I Never Understood Burnout or Depression—Until It Happened to Me

I Never Understood Burnout or Depression—Until It Happened to Me

In this podcast, Shona Murray talks about her unexpected experience with severe burnout and depression and offers advice about how to cope with a break down.


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Ryan Griffith: Shona, we wanted to hear from you about your experience of burnout, and how you, what kinds of lessons you’ve learned from that experience and maybe how you would counsel others who are finding themselves in that situation.

Shona Murray: Well, in 2003, I lost my Christian joy.

I found myself falling off a steep emotional cliff into a sea of, ocean of darkness and depression and despair. I’d gone from a strong multitasking, homeschooling mom, pastor’s wife, and working part-time as a doctor, to a broken shell, a major crash, no joy left, just sadness and despair.

But the question arises, well how did that happen? And to give you a little bit of the background, I’d been a Christian since I was very young. I don’t know the exact date. I struggled through a lot with assurance in my young years, teen years, but I’d got to a kind of established state where I felt more of the joy of the Lord, I had assurance, and I wanted to spent in the Lord’s service. I was very conscientious.

My personality was also very determined, very focused, I’d gone to med school, you know, I focused on studies, routine, discipline, and all I had to worry about was myself. So I could work really hard but I could relax too because of no other responsibilities. But things were building up in my life and the other thing that was very significant is that I wasn’t someone who would ask for help, I always had this view like, you know, everyone’s busy, I didn’t want to bother other people.

I also had unrealistic expectations of myself, way beyond what God has and God did have. I thought I was responsible for everyone and everything that came into my radar, not just partially, but 100%. If you’re needy and you need help, I can help. And, you know, it was ultimate total responsibility for areas and things that I had, God never expected me to have.

When I got into my 30s, I was then married, pastor’s wife, working part-time at night as a doctor, not catching up on sleep the next day, adequately. I had a seven-year-old boy, and a five-year-old, and an 18-month-old little girl. I’d started homeschooling and done it for a year, and again I was very focused. I was very focused on their spiritual well-being, took responsibility for, as well as David, but my children’s salvation was ultimate, and I almost measured everything minute- by-minute with the thermometer, if you like, which is very unhealthy.

We’d just gone through a ten-year church split, a church debacle, if you like, which culminated in the church split in 2000, and that left a massive fallout, like a nuclear fallout. It impacted the Free Church of Scotland throughout the country, families, friends, everyone was impacted. I thought I’d got through that very well but hadn’t anticipated the impact.

I live beside aging parents, felt responsible for them. Two marriages of people very close to me in my life broke up, and they were Christians and it was devastating to me, you know? I’d never experienced that and, you know, how does that happen to Christians?

So, at the same time, there was a lot of bad news in the world. The war on terror had begun, you know. 2001, I remember watching Teletubbies with my little boys and the World Trade Center coming down. And at this particular time, I was swirling in a sea of pregnancy hormones. I was four months pregnant with my fourth child, and over a four-month period, I began to go through an emotional decline where I became very sad and very tearful, beginning to feel isolated and detached, even from people who loved me like David or my kids, like an island. Like a cork bobbing in the ocean.

God began to feel very far away. Physically, I began to feel, I lost my appetite, started losing weight, I started getting a lot of feelings of fear and terror like a sense of a weight sitting on my chest, panic, anxiety, an inexplicable fear. I did not know where did it come from.I knew I wasn’t dying of anything physical because I understood panic attacks, but I hadn’t really understood it.

This is living terror. And the terror became then very kind of almost spiritual conceptually, and when I’d be reading the Bible it seemed worse. I began to imperceptibly, began to think God was against me. God was my enemy. I became terrified of God. He felt far away. I wondered, “Was I ever converted?”

Satan, I was terrified of him. When I read comforting things in the Bible, I would drive it all against myself, and anything that was condemning, that was me. So it’s almost like I had a slow, delusional state developing that I did not realize because, out with that, I still had my wits about me and my full faculty and function.

I began to plow through books, Christian books, to try and get a solution to this, what I now had come to conclude was primarily a spiritual problem. I would read Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan and The Christian in Complete Armour by William Gurnall, trying to find an answer, but the problem was the more I delved, the more I studied, the more exhausted my mind became, and I could no longer concentrate on reading the Bible. So I would sit looking at the same words over and over again and I just couldn’t penetrate my mind.

Eventually, the whole thing became so major that I could no longer function. I couldn’t sleep. I was having nightmares. I was fighting Satan in my mind with Scripture, and then I began to wake up wide awake like a terrified bird at 5:00 in the morning.

At that point, I realized I was broken. The pressures of life, the stresses had all culminated, like Jenga blocks and that last one toppled the whole thing. My emotional world had fallen apart.

