How I Recovered From Burnout: 12 Keys to Getting Back

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I had never been through anything quite as deep, or frankly, personally frightening as my burnout back in 2006.

Burnout moves fatigue and the darkness from a place where it was in your control to a place where you can simply no longer control either.

I’ve heard from more than a few of you who have let me know that you’re in the midst of burnout right now.

Gary summarized how many leaders feel when he wrote in this comment:

So I’m there now. If I were honest I would say my life and ministry are in shambles. Still going, but no one really knows except my wife, I am ready to quit.

Oh, man.

All I can say is I understand, and I’m pulling for you and praying for you.

I told part of my story in this post along with sharing 11 signs you might be burning out.

So how do you recover from burnout?

Let me share my journey. While everyone’s recovery will be different, there were 12 keys that, in retrospect, were essential to my recovery.

Not an Instant Cure

And as far as time goes, for me, there was no instant cure.

It took about 6 months for me to move from ‘crisis’ (20% of normal) to operational (maybe 60%)

It took another year to get from 60% to 80% of ‘normal’.

Finally, it took another three or four years to finally feel 100% again – like myself. Even a new self.

12 Keys To Getting Back from Burnout

Along the way, these 12 things helped me immensely. And while your story might be different, I offer them in the hope they might help you even in some small way:

1. Tell someone

This was hard. I think it is for most leaders, especially guys. My guess is you will resist because of pride. But pride is probably what made you burn out.

Don’t miss this: Only humility will get you out of what pride got you into. Swallow your pride and tell someone safe that you have a problem. It’s tough, but it’s the first step toward wellness. When you admit it to others, you also finally end up admitting it to yourself.

Only humility will get you out of what pride got you into. Click To Tweet

2. Get help

You can’t do this alone. Really, you can’t. I went to a trained counselor and had a circle of friends who walked the walk with me. You need to talk to your doctor and to a trained Christian counselor. And you need others. I had people pray over me.

My wife, Toni, was an incredible and exceptional rock. I’m not sure I would have made it without them. I’m a guy and I prefer to work through my own problems.

This one was so much bigger than me. But not bigger than God or the community of love and support he provides. So get help.

Burnout is so much bigger than you. But it's not bigger than God and a community of love and support. Click To Tweet

3. Lean into your friends

Yes, this could have been included in Point 2 but then you would have missed it. Friends. You need them. Guys – a word here. We tend not to have a lot of friends and we tend not to open up. Mistake.

Lean into your friendships. Friends came to the house and prayed for me. They called me. One day a friend called and simply said “I know you can’t feel it today, but the sun will rise again. It will.”

I can’t tell you how much those words meant to me that day. Your friends care about you. Lean into them.

4. Keep leaning into God

Just because he seems silent doesn’t mean he’s absent. I did not feel God for months. Not when I prayed or read the bible or worshipped. But I didn’t give myself permission to quit.

In these pivotal moments, you will either lean away from God or into him. Lean in, hard. Even if you feel nothing. I did, and eventually, the feelings of intimacy returned.

Just because you can’t feel God’s love doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. Your emotions will eventually catch up to your obedience.

Your emotions will eventually catch up to your obedience. Click To Tweet

5. Rest

I was so physically and emotionally tired when I burnt out. I slept for about 10 hours a day for a month straight, adding naps to my daily diet on top of that. I think sleep is like money; deficits become debt. And debt needs to be paid off. I paid off my sleep debt that month and I always try now to make sure I am not running a deficit.

If I do for a week or two, I pay it off with more sleep. You were designed to rest and to rest in God. While I personally didn’t take a sabbatical or medical leave (our board offered me one), some may need to. I was too scared I’d never come back.

So I took three weeks of vacation and came back slowly.

Sleep is like money; sleep deficits become sleep debt. And debt needs to be paid off. Click To Tweet

6. Find something else to take your attention away from your pain

The problem with pain (or at least my pain) is when you do nothing you only have your pain to focus on. Distraction is a powerful tool to get your mind thinking about other things. Watch a movie. Go out for dinner. Go for a hike. Go to a party. Go to a concert. It’s not easy.

