Reconnecting With the World After Burnout

Here's how I learned to start anew.

I paused for a couple of seconds, my voice trembling with fear, hesitation and shame, as I wasn’t sure I could bear to hear myself actually say the words I was about to say: “Hi, I’ve called becauseI think I’ve had issues with anxiety”.  It all sounded too rational, calm and collected, when inside me I was feeling chocked by my own lungs, half of my brain on shut down mode while the other half racing like a car without breaks.

It had been about half an hour since I had committed the ultimate sin of any office employee:  to walk away from the screen in the middle of a deadline.  It was the physical symptoms and my survival instinct that moved my hand to close the laptop, and walk away from the e-mails that were constantly piling up in my inbox. As my vision started getting blurry and my head was about to explode, I listened to the voice inside. “That’s it, I can’t do this anymore”.  Although I knew I had taken the right decision, it felt like the ultimate moment of defeat, the day that I had officially thrown in the towel – throwing out years of hard work to get where I had gotten, conceding failure, worthlessness, and succumbing to self-pity.  Reaching out for professional help felt like the end of my career.

“You’re the third call I’ve had this afternoon about the same issue” the doctor said on the other end of the line, sounding a bit exasperated and frustrated, and probably in need of a sandwich. “But by simply making this call, please know that you are very brave and you have already done 30% of the work.  So, well done.  Oh and let me guess: you’re probably one of those senior corporate types that never get a thank you and instead get blamed for whatever isn’t their fault, right?”  

A warm, acid tear of mixed sadness and relief started forming at the corner of my eye as I took in those words like a surprise gift being handed to me by a stranger. That was the very first moment I realized that maybe I was not alone in my situation. Yet at the same time I felt more isolated, now being part of an invisible, misunderstood, under-reported silent epidemic.  What I didn’t know yet was that thanks to that call I would begin a journey that would help me rethink how I viewed work, life, myself, and I would begin to establish a more healthy relationship with my goals and aspirations.  Recovery consisted of two phases: 

1) Removing the stress-causing elements in my life and helping my body to slow down and exit the acute symptom phase. 

2) Starting to re-engage with myself, with the world, in a different way.  This was all about developing new skills on how to Be.

Phase 1

I abstained from work with a doctor’s note for a couple of weeks, with the official diagnosis of “work-related situational anxiety”.  Water and plenty of sleep were important to help my body start to find its rhythm and balance again – especially detox from all the stress hormones that had been running in my blood, as well as accumulated bile and vitriol that my body had built up in response to my micromanaging boss.  There was a lot of anger, which I had to recognise, come to terms with and start processing so that I can eventually let it go.

Walking for hours everyday and exercising were important, as they increased endorphins, “feel good” hormones that are the enemies of stress hormones and therefore speed up re-equilibration of the hormonal system.  In the first few days I walked like a zombie, still on overdrive like a computer in need of repair, overpowered by the noise in my head and all the worries in my life that prevented me from being aware of where I am and what I’m doing.  After practicing on staring at green grass in the park for a few hours at a time, I gradually moved on to other objects like benches, trees and flowers until I eventually felt in touch with myself and my surroundings.

Sleep was much trickier to tackle.  The problem was not falling asleep, but staying asleep for a good stretch of time. Like a wild animal sleeping out in nature, my body was in constant “fight or flight” mode – ready to “attack” early in the morning whatever the danger or prey might be.  I would get Monday morning “butterflies” in my stomach as early as 4 am, even on weekends.  My internal clock was seriously fucked, and I was desperate to take out the batteries, chuck them in the bin, stick the bin on a rocket to the next universe, then take the universe and shove it in a black hole.  Yes, I was also still irritable.  But eventually my body would start to find its rhythm.

Phase 2

The first crucial step in making any real, lasting progress was to start challenging the inner beliefs that had gotten me in this mess.  I was also still partly in denial that I had anxiety despite the diagnosis, and part of this was persisting shame.  I had to first and foremost tackle the inner voice saying “this is all your fault”, “you made this up”, “go back to work”.  The voice was still there.  But this time I ignored it.  I challenged it.  

The recipe was clear: put my health and myself first, and do the things that I like.  Re-establishing a meaningful existence through new activities, whether they are pleasurable or routine, is key to recovery, as much as this sounds like a lot of effort at a time when we are vulnerable and just want to give up.  Anxiety, like depression, can make us lose our purpose and reasons to live.  Being reminded of the reasons why we live is the cure.  Finding meaning in life again makes us simply not want to be stressed, so that we don’t miss a single day of the rest of our existence.  The time had come for me to start being me again, the person that I had lost in my never-ending chase through school and career.  For the first time in my adult life I made the conscious decision to start truly defining myself more based on who I am outside of work, outside of achievements and goals.  It was time to start living life for me.  I started writing down all the hobbies I used to have, the things that used to give me meaning.  Pretty soon I had a list of new activities that would help me be myself again.  

