“I have so much to do that I will spend the first three hours in prayer.”

—Martin Luther

As I write this article, the global COVID-19 Pandemic is raging.

And it would be of no use to quote the number of infections and deaths because the numbers multiply each day worldwide.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has increased stress levels for many of us. We face new challenges about our home and family lives, social distancing, employment, and for some, isolation and quarantine.

Stress, anxiety, overwhelm, exhaustion—I believe it is safe to say that we’ve all experienced these emotions, especially during this difficult time.

What Is Burnout?

Herbert Freudenberger and other researchers took up this term in the mid-1970s, and it describes “a state of exhaustion resulting from involvement with people in emotionally demanding situations.”

Also, “physical or emotional exhaustion, especially as a result of long-term stress or dissipation.” (American Heritage Dictionary)

Symptoms of burnout can include:

  1. Depleted energy reserves
  2. Lowered resistance to illness
  3. Increased dissatisfaction and pessimism
  4. Increased absenteeism and inefficiency at work.

Burnout can be debilitating because it can weaken and even devastating, otherwise healthy, energetic, and competent individuals.

Burnout is unrelieved stress, the kind that goes on day after day, month after month, year after year.

Burnout is nothing to play around with or to take lightly.

It’s easy for a person to lose meaning in his work due to mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion due to the long-term unresolved stress called burnout.

The 5 Stages of Burnout

Burnout can affect anyone, at any time in their lives.

I think particularly about family caregivers, most of whom are under extreme pressure day in and day out caring for their loved ones.

But how would you know if you do have burnout?

Psychologists at Winona State University conducted a study where they identified five stages and the symptoms, though these symptoms can change from person to person:

Phase 1: Honeymoon Phase. You have a new job or business venture, and you feel excited but begin to experience stress because you want to prove yourself.

Symptoms in this phase could include:

  • Enthusiasm
  • Commitment to excel
  • Eager to take on more responsibility
  • Obsessively demonstrate your worth
  • Work becomes the only focus
  • An inability to “switch off.”

Phase 2: Onset of Stress. Values become skewed, and neglect of self begins to set in.

Symptoms in this phase could include:

  • Stagnation
  • Anxiety, fatigue, irritability
  • Life limited to work or business
  • Trying harder does not lead to success
  • Erratic sleep
  • Dismissal of family and friends

Phase 3: Chronic Stress. Stress levels rise and become more frequent.

Symptoms in this phase could include:

  • Resentfulness
  • Apathy
  • Feeling incompetent
  • Non-existent social life
  • Persistent tiredness in the mornings
  • Obvious changes in behavior

Phase 4: Apathy and Despair (burnout). You see no way out of your situation.

Symptoms in this phase could include:

  • Resigned indifference
  • Escape mentally
  • Social isolation
  • Pessimism
  • Self-doubt
  • Feeling empty inside

Phase 5: Habitual Burnout. Experience physical, mental, and emotional collapse. Symptoms become imbedded in your life.

Symptoms in this phase could include:

  • Chronic physical exhaustion
  • Chronic mental exhaustion
  • Depression
  • Loss of hope and trust

These five stages are a good standard for gauging a state of burnout.

The five stages can act as warning signs, signaling potential risk, and a need to readjust.

Who Is Most Prone to Burning Out?

Although burnout has proven to be the result of excess work and stress, medical experts are now discovering that some people are more prone to it than others.

Some people are less likely to suffer burnout regardless of how much pressure they endure.

In determining how prone you may be to burnout, there are two considerations to look at:

  1. Deep prevailing needs within us that can strongly influence behaviors that lead to burnout.
  2. Character traits that amplify the possibility of burning out.

First, consider Need for Achievement:

You are motivated to set challenging goals and push hard to achieve them. Getting feedback on your effort validates your success. A lack of feedback can make you feel stressed, disappointed, or resentful for not being noticed.

Need for Attachment:

You are motivated to fit in well with others.

You spend a lot of time maintaining relationships and making sure others accept you. The need for acceptance can lead to you conforming to the others’ wishes and desires at the risk of fulfilling your personal needs.

Need for Control:

You are motivated to influence others.

Need for control leads you to seek out roles of authority.

When faced with something uncertain, you fear you are losing control, which can cause you to be overwhelmed.

Character traits in those prone to burnout include:

Not able to express confidence:

You likely believe and act in ways that don’t better yourself.

This character trait creates stress when things don’t work out as hoped.

You likely overthink why things aren’t going well for you, which can cause you to blame others for your situation.

A lack of confidence also makes you more likely to give up in the face of difficulties.

Not able to accept challenges:

You don’t accept change very well, or the challenges that change brings with it.

This character of not accepting challenges creates stress because you would rather hang on to the way things are than accept change and the discomfort it brings.

Not able to remain committed:

You tend to see adversity as something negative rather than something that brings about the best possible outcome.

This character trait creates stress because instead of staying engaged and pushing through the difficulty, you check out and isolate yourself or become apathetic.

Thus, we have deep personal needs that can influence our behavior, lead to burnout, and character traits that can make burnout even more probable.

You can become more aware of and avoid burnout by having a clearer understanding of your personal needs and traits.

Manage Your Energy to Avoid Burning Out

“The energy of the mind is the essence of life.”

—Aristotle

The most common response to the rising demands of life and work is to put more hours into getting things done.

But the longer hours mean that time isn’t the only resource you use up.

Your efforts consume your energy, as well as your time.

  • You spend your energy through physical, emotional, and mental activities.
  • Positive rituals intentionally scheduled and practiced renew your strength.
  • So, paying attention to your energy levels, and doing things to recharge yourself is critical to avoiding burnout.

Every activity we do reduces our energy.

Usually, when our energy drops, we increase our effort, but in the long run, this only causes more harm and makes us burn out faster.

It’s times like these that we must instead renew our energy levels.

Renewing Our Energy

There are many ways to renew our energy levels.

Consider these seven ways:

  1. Sleep. Get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Rest is where recovery starts.
  2. Create rituals. Positive rituals will renew energy levels. My morning ritual, for example, is to
    a) begin with prayer, meditation, and expressions of gratitude;
    b) hydrate;
    c) follow along with two different line-dance routines on YouTube. After my morning ritual, I feel energetic and ready to begin my day.
  3. Slow down. As you sense your energy depleting throughout the day, slow down. Take a few moments to breathe deeply. Try the 7/11 breathing exercise where you count to 7 as you breathe in and count to 11 as you slowly breathe out. You will immediately feel less anxious or stressed, and more relaxed.
  4. Eat and Drink. Not too much. And stay away from sugary drinks.
  5. Take mini-breaks. Throughout the day.
  6. Practice gratitude. Do you have a gratitude journal?
  7. Practice forgiveness. Including forgiving yourself if need be.

Final Thoughts

Stressful situations in life can trigger a response in our body that taps into our energy reserves for support.

Lengthy and repeated stress responses—prevalent in the hectic lives we live—can have harmful effects on our physical, mental, and emotional health if our energy reserves get wholly depleted.

With higher levels of stress, the more frequent and necessary it is for us to renew our physical, mental, and emotional energy reserves to avoid burnout.

Burnout can seem like the end, but it’s not.

By changing how we prioritize our time and other valuable resources, we can make a complete recovery and emerge anew.

Much like plants and animals in nature retreat for a time of rest during winter, from time to time, we all must retreat to replenish ourselves so we may emerge anew.

If you are experiencing extreme stress that can lead to burnout, you have learned several techniques that you can adopt to recharge.

Just like in springtime, the bare tree emerges after a long winter to put forth leaves.

From burnout, you can also emerge with new energy, habits, and a new perspective, and a new life.