By Judy Cha, Ph.D. LMFT
In the span of just weeks, life has changed in previously unimaginable ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Facing the harsh realities of lost lives, financial instability, and the uncertainties of the future has destabilized our sense of security and spiked our fear of the unknown.
Any crisis is a natural context for emotional distress that can ultimately lead to burnout. When people physically or psychologically operate at a high stress level for a prolonged period of time, their bodies and minds begin to shut down. The longer the crisis lasts, the more the risk for burnout increases. However, burnout is not just reserved for times of external crisis. It can happen to anyone at any time because we are driven by an inner crisis for self-redemption.
What is burnout?
Burnout develops over a long period of time and is defined as physical and emotional exhaustion. It can arise from an accumulation of stressful interactions with others at work, or work overload with little rest. In fact, a major contributor to this condition is the lack of a healthy work-life balance – personal stresses overflow into professional ones and vice versa. Since burnout takes a while to develop, it can be prevented by noticing early warning signs. Symptoms of oncoming burnout may include:
- Increased irritability
- Increased impatience
- Increased inflexibility
- Difficulty sleeping
- Increased conflicts at home
- Decreased effectiveness at work
- Decreased physical energy and emotional numbness
- General dissatisfaction with life
- Decreased sense of pleasure in things
What makes us vulnerable to burnout?
Burnout happens when we push ourselves beyond our strength and ability. The lack of self-care and poor boundary setting with others do make us vulnerable, but there are deeper, more unconscious heart motivations at play that drive us toward burnout. As beings made in God’s image, all of us have the innate desires for power, control, approval, and comfort. This means that these are not bad desires, but when we are confronted with life’s pressures, these desires can become disordered.
Disordered desires escalate into demands, and our attempts to fulfill those demands ultimately enslave us. For instance, when our desire for control evolves into a demand, we are no longer aware of what we can and cannot control. Our pursuit to control what we cannot leads us to feel completely overwhelmed. In that state, we react by overfunctioning, taking charge at work and at home by doing more and putting too much pressure on ourselves. We become terribly irritable at those who are not helpful in our pursuit, and the basics of self-care practices go out the window. This pattern of striving stems from our internal urge to justify ourselves, because the more we do, the better we feel about ourselves. This is why – even without an external crisis such as COVID-19 – our inner crisis to prove ourselves and pursue self-redemption forces us toward burnout and prevents us from truly resting.
What can help us?
The COVID-19 crisis has evoked varying degrees of emotions within us. In times like this, our natural inclination is to react and move into action quickly. Our intentions are often good. We want to help those in need. We want to contribute to resolving what is wrong and restore some sense of order in an environment that feels utterly out of control.
As much as we are called into action, we must prepare ourselves to participate in his plan of restoration.
For frontline responders, this crisis has been brutal to wellbeing. They have to move into action and stay engaged in the fight against this virus. Although the call to react is urgent, recognizing what is behind their reaction will help to lessen the burden that they carry into the battle. The following are the common beliefs that may fuel the reactions in crisis:
- I am what I do.
- Unless I do this, everything will fall apart.
- It all depends on me.
- I have to know everything and solve this problem.
- What will they think of me if I let colleagues/boss down?
When we know what is motivating us, we can surrender this burden to God and confess our dependence on him to fortify our soul. God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46). Remembering his presence with us in the fight will quiet the internal crisis that anxiety and sadness can provoke and reinforce the confidence that God Almighty is with us and is for us.
When we know what is motivating us, we can surrender this burden to God and confess our dependence on him to fortify our soul.
For all of us who have the option to slow down, we can consider more deeply how we are to respond. We are in desperate need of rest within our souls – rest from the striving for self-redemption. This strife within can only cease when we can be absolutely satisfied with who we are. The only way to end our crisis within is to re-establish our connection with God and receive our identity and worth from him. Therefore, the first step to preventing burnout is to invite God to search our hearts (Psalm 139:23-24). So, in his presence, consider the following process:
Learn about yourself: Knowing yourself – your thoughts and feelings as well as your tendency to react to these thoughts and feelings – will keep you from impulsive reactions and help you temper your responses in times of distress.
- Get in touch with what is happening within you. Take time to notice your thoughts and feelings and name them. When you are able to describe your thoughts and feelings with precision, it often gives you information you can act on and helps you to deal better.
- Notice any signs of burnout and implement self-care strategies to decompress and reduce the intensity of your emotions. These can include drawing boundaries to manage the demands of work, like scheduling a day off or strengthening your physical capacity like adding exercise or better nutrition.
- Take time to consider what makes life most meaningful to you, and journal about what is truly important and reorder your priorities.
Interact with God: God does not approach us with judgment, but empathizes with our struggle. With that in mind, we recognize our dependence on him and pour out our hearts to him.
- Tell him about your thoughts and feelings and how they make you want to react.
- Ask him to align your heart motives with his so that your desire does not evolve into a demand that may force a reaction that could be harmful to you or others.
- Visualize his response to you and listen for his instruction. You may receive an image or a verse or a phrase from Scripture. Reflect on the image/verse/phrase and write down the meaning or the message God may be giving to you.
Share with others: As beings made in his image, we are relational and need input from outside of us to remain healthy. So, involve people who you feel safe to be honest with, who can call you out on things, and who will remind you of Christ and your identity in him.
- Identify and involve others in your life as part of your self-care strategy. They can be family, friends, pastors, or a therapist. Make regular times with them to connect to receive encouragement and perspective on aspects of your life.
- Ask for accountability to keep you on track with the changes you want to make in your life.
- Share any specific leading you’ve received from God and seek confirmation for his instructions to you.
Although the full impact of this pandemic is still uncertain, we can anticipate a prolonged recovery period. As much as we are called into action, we must prepare ourselves to participate in his plan of restoration. So, we are given an opportunity to learn about ourselves and to consider prayerfully how God may direct our responses and reset why we do what we do. When we rest in Christ for our identity, the external crisis, no matter how devastating or frightening, can rage on, but the crisis in our inner being will subside and empower us to face whatever circumstances come our way. We can fortify our souls to participate in his plans without becoming weary in doing good (Galatians 6:9).