At my worst, I would go to social settings and not want to talk to anyone, sometimes even ‘hiding’ from people behind my wife who is a foot shorter than me and 100 lbs lighter. But at least I went. One night, we hosted a dinner party and I left the table early and ended up crying in my bedroom for the rest of the night. But at least we threw the party.

It got my mind off the constant cycle of depression.

7. Do what you can

Again, you may need a long sabbatical. But I took three weeks off and went back to work. On my first week back in the office, it took me longer to write a three-line email than it took me to write this entire blog post, but I focused on doing what I could. The first weekend I preached, those who knew the shape I was in all told me “We would have had no idea you were feeling so bad. You were amazing.”

I knew how I felt inside, but it was good to know I could still be helpful to others in some way. I think for me it was important to discover what I could still do.

8. Don’t do anything drastic or stupid

Underline this. Because my illness involved my mind, I was tempted to do all kinds of things that could have ruined my life. I felt like abandoning my calling, running away from everyone I knew and everything I knew, even my wife and kids. In my worst moments, thoughts of ending it all crossed my mind.

I am so thankful I didn’t succumb to any of those impulses. Some days I just said to myself “don’t do anything stupid today.” And if I didn’t, that was progress. I’m so thankful I didn’t do anything rash or irresponsible.

Some days just avoiding stupid is a win.

Some days just avoiding stupid is a win. Click To Tweet

9. Trust again

One of the contributing factors to my crash was a few relationships (not my family) in which trust was broken. As hurt as I felt and as cynical as I was at points, I made a conscious decision to trust again.

And the wonderful thing is: So many people are trustworthy. And God always is. Trusting again after your trust has been breached keeps your heart fresh and alive and – ultimately – hopeful again.

Trusting again after your trust has been breached keeps your heart fresh and alive. Click To Tweet

10. Closely monitor margin

I used to pride myself on being able to go at whatever I was doing longer and harder than anyone else. Pride’s not a good thing. I now closely monitor how I’m feeling, my rest, and my balance between time with people and time alone.

I’m hyper-focused on it. Because I can’t afford not to be. I build margin into my schedule because the edge of the next cliff is right around the corner without it.

11. Watch for the warning signs

I watch these 11 signs of burnout diligently. There was a time after my recovery that I saw over half the warning signs creep back in. I told our elders immediately. I was two days into what I thought was a ‘mini burnout’, but I sounded the alarm bells.

In the end, it turned out to be my frustration over a leadership issue that was producing the symptoms. As soon as I cracked the leadership issue, the symptoms disappeared almost overnight. But that kind of monitoring is, for me, central to staying healthy.

12. Take full responsibility for the health of your soul

Nobody else is responsible for your health. You are.  Pray, read your bible, seek life-giving friendships, replenish your energy, eat right, work out, and love deeply. These things nourish your soul. If you don’t do them, nobody will.

Okay, I promised 12. But here’s a bonus tip. This one’s huge and you’ll be tempted to skip it.

Nobody else is responsible for your health. You are. Click To Tweet

There’s hope

It took me almost 5 years to feel like ‘myself’ again (a new self for that matter). It was a long road back for me personally and I had to keep believing that God wasn’t done with me. Over a decade later, I’m so thankful. Our church has never been healthier, larger, or more effective. I am enjoying what I’m doing more than ever.

And the opportunities before me have never been greater. How much of that could I see or imagine during my burnout? Exactly 0%. But I had to not give up despite that. In those moments and days when I still don’t feel good, I cling to the hope that the sun will rise again. And it does.

So that’s my story.

I’m praying for you today and I hope that in some small way this helps those of you who are defeated, discouraged, or believe it’s over.

It’s not. Our God still lives. And He loves you.

Can't find the time to get it all done? Become a high-impact leader without burning out (or sacrificing yourself).

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This message so profoundly impacted us, that we named our annual company theme, “At Our Best,” using Carey’s system and resources to strengthen our culture and make health a priority this year.”

Sean CannellFounder and CEO, Think Media

Whatever you choose to do with it is up to you. Join today for instant access.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.