Frozen in Fear on the Path to Burnout

It’s only a split second, but it feels like an eternity.  The eyes are glowing in the light, but everything is motionless.  For a moment, your brain stops as it tries to process what’s happening before eventually realizing that the deer is frozen in the headlights like they’re in some sort of magical freeze ray.  You slow down, honk the horn, and the spell is broken.  The deer continues on its way, and you start to realize your heart is trying to beat its way out of your chest.

We’ve all been that deer.  We’ve been on the other side of those magical headlights and been frozen by our fear of what might happen.  In our fear, we’ve failed to do the one thing that can keep us safe – to keep moving.

Burnout and Efficacy

Burnout is most frequently defined as exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  We know that we can be exhausted as a part of our greatest times in life as well as our lowest.  Cynicism is a response to our belief that we’re not able to affect change – so the best we can do is complain about it.  Inefficacy is, however, different.  Inefficacy is a sense of learned helplessness or a lack of hope that we can change our circumstances.

In our moments of fear, we may feel as if hundreds of ideas are running through our head vying for our attention, or we may find ourselves completely blank without a single coherent thought.  Either way, we’re stuck, just like the deer in headlights.

Getting Unstuck

In most of our moments in life, there’s no magical car horn that can sound to break us out of our trance of fear – perhaps because in doing so it might make us more fearful.  Instead, we must rely on our awareness of the situation, the problems, and the solutions we already have to help us move forward.  That relies on our assessment of the stressor and of our resources.


In our lives, there will always be things that are stressors to us – things we fear because of their potential impact to our lives.  We may believe there’s a poisonous snake or a lion that is about to bite us, and that our best answer is to stay still and hope they don’t see us.  However, most of the things we are afraid of today are less about life and death and more about loss.  Whether it’s the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, or the loss of our home, we perceive the possibility for loss and are afraid of how we’ll cope.

There are two aspects to assessing the stressor.  The first is the impact, and here our greatest challenge is recognizing the real, long-term impact.  Too often, we overestimate the impact or extend the impact forward in time forever and thus expect that it will permanently change our world for the negative when the truth is rarely that way.

The second is evaluating the probability that the imagined impact will become real.  Mark Twain said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”  We quite often overestimate the likelihood that something will happen once we’ve identified it.


Our resources to cope with a negative impact caused by a stressor are both our own internal capacity as well as the capacity of those around us who care for us.  When evaluating the fear that is preventing us from moving forward, we sometimes skip over the resources we have in ourselves and in our friends, colleagues, and allies.  If we give these collective resources their due consideration, we often find that the stressor, though troubling, isn’t something to be afraid of.

Moving Forward

If you want to get unstuck, move forward with your fear, and, ultimately, stave off burnout, it may be as straightforward as reevaluating the stressor that’s triggering the fear and your assessment of your capacity to address it, even if it were to become real.