God rescued me and God gave my joy back. And just to summarize that, he gave me gifts, graces. I received counseling from my dad who had been a pastor for years. He knew the difference between major depression and spiritual backsliding. And he was able to help me see the difference and that my spiritual symptoms were actually on the back of a mental breakdown.

I received family support through David mainly, practical help, my family, I even took on a cleaner, although sometimes I would clean before the cleaner came, that’s how crazy I had become. And I began to take breaks. I began to make sleep a priority, exercise a priority, walking by the shore on my own every day not trailing kids with me and sorting out, refereeing fights. Walking by the ocean just outside, the sky, nature, places where previously God had really ministered to my soul.

I also received the gift of medication in the form of an antidepressant. And over time, I began to improve. My devotional life became more realistic. Prayer was so difficult, all I could cry often was, “Lord, help rescue me.” And instead of sitting for a half hour or an hour trying to get through, I would take a verse or two verses, five minutes, sit, read it, reread it, pray very briefly: “Lord, help me, speak to me through the word.”

And then physically get off my knees and get going with the day. And all these things, God used to help. And the other very helpful things called CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy. In essence, you find that in the Psalms where David reminds himself that he’s seeing things and is concluding wrong thing, come to wrong conclusions, but God comes along and helps him to put the correct perspective and correct thoughts on the same situation.

And I learned that, and I still, you know, that’s very important in my life. Moving forwards, the recovery of joy, recovery from burnout is a process. It doesn’t happen at once, it was over months, even years to some extent. The physical-emotional aspect was recovered much quicker, but the spiritual took longer and I began to see more of God’s work in my life through providence.

I was here, I thought I was dying, I thought my life was over, David’s ministry was over, and now I’m here. What I dreaded didn’t happen. How did that happen? God did it. And that helped me begin to reconnect with God, and he has not let me go and that began to refuel my joy.

I learnt two very important lessons. Before depression, before I had gone through burnout, I didn’t know, I never would have believed that I could …that could happen to me. Clinically, I had had some training in psychiatry for family practice and I’d seen a lot of people, treated a lot of people. I never understood how bad it was and how deep it was.

I guess I figured it was mainly genetic predisposition or depressive personalities or major life events, but what I discovered was, I was a happy, outgoing, energetic, Type A, lively Christian. I wanted to be spent in the Lord’s service and I literally imploded.

God taught me a big lesson: “No one is strong enough to avoid some of the most common ailments that afflict human beings.Everyone can suffer burnout, everyone can suffer depression.” Post-depression, I’ve come to value the importance of caring for, not just giving out and caring, but receiving.

I need to refuel so that I can effectively minister to others. And if we’re in it for the long haul, if you want to live a long-fulfilled, a Christ-serving life, you have to pace yourself. You cannot run a marathon running the first mile like the way you would run a hundred-meter dash, you just can’t do it.

I learned therefore that God gives me graces, fuel that I have to receive every day, particularly sleep, adequate sleep. Exercise, I was also a child who was running and playing and energetic and I had to ditch these things because I was so busy serving others, and my body was craving for a release of that energy in a physical running around way instead of all of this mental energy expenditure which leads you into almost like a constant state of fight and flight and there’s nowhere for this adrenaline to go.

I learned that important connection and I built a regular exercise pattern back into my life. Fulfilling relationships as well. You know, in ministry, as a pastor’s wife or a pastor, wherever you’re serving, you’re always on the lookout for the people who need someone to come alongside them, but if these are the only connections you make, you, yourself are going to finish up drained, and it’s important that you are in a position of receiving as well.

And God gives us other friendships in our life so that these friendships fuel ours, and it’s not just me praying for other people, I need other people to pray for me and this takes humility. And, you know, when I think about it, pride can sometimes drive us along too, being strong, and I learned that the humility and the acceptance of God’s gifts is so important to effective Christian service.

There are other things like regular breaks, family vacations, days off, Sabbath, all these things are important and David will address these too, but, in essence, I got my joy back. God gave it back but God used things, and one of the key things was this temple of the Holy Spirit is not just a living sacrifice, it’s a temple that needs to be maintained and that way we keep our joy.

Ryan Griffith: Thank you.

Shona Murray was always a type-A extrovert. She was a doctor, a pastor’s wife, a homeschooling mom, and an enthusiastic Christian. She didn’t consider herself the type who would ever experience depression. When it hit, it hit her hard.

Shona now understands the path of relentless responsibilities and physical exhaustion that led to her crash. It took major depression to help her see that asking for help is a normal and good part of the Christian life. To learn more about burnout, how to avoid it or come through it, check out the book Shona wrote with her husband, David: Refresh: Embracing a Grace-Paced Life in a World of Endless Demands.

Listen to Shona’s story or watch a video. The Murrays filmed two follow-up videos about burnout and depression: