January 15, 2024

Rhythms of Work and Rest: Leadership and Self-Care After Trauma and Burnout with Dr. Alexis Abernethy

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Dr. Alexis Abernethy

Alexis Abernethy is a Clinical Psychologist and Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy at Fuller Theological Seminary. In 2021 she was named Chief Academic officer at Fuller.

Episode Summary

Therapist and research psychologist Dr. Alexis Abernethy brings together worlds of spirituality, leadership, and socially informed community development. She has found that communal healing from trauma comes through deep, empathic, emotional awareness. She approaches burnout from a psychologically informed perspective on the Christian practices of Sabbath and worship and offers insightful resources to find rest and care for yourself on the way to an integrated life of spiritual health and thriving.

Show Notes

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“We have so many demands before us, we feel that we cannot stop. There is too much to do, and we're not stopping. … Know that if you follow the rhythm of this world, you'll likely be overworking and stressed out, if not traumatized,  so I actually get more done following the rhythm of my body and paying attention to it. Rhythms of deep work and deep rest. This is how I want to lead. For me to survive and then actually thrive in this kind of environment, I need to have a different rhythm.” — Alexis Abernethy, Fuller School of Psychology Coming from decades of research, clinical work, and practice in the field, Dr. Alexis Abernethy cuts through theory and ideals, addressing the complex realities of life: loss, trauma, systemic racism, the grinding and wearing away from the stresses of everyday life, and the pressure to lead in the face of unsolvable suffering and need. Alexis keeps spiritual health real and accessible, addressing research-backed principles on sleep, concentration, irritation, relationships, and burnout. Absolutely essential to spiritual health and thriving in our chaotic and frenetic days, Alexis describes rhythms that we can internalize before we get to those soft symptoms or signs of stress. This is a rich and robust conversation about self care at the deepest and most impactful levels in our physical, mental, and spiritual lives—tending to the complexity of our humanity and addressing the deep, pervasive practices that engage us and intertwine us with others and with the sacred, so that we can find and stay aligned with our purpose. In this conversation, we discuss:
  • Her research and therapeutic work with traumatized pastors after Hurricane Katrina, emphasizing the necessity of self-care for the caregivers.
  • How to identify the symptoms of burnout and how to respond.
  • The Christian practice of Sabbath rest, worship, and singing, which Alexis personally experiences as a source of healing and restoration.

Show Notes

  • “Rhythms of deep work and deep rest. This is how I want to lead.”
  • Alexis Abernethy’s research and expertise
  • How leaders can heal and thrive, taking care of themselves and leading their communitities, even amidst traumatic circumstances and the threat of burnout
  • Caring for pastors and local leaders in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana
  • “It's just this complete devastation. That picture is seared in my mind, and then you go in other communities, and you don't see that same kind of devastation.”
  • “Frankly, a deep anger just really was rising in me. righteous indignation at that injustice.”
  • “This is an interaction of an uncontrollable hurricane and man's decision making.”
  • Dealing with and holding all the anger that rises up as we develop a care and recovery process for healing after trauma
  • How to help the helpers? How to care for leaders who care for others?
  • Surviving to Thriving, Resilience, and Cultivating Relationships
  • Pastors’ Empowerment Program
  • “What happens in the body?”
  • Trauma’s effects: physically, psychologically, emotionally, interpersonally—”how it affects how you engage in the world and how some people over-engage”
  • Emotion regulation
  • Theology of Sabbath
  • The symptoms and root causes of burnout
  • The Body Keeps the Score
  • Restorative and restful sleep
  • Irritability
  • Attention and awareness: “Whose really in control here?”
  • “First, know that if you follow the rhythm of this world, you'll likely be overworking and stressed out, if not traumatized, okay? But definitely overworking and stressed out, because that's the rhythm of our world.”
  • Take a personal inventory for the purposes of making small adjustments that prioritize the balance of work and rest.
  • How efficiency follows rest
  • How to reorder the rhythms of life
  • Alexis’s response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020—feeling traumatized
  • “I actually needed the world to be much smaller around me. I had to retreat. I had to withdraw because I didn't have what it took to be my more typical empathic self.”
  • Phil Allen’s film, Open Wounds
  • Intellectualizing (as opposed to emotional presence) as a response to trauma
  • The pressure to have it all together and know what to do
  • Permission as leaders and caregivers—in order to be present, we need to be absent.
  • Microdoses of rhythm and rest
  • Theological insights and Sabbath principles
  • How to implement Sabbath principles
  • “Deep work. Deep rest.”
  • “How’s that unboundaried life working for you?”
  • Exercise: What is your relationship to time?
  • What is your theology of time?
  • “God is in charge of time.”
  • The image of God
  • Comparing time and tithing: God’s provision and principles of discipline and trust
  • How to deal with burnout in professional life and leadership
  • Compare and contrast where you’ve been with where you’re going
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Attending to various domains: the physical, the emotional, the spiritual, the intellectual, the relational…
  • “There are mindfulness that we can use words that are totally comfortable with anyone's tradition or background.”
  • The difficulty of sharing about burnout, and the shame or fear that prevents connection with others about what you’re experiencing
  • Languishing and depression sometimes requires an override in order to seek professional help and talk about difficult emotions that come from burnout.
  • Prayer, scripture, and a brief emotional expression to God: “Jesus!” “Lord, have mercy!”
  • The healing practice of singing together
  • “Music was my first language.”
  • “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child … a long way from home”
  • “The power of music transcends religious experiences.”
  • Psychological research on corporate worship experiences.
  • “You’re seeking a common note … It's communal not only that we're singing together, but we're singing toward a purpose … glorifying God.”
  • “Bind us together, Lord, bind us together in love.”
  • What does thriving mean to you?
  • Thriving means walking toward discovering and experiencing the calling that God has for my life. It doesn't mean I'm always in it. It's walking toward it. The discovery is really rich. You know, you think of calling as a destination. It's not. It evolves. It evolves.”
  • “I don’t thrive by myself. There’s no way I can thrive by myself. I do it in community.”

Pam’s Key Takeaways

  • Catastrophes don't hit us all the same. We all weather life storms in different ways. It's when we find healing and restoration in community that we can integrate personal, relational, and political thriving.
  • Limitations can be our friends. Irritation, lack of concentration, fatigue are all signposts to the need for self care.
  • Burnout is complex, often involves a shift in our context, making our environment or job not a good fit for who we are.
  • To quote Bessel van der Kolk, our bodies keep the score. Burnout and psychological stress are often manifested with psychosomatic symptoms.
  • We need to be aware of our relationship to time and how our trust and faith come into play when it comes to rest.
  • I need more microdoses of rest and perhaps macrodoses of sleep.
  • We thrive when our vocation lines up with our work. but we need to address our culture's workaholism by talking more about strategies for rest that contribute to spiritual health.

About the Thrive Center

About Dr. Pam King

Dr. Pam King is Executive Director the Thrive Center and is Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science at Fuller School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy. Follow her @drpamking.

About With & For

  • Host: Pam King
  • Senior Director and Producer: Jill Westbrook
  • Operations Manager: Lauren Kim
  • Social Media Graphic Designer: Wren Juergensen
  • Consulting Producer: Evan Rosa
Special thanks to the team at Fuller Studio and the Fuller School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy.


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