How to Recover from Burnout
“We don’t have to buy into the collective delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success.” -Arianna Huffington, Thrive
I’ve been humbled overwhelming response around my recent article, What I Wish I’d Known About Missionary Burnout. After sifting through numerous comments and emails, my heart ached with a common thread:
The voices of so many of you rising up, bravely admitting to yourselves that you might already be burned out and asking what you should do next.
It’s been two and a half years and I still feel like I’m answering this question. The good news is, you’ve taken the first step:
Admit something is wrong.
Setting aside your pride and asking for help, is the first step in recovery. This is such a vulnerable thing and can be difficult for so many of us, especially for missionaries because we are taught that burnout is a bad taboo, rather than a natural progression if you operate in a stressful environment without boundaries, for long periods of time.
In a survey by the Journal of Psychology & Christianity in 1983, 91% of women and 88% of men said they were more stressed out working as missionaries than they were beforehand, with women bearing a higher brunt of that stress.
In response to that, I’ve written this post that weaves together the wisdom of so many, in answer to the question: how to recover from burnout?
One thing to realize, is that recovering from burnout takes much longer than you anticipate.
It is not a quick fix or something solved by a week long trip to the Poconos. On my last stint back into Uganda, after we lost our first baby, I knew I had crossed some invisible line into dangerous territory when the thought of heading back into the chaos of Kampala’s motor bike filled streets hit me like a punch in the gut.
I was full of dread. Later, when we tried to take a break at a beautiful national park, I couldn’t shake the weighted feeling of fatigue that was bone deep and tied around me like an anchor.
It wasn’t just physical, it was heart heavy.
But I felt I had to keep going. So I did. The biggest thing holding me back was my own expectations.
Change Your Expectations
In their book, Expectations and Burnout, Eenigenburg and Bliss discover that the number one reason most women on the mission field burnout, is the expectations they have of themselves. They say:
“Missionaries try hard to live up to the highest ideals. We have expectations of all we should accomplish based on things we’ve seen, heard, read and experienced. We see who we want to be and what we want to accomplish. However if what we do becomes the determining factor on which we base our self worth, we may be in serious trouble.”
I had some idealistic expectation about who I was supposed to be and all I was supposed to accomplish and I couldn’t live up to that mold of perfection. I thought others were looking at me to be this “Super Christian,” without flaws. My negative self talk was harming me. I had to learn to forgive myself and realize that God was not displeased with me. I hadn’t failed. I had tried to live and love in a very difficult environment. God knew my heart and He didn’t measure success the way I did. He was proud of me.
Change the thought that you would be a failure if you actually took the time you need to heal.
Begin listening to your soul
When you ignore the messages of your soul, body, and feelings, over and over again, you become out of alignment with yourself. For example, when your body says, “Stop!” it needs rest, but you ignore it and keep going, you become out of integrity with yourself. When your insides know something has reached an end point, and yet you continue pouring into it, your conscience tells you you’ve come out of integrity. (Read more about integrity in Diana Chapman’s book here.)
You have to learn the difference between sacrifice because God asked you to, and sacrifice because you think you are supposed to.
John Ortberg says,
“The soul seeks harmony, connection, and integration.”
When your soul is in disorder, it is difficult to connect with God because He designed our soul to connect and be in harmony with our heart, body, mind, will, and emotions.
I had to make outward choices that reflected what my inner life needed.
Communicate Your Needs
Remember, people can’t read your mind so if you need an extended break, it’s your responsibility to own what you need and communicate that to others. It’s easy to blame others when no one notices our needs for us, but we are the caretakers of our souls and we have to be the ones to articulate to people around us what is going on inside us. If you need therapy, say it. If you need your church/missions organization to help raise money so you can go on a much needed and long overdue retreat, say it. Only you have the power to change your life. Go ahead, I give you permission.
Take care of your body
Research has shown the state of your body can directly affect your emotions, and vice versa.
Poor emotional health can weaken the body’s immune system and exercise can reduce depression.
