From the moment Mike wakes up, he feels his heart racing. Despite going to bed at the same time as his kids the night before, he slept fitfully, unable to relax, unable to calm his mind. He constantly feels overwhelmed, but he also knows he has no time to slow down, so he powers through. Mike is stressed and he knows it.

Like a machine going through the motions, Elaine gets out of bed after another night of insomnia. Her husband tells her she’s become more distant, but she disagrees. After all, she feels the same about him as she does her work, her friends and her grandchildren. After the events of the last year, it’s as if nothing can touch her anymore. Little does she know, Elaine is burned out.

Stress and burnout are terms that are often thrown around, but many people misunderstand what they really mean – and why they’re different. Contrary to what some people believe, they are not interchangeable and treating one as the other could lead to further damage.

Understanding stress

“I’m so stressed” is a common refrain in our too-busy culture. Everyone feels stress at some point or another. Stress can be a temporary reaction to an adrenaline-inducing situation like getting into a fender bender or a response to an “off day” where everything seems to go wrong. When we feel stress, we react physiologically and move away from our normal resting equilibrium, but stress isn’t inherently bad. This so-called “fight or flight” response can be helpful for us to avoid danger.

Prolonged periods of stress, however, are toxic to our mind, body and spirit. Here are some of the main warning signs of stress:

  • You emotionally overreact to those around you.
  • You are physically exhausted.
  • You feel a sense of urgency and heightened physiological reactions to stimuli.
  • You are keeping up the same amount of activity but you’re running on a low to empty fuel tank.

Recognizing burnout

Burnout, on the other hand, is often not identified until after you’ve been living in it for some time. In the 1980s, psychologists Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson created a definition of burnout that is still used today:

“Burnout is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind.”

We often hear about burnout from people working in ministry, like pastors and missionaries, but anyone can experience burnout. Here are the characteristics of someone who is burned out:

  • Your emotions are blunted; you feel numb.
  • Your exhaustion is both physical and emotional, affecting your motivation.
  • You feel a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
  • You disengage and detach from your work, your relationships and sometimes even your faith.

Treating stress and burnout differently

If you think you are burned out, but you’re actually stressed, either of the following treatment plans will help you. However, if you think you are stressed, but in reality you’re burned out, treating it as stress will only exacerbate your condition. In either situation, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor to get a medical assessment and rule out other factors.

Treating stress involves creating a healthy lifestyle by eating well, prioritizing restful sleep, taking breaks, exercising regularly and practicing your spiritual disciplines (prayer, reading your Bible, engaging in Christian fellowship, etc.). The goal of stress treatment is to return your body to its normal resting equilibrium. By reassessing your priorities and understanding your limitations, you can set healthy boundaries necessary to take care of yourself. You can ask for help from your spouse, a close friend, a pastor or even a counsellor as you seek healthy rhythms in your life. Managing stress can often be done by making small changes in our day-to-day routines.

Burnout, however, needs more than small changes. 

While those who are burned out also need to lead a healthy lifestyle, they first need to acknowledge the state they are in. If your spouse, a friend or a co-worker has concerns about how you’re doing, listen to them. Ask for feedback. Set aside the assumption that burnout is a sign of weakness or failure. Naming your emotional reality is a crucial first step to recovery. More often than not, burnout requires an extended break from work as well as professional assessment. In burnout, your mind, body and spirit get so used to being disengaged and detached that it requires a major reset to find healing. Depending on the severity, a break could be some time away, or a leave of absence, sabbatical or even a career change. The biggest help in your healing journey will be regularly seeing a registered counsellor trained in dealing with burnout. They can come alongside you as you identify the patterns that brought you to where you are, re-evaluate your priorities, and set necessary boundaries to protect yourself from future burnout.

Stress and burnout are not the result of being spiritually weak or not trusting God enough. Even the prophet Elijah experienced a season of burnout. But in God’s goodness, he took care of Elijah in the ravines of Kerith (1 Kings 17), and in his goodness, God will take care of you through a community of counsellors and psychologists, pastors, friends and loved ones who can help you create a real plan to step out of hopelessness and into a place of healing.

If you are experiencing symptoms of stress or burnout, we encourage you to reach out for help. Our team of registered counsellors offers a free one-time phone consultation and can also refer you to a trusted counsellor in your area. Call us at 1.800.661.9800 Mondays to Fridays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., or visit to learn more.

© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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