Stress and Burnout: Understanding Them

No one can love without experiencing some degree of stress. . . . Stress is not even necessarily bad for you; it is also the spice of life, for any emotions, any activity, causes stress - Hans Selye, The Stress of Life
There is hope for those of us experiencing stress and burnout. Read ideas for coping.

Imagine you are cooking stew in a pressure cooker on the top of a stove. You have added the meat and the veggies, the water and the spices. You turn on the stove and begin to wait for the stew to cook. What happens as the stew gets hotter and hotter? The pressure begins to build inside the pot. And what if there is no release valve on the top of the cooker? This happened to my Mom once – for some reason the valve was not working right and . . . you guessed it . . . we ended up with stew all over the ceiling of the kitchen. The heat was being added, but the pressure was unable to be balanced and the lid blew off.

Our lives can be like this image of the pressure cooker. Often we add things to our lives – responsibilities, activities, relationships, etc. – and this is like adding heat to the pot. We add pressure inside ourselves. Stress builds inside us when we add things to our lives. Too much stress without the ability or opportunity to release that stress (bring balance), will eventually lead to an explosion – burnout, out-of-control anxieties, maybe even a nervous breakdown.

It is important, therefore, to identify where the heat is coming from and how we can release the pressure or let off steam. Sometimes this is through removing some heat by saying "No" to things we are doing or being asked to do. Sometimes is it prioritizing the things we are doing so that we put our main energy in the things that are most important. Regardless, we need to find ways to release pressure.


Stress is a response to real or imagined demands placed upon us by ourselves or others or the environment. In other words, we need to assess the situation as stressful for it to be stressful. It is, in part, a response to the environmental pressures outside us and to the internal expectations within us.

But do you ever wonder how it is that others do not react with the same level of stress to the exact same situation you are in? Stress increases when there is a perceived imbalance between the demands in our life and the ability to cope with them. Therefore, defining something as stressful depends on our response to it. Stress is not in the individual nor in the environmental demands but instead in the perception that we are being taxed beyond our capacity to cope. Stress is in the eye of the beholder. Our perception is related to how familiar we are with an event and how much we feel we can control it and ourselves. How helpless and controlled by external things we feel also impacts our assessment of stress. Often stress can be reduced by making changes in the things we choose to do and by becoming more familiar with the events in our lives.

But how do I know if I am stressed? Here are some clues:

  • Decision-making becomes difficult (both major and minor kinds)
  • excessive daydreaming or fantasizing about getting away from it all
  • Increased use of cigarettes and/or alcohol
  • Thoughts trail off while speaking or writing
  • Excessive worrying about all things
  • Sudden outbursts of temper and hostility
  • Paranoid ideas and mistrust of friends and family
  • Forgetfulness for appointments, deadlines, dates
  • Frequent spells of brooding and feeling of inadequacy
  • Reversals in usual behavior


Burnout is a disease of over-commitment. It is emotional exhaustion involving negative self-image, negative attitudes, and loss of concern and feeling for people. It is especially common in people with high standards and can be related to work, family, financial or social pressures. Christians, people with Type A personalities (highly driven to achieve and succeed at all costs), and many caregivers are susceptible to burnout because their lives can so easily revolve around serving others at the expense of themselves.

Burnout is likely to come from...

  • An accumulation of stress, especially when there are not enough resources to meet the demands.
  • Denial, when we don’t allow ourselves to feel tired, or we deny our limits, or we distance ourselves from our feelings by staying focused on others’ needs.
  • Over-commitment, when we don’t care for self, just others and we feel indispensable by taking responsibility for others’ problems.

We will go through different stages towards burnout.

  1. First we will feel physical fatigue. We may lose energy and enthusiasm and become exhausted, sometimes with physical complaints and ailments.
  2. Second, we may begin to alienate ourselves by withdrawing and detaching from others, or by becoming bored or cynical, having little motivation and finding it difficult to concentrate.
  3. Third, and finally, we go through loss of hope, where we lose confidence, feel discouraged and depressed, and may even struggle with suicidal thoughts.

There is hope for those of us experiencing stress and burnout. Find ideas for coping.