One activity was to re-discover my painting and drawing hobby.  Art had always been a huge part of my life.  I had started with watercolours as a child, moving on to acrylics as a teenager then oils as an adult – until, suddenly it all came to a screeching halt once my career got busy.  I hadn’t painted in 15 years.  But the amazing thing about natural talents is that we never loose them.  We are born with them, they are literally in our DNA and they will always be part of us.  Picking up drawing and painting again reminded me of what I am good at, and how giving up my hobby meant that I had accidentally “killed” a big part of myself for a long time.  Now I was bringing it back to life.

There is a psychological term called “flow” which is a state that your brain enters when it does something it enjoys immensely.  During flow, we lose sense of time and feel both happy and content, not caring about the past or the future because nothing else matters in that moment.  Picking up painting again reminded me of what it felt like to feel alive right now, regardless of what is to come.  What makes you flow? 

I also realised that there was so much indoor gardening I could do, even in my tiny London studio flat, if only I could find the right types of plants.  I now have at least 15 plants in my flat who depend on me on a daily basis. But there is a difference between survival and thriving.  Plants can tell if their owner wants to simply keep them alive as opposed to help them thrive, help them become something more.  Today we treat indoor plants almost as consumables, which is also how we treat them out in nature, in the rainforests that we burn down and habitats we are destroying.  No life form should ever be treated as a consumable, even the ones we eat.  Even a common, cheap plant is a complex individual with their own special needs, whether it is a leaf of spinach or a palm tree. It takes time, observation and patience to actually develop a relationship with your plant in order to understand what it needs in a given moment, a given season or life stage.  It takes getting to know your plant.  I think that living plants, even in supermarkets, should be much more expensive and come with full adoption rights: the right to “a good family who will care for me”.  It would be a positive environmental and humanistic message to our young generation.  A message that not everything is a “thing”, not everything is expendable.  People would start appreciating the rights of every life form on the planet, and more respectful of our fragile ecosystems.  Every once in a while, Plant Social Services would visit peoples’ homes to rate how well the plants are doing and if there are any cases of neglect and malnourishment.  They would give a holistic assessment of the situation, caring not only about the plant but the plant owner as well, understanding what life struggles they are going through, and which are being reflected in their plant’s health.  It could be a new “plant-assisted psychotherapy” discipline.  People are surprised when I tell them that I manage to get my orchids to flower and my citrus trees to produce flowers and fruit, sometimes even multiple times a year, which plants only do if they are extremely happy.  But the recipe is simple: when you take care of a plant you are giving love, and if you’ve done a good job, plants reward you with gifts.  You give and you get back.  You are now connected with the world. 

My relationships with people had been suffering as well.  Anxiety had made me unhappy, irritable and with very small reserves of “positive energy” that I could give back to others.  It had also put up a wall around me, and I was unable to accept positive energy from other people.  This changed once I started finding out more about my family’s history.  Ironically, the closer to people we get, the closer we get to ourselves.  Reading the biographies of my uncle and grandfather helped me understand where I had come from and who I was. Taking a DNA test allowed me to understand my roots and establish a spiritual connection with the distant past.  I would never have imagined I was a quarter Italian, or even 3% Iranian.  I contacted some of my DNA matches online and ended up expanding my extended family across the globe.  Pretty soon I realised that we are all actually connected.  Not just all people, but all living things, we have a common biological ancestor called Luca.  LUCA is actually an acronym that stands for Last Universal Common Ancestor, a unicellular Achaea-like microbe that lived about 3.5 billion years ago.  It was part animal and part plant according to its biochemistry, and may have lived close to hydrothermal vents in the dark depths of the ocean, using the heat coming out of the earth’s core as a source of energy. Every living thing on the planet today, including us, has evolved from this tiny, insignificant organism.  It may be a simple fact that we are being taught at biology, but few of us realise the significance of this, that it essentially means that we are all family on this planet.  There is something deeply spiritual and powerful in this realisation, and it needs to happen in all of us if we can have half a chance of reversing the damage we are inflicting all around us. 

As our lives become busier and we become stressed there is an increasing risk that we become even more disconnected from the rest of the world and even more selfish, able to inflict far greater damage on the planet and people around us without even realising it. This is a moment of reckoning for humanity.

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