responsible for the care of people within congregations and ministries. Not much research and study has been devoted to the study of burn out among religious leaders, however the prevalence of burn out within the lives of pastors and their wives is self-evident.
A reality known as compassion fatigue is a type of burn out which effects clergy members frequently. (For a full in depth treatment of compassion fatigue, please see the following article: Compassion Fatigue)
Common symptoms of burn out include the following:
Feeling tired and drained most of the time and Lowered immunity, feeling sick a lot.
Frequent headaches, or back pain, change in sleep patterns. Frequent unexplainable nightmares. In severe cases - you may have a feeling of Alice in Wonderland falling down a great big hole, this results in feelings of disorientation and confusion.
Sense of despair, depression, anxiety, doubt. Loss of motivation, isolation or detachment from the world and usual friends or relationships. Increase in negativity and rigidity. Feelings of loneliness, helplessness, powerlessness. With regards to faith - many sense a hopelessness in their faith or relationship with God.
Isolation, withdrawal, use of food, alcohol, or drugs to cope. Change in sleep - awake patterns. Skipping work or not going to work. Procrastination, irritability increases resulting in snappiness and elevated negative moods. Loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyable (for believers - lack of enthusiasm for prayer, bible study or worship).
The reason I am sharing the above with you, is because many people who serve in religious communities are often faced with the reality of burn out. And when they do - many more condemn them for this. No one is super human - we serve a Super - Human God that is all. He protects us as we go through life and He will use it for the good but many times, when we ignore ourselves and we ignore God's warning signs that we are getting tired or taking on too much, then we can reach the point of burn out. Its important that we face ourselves squarely in the mirror and realise that as people and as religious leaders / carers, that we have needs too. In big congregations I have met couples whose sole task in the church is "pastoral care." This means - they take care of the pastors. Initially I thought this was crazy but eventually I realised how important this is, for someone to be looking out for the leader, to ensure that he or she, is not reaching a point of breaking burn out.
If you are someone who is experiencing burn out, or if you are a religious carer then I would like to challenge you to prayerfully consider where you are regarding your stress levels, levels of demand on you etc. And then I am going to challenge you to develop tools of rest...
Here are some examples:
1. - If you enjoy sporting activities, running, hiking and swimming are good ways to unwind.
2. - SET BOUNDARIES! This can not be over-emphasized, many people simply cannot say no to the demands of their congregants or other leaders. The reality of wanting to please man often pervades our sense of compassion, however it is not selfish, rather it is wise to learn to say no. If you are the kind of person who usually says yes to everything - it will take some time to get use to saying no and people may even condemn you in the beginning but eventually you will obtain a sense of freedom you never experienced before!
3. - Stress Management. I took a course on stress management at a local NPO and I found it helped a lot. Learn how to manage stress, learn how to differentiate between good stress (that which motivates you) and bad stress (that which causes you to shut down).
4. - Start the day with something relaxing. For believers, prayer can be a way of relaxing and undoing the stress. You dont always have to be interceding for the nations, your family and friends. Sometimes you need to sit in and with God and just be, get some good soaking music, write in your journal, pour out your heart but focus on the goodness of God. Even when that seems hard to do, sometimes when we are stressed or reaching burn out, our thoughts become negative and we will live in this projection. Ask God to help you - break through so that His Goodness can become your reality.
5. - Take a break from your cellphone, your computer and technology. Technology places a daily load on us that is hard to bear. You need a break - we all need a break! Phones are designed in such a way that we are continually receiving emails from people, phone calls, messages, social media messages etc. This clogs our brain and our system! SWITCH IT OFF!
6. - be creative! When you are feeling wound up, it is often difficult to switch off and be creative. But creativity is shown to release good feeling hormones. So try out something creative and tell yourself that, you are doing this for fun. It may not be perfect but you may discover a hidden talent or something entirely enjoyable! Try pottery, a poetry or journalling class, an art class - the list is endless!
7. - Eating right is important when your body is under stress, eating the right amounts of proteins, fruits and veggies is really important. Get enough sleep - 8 hours a night and exercise...
Most importantly friend, do not give up! There is no condemnation for stress or burn out. We are human beings and this will happen - but give yourself the space to be. Give yourself the space to heal and develop the right resting tools. Your tools will be different to mine - but if you can learn which ones suit you and you can develop new tools, you will be on your way.
If you are a religious carer or leader, do not beat yourself up!
We are frequently involved in the depth of realities that others cannot cope with, we are on the front lines and people can be cruel, mean, ugly and downright carnal. We need to guard our hearts and our lives and do the best we can for God and the rest has to take care of itself, we are also people!
May Father bless and keep you on your journey!