When the Caregivers Need Care: Dealing With Burnout

By Dr. Judy Cha, LMFT

The pandemic is giving pastors, ministry leaders, and mental health professionals a crash course in how much mental health matters. Isolation and quarantine have a negative effect on people’s minds and bodies. National reports from the CDC say that demand for mental health care has tripled since March 2020 [] [1] CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, “Anxiety and Depression: Household Pulse Survey” https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/pulse/mental-health.htm, Oct 20, 2021 . People who spend a great deal of their time caring for others are particularly vulnerable to 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 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. These are not bad desires, but when we are confronted with life’s pressures, these desires can become disordered, making our work—ministry and caring for others—a part of our self-redemptive strategies, which eventually always fail! Effective strategies are needed to manage stress and live life, but when it is self-redemptive, it always fails to redeem. It fails to suppress shame and give us an identity. 

Through thirty-one years of counseling ministry, and especially the past two years of upheaval, Redeemer Counseling Services’ therapists see this at play daily. “We hold a holistic view of caregiving that values human beings as embodied souls,” says clinical supervisor Nathasha Steenkamp. “The story of Elijah’s trauma recovery process in 2 Kings 18-19 is just one example that highlights how intertwined the care of body and soul is. Through his incarnation, Jesus himself also so beautifully affirmed our embodied design by choosing to take on a human body to fully identify with us as he stepped into our collective trauma and brokenness.”

Jesus, even in his full ministry schedule, modeled three keys to preventing burnout. He was fully aware of who he was in body and soul. He interacted with his Father. And he shared his burdens with his closest followers. The Gospels show Jesus withdrawing when he needed to grieve the death of John the Baptist; as a Jewish man, he also kept the Sabbath—a time of rest—each week. He spoke to his Father early in the morning. He explained the signs he performed and teachings to his followers. As he lived his life with his disciples, he brought his inner circle into profound moments, such as his transfiguration and his anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

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:

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.

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. 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.
  • Keep short accounts with God. Do not hold others’ burdens or your own longer than necessary. When you wake up in the morning, pray for God’s help to care for those in need—no more, no fewer than what the Lord knows you can handle. As you go to sleep, ask him to help you release the trauma of the day. 
  • 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. 
  • Always remember that we live by faith in Jesus. He took all our sins and failures in exchange for his righteousness. We do not need to fear our inadequacy.

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 being 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 even a therapist. Make regular times with them to connect to receive encouragement and perspective on aspects of your life. 
  • If you need space to do things that seem to pile up because you do not have time, invite a friend to do them with you or to watch your kids while you take care of some of the day-to-day things or just make time for yourself. 
  • Ask for accountability to keep you on track with the changes you want to make in your life. 
  • Confirm any leading through Scripture, the counsel of Godly advisors who know you well, and circumstances that encourage you to move forward.

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 also continue to offer the same grace to others that we have received from God. We can fortify our soul to participate in his plans without becoming weary in doing good (Galatians 6:9).

Judy Cha, Ph.D., is the director of Redeemer Counseling Services. The counseling center is located in the heart of midtown Manhattan and serves more than 1,500 clients through 50+ counselors. If you would like to learn more about supporting the ministry or to receive counseling resources and updates from Redeemer Counseling Services, visit counseling.redeemer.com.

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