Burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged – but not extreme -- distress. The difference between burnout and trauma is like the difference between a garment wearing out and a garment ripping. Or if you think of trauma as a rock dropping onto your head, then burnout is like a long, slow, constant drip of water.

People burn out when they feel overwhelmed and exhausted, unable to meet constant demands. Problems seem insurmountable, everything looks bleak, and it’s difficult to muster up the energy to care—let alone do something about the situation. As the stress continues, they begin to lose the interest or motivation that led them to take on a certain  role – like, say, coven leader -- in the first place.

Burnout comes on gradually; it can take us by surprise. Those who mean to serve the community for many years need to stay aware of their own energy and enthusiasm levels, so as to catch and reverse the burnout process early or, better yet, head it off.

Burnout inexorably erodes creativity and drains energy, leaving people feeling increasingly hopeless, powerless, cynical, and resentful. The unhappiness burnout causes can eventually threaten relationships, jobs, self-esteem, and even health.

Working Pagan elders are at particular risk for burnout because of one of the very things we like best about our religion. Our covens, groves, kindreds, etc are very small. So we don’t have specialists like youth ministers or directors of religious education. One or two people are expected to carry the full burden of leadership – and to do so while continuing to support themselves with a secular job and to handle normal home and family responsibilities. It’s a demanding role, but also a rewarding one to which we have pledged ourselves.

Perhaps the old wisdom about handing over priestly authority when we get old really means hand it over when it gets old, before we begin to do our work half-heartedly or even resentfully.


Signs and symptoms of burnout

The signs of burnout tend to be more mental than physical. They can include feelings of:

  • Powerlessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Detachment
  • Isolation
  • Irritability
  • Frustration
  • Being trapped
  • Failure
  • Despair
  • Cynicism
  • Apathy

If you’re burning out and the burnout expresses itself as irritability, you might find yourself always snapping at people or making snide remarks about them. If the burnout manifests as depression, you might want to sleep all the time or feel “too tired” to do the things that might sustain you. You may turn to escapist behaviors such as drinking, drugs, excessive television watching, or shopping binges to try to escape from your negative reactions. Your relationships may begin to fall apart. You may lose your trust in others, believing that people mostly take and don’t give.

The difference between stress and burnout:

Burnout follows unrelenting stress, but the results look very different. Stress involves too much: too many pressures that demand too much of you physically, psychologically, or spiritually. Stressed people can still imagine, up to a point, that if they can just get everything under control, they’ll feel better.

When that point is reached, stress flips to burnout. That flipping point is different for different people, depending on their personal resiliency and life circumstances, but none of us is totally immune.

While you’re usually aware of being under a lot of stress, you don’t always notice burnout when it happens. The symptoms of burnout — the hopelessness, the cynicism, the detachment from others — can take months to surface. If someone close to you points out changes in your attitude or behavior that are typical of burnout, listen to that person.

Burnout is about not enough. Being burned out means feeling empty, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring. In another vocabulary, it might be called despair. People experiencing burnout often don’t perceive any hope of positive change in their situations. If excessive stress is like drowning in responsibilities, burnout is more like being all dried up.


Stress cf. Burnout



Characterized by overengagement

Characterized by disengagement

Emotions are overreactive

Emotions are blunted

Produces urgency and hyperactivity

Produces helplessness and hopelessness

Loss of energy

Loss of motivation, ideals, and hope

Leads to anxiety disorders

Leads to detachment and depression

Primary damage is physical

Primary damage is emotional

May kill you prematurely

May make life seem not worth living


Ways to prevent and deal with burnout:

Because burnout follows prolonged stress, many of the methods for relieving stress can also help with burnout. It’s important to build or maintain a foundation of good physical health, so be sure to eat right, get enough sleep, and get regular exercise. It’s also vital to acknowledge your own needs and find ways to meet them.

If you’re approaching burnout, it’s also crucial that you cultivate relationships with other people and spend time socializing. Poor relationships and isolation can contribute to burnout, but positive relationships can prevent it or reduce its impact.

Here are some steps you can take to cultivate positive relationships:

  • Nurture your closest relationships, such as those with your partner, children, coven-mates, or friends. If you’re feeling underappreciated, spend relaxed time with those who love and cherish you.
  • Hang out. Do fun things with casual friends, including some who have nothing to do with your primary religious group (or with any other source of stress in your life). Go bowling or go to the movies or whatever. Relaxed and casual fun helps you maintain perspective.
  • Connect with a support group or organization. There may be a local leaders’ support group, or a list-serv specific to your Tradition, a place where you can get some feedback about your religious issues from others who have already been through something similar. If there is not, consider starting one.
  • Practice healthy communication. Express your feelings to others who will listen, understand, and not judge. Burnout involves negative emotions that fester and grow, so be sure to let your emotions out in healthy, productive ways.


To learn more:


  • Leiter, Michael P. and Christina Maslach Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship with Work Jossey-Bass, 2005
  • Maslach, Christina Burnout: The Cost of Caring Cambridge, MA: Malor Books, 2003.

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