The last six months have pushed many individuals beyond their known limits. The combination of shock, fear, and having to pivot, learn new skills, physically distance, and make spontaneous decisions on the fly, has been the perfect cocktail for a new type of burnout - a burnout with a tremendous purpose to awaken.
Most of us are working longer hours and have muddled boundaries as a result of working from home. Those with young children at home - gold medals are in order.
Having experienced burnout (what I refer to as breaking open), I can only share my own personal perspective. I will emphasize this was one of the most difficult, yet most transformative experiences of my life. It wasn’t pretty nor easy. And as with any experience that drops us to our knees, I am not the same person I used to be. That's a good thing - for me anyway.
Burnout is not what it appears to be on the surface. Most of us believe it is a condition of collapse, a break-down, an inability to cope, and most importantly, something that is caused by factors outside of ourselves. This limited understanding has created a huge stigma along with a massive amount of shame for those on this path. Last year, the WHO modified their previous definition of burnout: "a state of vital exhaustion," (1), to ''an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress....and burnout is not a medical condition" (2). I personally prefer the former description, but I do agree that burnout is not a medical condition, it is rather a spiritual condition. What I mean by spiritual is our innate wisdom, the part of us that knows how to heal. This is a foundational concept of Naturopathic Medicine known as the Vis Medicatrix Naturae = The Healing Power of Nature. We all have it without exception.
The change in the WHO's definition of burnout inadvertently overlooks the true purpose and cause of burnout by saying it is an 'occupational phenomenon." This ultimately contributes to our very broken system of sick care. That is, a system where we blame and unconsciously reinforce a dependency on anything or anyone outside of ourselves for our well-being. A litigious society is in turn being promoted.
Good intentions are (likely) behind the WHO's modified description as an attempt to encourage employers to be more accountable in how employees are treated, but I can't help see the blame perspective deepening. Please don't misunderstand me, I unequivocally know that poor leadership, excessive demands, unfairness and toxic work environments contribute to states of burnout - but in my experience, they are not the root cause.
Instead, I consider the cause of burnout to be the expansion of our inner vitality, an awakening so to speak - and burnout is a symptom of this very powerful and purposeful process. Referring to the WHO's earlier description of burnout "a state of vital exhaustion," it is clear there is an awareness that burnout is connected to something within ourselves. Vitality is the essential and unseen life energy that exists within each of us. It is not something we can measure through lab tests or imaging, it is a felt sense. And the word 'state' is also accurate in conveying how energy flows and shifts during the experience of burnout. That is; it is transitory - our awareness of self is evolving. So what feels and seems like a painful collapse, is actually the expansion of our inner essence. We are emptying, releasing old beliefs, patterns and perspectives that no longer resonate with who we are at our essence.
In my personal experience, part of this shedding of what no longer aligned for me, included letting go of false needs ie to be right, to be acknowledged by 'other.' This process was deeply challenging and also, the most healing thing I could do for myself especially when it came to re-discovering the person named Alexia Georgousis post burnout. Was this simply a lesson in humility? Maybe, maybe not. Did I feel stigmatized? Yes - by others and especiallymyself - for a while at least. Over time, I began to be willing to see everything differently. And this willingness continues to carry me forwards to this day. Breaking open became an incredibly purposeful journey. I chose to trust my inner self over my outer (false) self. I also committed to receiving support and professional help because the state of burnout, once it really sinks its teeth into you, is extremely serious. It impacts every level of our being - mental, emotional, physical and spiritual, which is why burnout is not relieved by rest alone.
For the nervous system, the state of burnout is akin to having the hard drive of your computer crash. The pathways and synapses are a hot mess, and you feel the pain of standing in the crumbled remnants of who you used to be. However, unlike a computer's hard drive, we humans have a remarkable ability to heal by creating new pathways of connection to reset ourselves from within.
My invitation to you is to consider the last six months as a type of spiritual or conscious initiation. We have been put in a pressure cooker as individuals and as a collective. What better way to guide so many human beings into deepening self awareness? Many structures and systems have collapsed, revealing deficits and gaps. They were always there, we just preferred not to notice them. This is also true of the structures and systems in our personal lives. That is; all of our relationships have been shoved under a proverbial microscope to be tested, poked and prodded. Shaking us up and waking us up to what really matters in our lives - a very necessary step to awakening. The relationships tested have included those we have with loved ones, our work environments, and also our relationships to money, our environment, the Earth, and the most essential relationship of all - our relationship to ourselves.
As we continue to be with our experiences during this time of uncertainty, there may be feelings of fatigue, overwhelm, depletion, shame, and disconnect - all of which may be part of the state of burnout. But rather than believe you are collapsing, be willing to see yourself in a state of transition, where your inner awareness is surfacing. This is happening for you, not to you, and this emergence is helping you live from a place of interconnectedness with all of life.
The state of burnout is no laughing matter. There can be serious consequences when supports are not in place. It is important to ask for help, share your experience, speak with someone, slow down, and take extra care of yourself. This discovery of your new way of relating to yourself takes time and patience. The real you is emerging,
You are breaking open not breaking down.
Disclaimer: In reading this blog post you agree not to use this blog post as medical advice, to treat any medical condition in either yourself or others. Consult your own naturopathic doctor or other health care practitioner for any medical issues you may be experiencing. Under no circumstances shall Alexia Georgousis be responsible for damages arising from use of this blog.
3. Paul S.Mueller et al.. Religious Involvement, Spirituality, and Medicine: Implications for Clinical Practice Mayo Clinic Proceedings Volume 76, Issue 12, December 2001, Pages 1225-1235
As with many of my colleagues, I offer holistic naturopathic services and have a special interest in working with individuals to prevent and recover from burnout.