The weight gain and illnesses I experienced in Uganda were directly correlated to stress and adrenal fatigue. As missionaries, taking care of our selves, and especially our bodies is one of the first things to go. Gyms and green veggies are also much harder to find in the developing world. It’s not our fault it’s just the nature of the world we live in.
I recommend getting a full hormone panel as well as thyroid check, and a saliva cortisol test for adrenal fatigue, which many missionaries don’t realize they have. Get a recommendation for a good Naturopath. I developed a regular exercise routine of running, lifting and yoga. I completely changed my diet to avoid gluten and focus on organic vegetables, leafy greens, proteins, and fruit. I gave up caffeine (yes, it can be done without damage to other humans) I incorporated numerous vitamins (Vitamin D, C, B12) and minerals. I healed my gut through probiotics. I probably wouldn’t have gone as extreme if it weren’t for my infertility issues, but God used that as a wake up call that I needed to prioritize my health.
This might sound obvious, but it’s difficult for the body to rest when the mind and soul are not at rest.
One of the biggest things I lost during my stressful times in Uganda was my ability to sleep.
I developed insomnia, often having difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep. To deal with this, when I moved back to the States, I began listening to meditation cd’s to help me fall asleep, exercised, did yoga, meditated, took long walks outside in nature, hiked, soaked with Jesus, read, journaled. The physical aspects of sleep were significantly helped by this, but I also began taking Melatonin, Calm, and natural sleep tea’s like Passion Tea to help with a restful night and counteract anxiety. If you are incredibly anxious you should still see a therapist who might be able to offer prescriptions to aid you short term, but I found the natural methods worked great for me. The body repairs itself in sleep and as my body repaired itself, my emotions and feelings of depression became much more manageable. You might need to sleep more than you are used to, and that doesn’t mean you are lazy, that means your body is trying to recover from years of damage, so give yourself a break!
Stop work at 5. I know, it sounds crazy. Don’t answer emails after a specific time. Don’t take your computer to bed with you, attached like a robotic, third arm. If I read a disturbing email at night about another problem I needed to solve, it could ruin my whole sleep pattern. Don’t give others that power over you. Don’t do more than you think you can do or say you are going to do. Learn to say the word, “No.” Make some serious commitments about self care to yourself and keep them. Have a buddy who will hold you accountable and grab that phone from your hands when you are furiously texting when you should be enjoying the present moment.
Part of the reason we moved to close to Bethel was because I needed a community of friends. Living on the mission field can be lonely and often you are far away from your heart friends or people who really know you. It’s easy to hide then, be inauthentic, and disintegrate from who you really want to be and the life you really want.
Good friends are a mirror for your soul.
This past Easter Sunday when I was dancing to Rihanna in my friend’s kitchen while we washed dishes after a huge meal, I realized God answered my heart cry for authentic friendships, where you can be yourself, and laugh, and snort cry in the same sentence, where you can listen to hip hop while you towel down the plates. Finding your people is so healing.
Most of you know I’m in love with the book One Thousand Gifts. There have been countless studies on the correlation between gratitude and happiness. Sometimes when I’m having a crappy day, I just outside and stop and find one thing to be thankful for and write it down or post a picture of it on Facebook. It’s a huge mood booster to stop and be present and be thankful for the gifts you have.
If you know me, then you know my Instagram account is blowing up with pictures of my half-Chippin, half-human dog Rosie who like Jonathan Caroll said is, “A minor angel.” She is probably the great love of my life. (sorry, husband) In Psychology Today they write that “Pet owners are happier and healthier than non pet owners,” and I find this to be so true in my own life. So, if you needed that to convince your husband to get you a puppy, you’re welcome.
Lastly, I’ve compiled a list of Missionary Care Resources of some of the best places around to get therapy, rest, renewal, debriefing, or training. I’m also available for coaching and pastoral counseling for those who think they might be suffering from the effects of burnout.
How are you learning to recover from burnout?