Burnout symptoms were knocking at my door ten years before my actual collapse. I say collapse because that’s how it felt at the time. In fact, I remember the start of my unravelling was during a tennis match. I was about to serve when a wave of fatigue hit me so hard, I nearly fell to my knees. I knew it wasn’t related to the immediate activity, rather it was cumulative and deep. I felt as if I was floating out of my body. There was a hollow fragility to my being, like an empty shell. In that moment, my ability to make an effort vanished and within a few days I took a leave from work. I knew something had changed inside of me and I was terrified.
I have since learned burnout is known to have a gradual, insidious onset. I didn’t see it coming although a part of me knew it was there in the background, like a stealth predator tracking me, waiting for the perfect moment to attack. In the years prior to my unravelling, I had waves of irritability, anxiety and apathy. I chalked them up to be consequences of a busy life. As a medical professional I was not concerned with my symptoms. I didn’t notice the frequency of my mood swings were increasing until a colleague made mention. And although I was aware of crying more often than usual, over little things, I didn’t really think much of it at all. Sure, I had some stress going on but it wasn’t extreme. I wasn’t typically someone who was destabilized easily. I could handle a lot and perhaps that was the problem. My self-care regime was quite stellar or so I thought. I meditated, I journaled, I had fun, I rested, I spent time with loved ones, I took vacations, I would accept help, I could say no, I had creative hobbies, I ate well and I exercised regularly. So, what happened?!
I was breaking open, that’s what happened. It took me the better part of a year to recover (and discover) my new post burnout self. I didn't do it alone. I was extremely fortunate to have the help and support of my family, friends and a variety of health care professionals. The shift from burning out to breaking open came to me while preparing a presentation for a naturopathic medical conference. Ironically, my topic was about burnout and compassion fatigue. Throughout my recovery something was not sitting right for me as to why this was happening. I had the sneaking suspicion there was much more to this so-called condition. I didn’t believe it was a mere coincidence that many people of varying ages and professions suffer from burnout. I also didn’t believe burnout was caused overdoing or having a demanding job. Yes, those may be contributing factors, but not the root cause. There was something bigger at play. Then while preparing my slides for the conference, I had the impulse to look at whether burnout was listed in the world-renowned International Classification of Diseases, a series of codes used for health insurance claims, collecting statistics and monitoring epidemics. Sure enough, it was; “ICD 73.0 Burnout: A state of vital exhaustion.”1 As soon as I read those words, I felt a surge of calm, powerful energy inside of me, a knowingness. This was the missing piece!
To explain, a few definitions are needed:
- State: “A mode or condition of being.”2,3
- Being: “Something that exists.”4
- Vital: “Essential, indispensable for continuance of life.”5
- Vital Force: “The energy or spirit which animates living creatures; the soul”6
- Vitality: “The capacity to live, grow or develop” 7
- Burn-out: “Nervous breakdown, blowout, collapse, depletion”8
- Break Open: “Come open suddenly and violently, as if from internal pressure.”9
Other names for vital force or vitality include: “breath, divine spark”10, life force, essence, innate wisdom, nature, God, Great Mystery or Prana. Whatever “it” is called is not important, but what is important is to realize that vitality is not measured by a lab test or imaging. It is a felt sense – the unseen energy that enlivens us.
So, for me burnout became the cluster of symptoms caused by my “vital being” needing to expand. The beliefs, titles and roles of who I thought I was, along with old patterns had to be shattered in order for me to know my true inner self. I was being forced to see myself beyond superficial concepts. Who was I without all of this?
Breaking open was a purposeful journey of my conscious self and it was happening for me rather than to me. The feeling of collapse was like shedding a chrysalis or a coat that doesn’t fit anymore. Challenging to release but once it's off there is a freedom unlike any other. It wasn’t easy. It was uncomfortable and painful. I felt lost and disoriented while I grieved my old self and stepped cautiously into my unknown, new self. Yet, this process was so deeply healing and transformative. Had I known this from the start, I’d like to believe my recovery would have been easier. I will never know, but I do believe this shift in perspective may help others. For myself, feelings of victimization, guilt and shame transformed into feelings of empowerment, purpose and gratitude. Discovering my new, more expansive self has been and continues to be extremely rewarding. I now trust myself implicitly and am finally getting to know who I really am.
My hope with sharing my story is that others may be helped by considering burnout as the symptom(s) caused by our vital essence needing to expand. What better way to wake us up as a collective than by forcing us to stop and discover who we really are as part of our conscious evolution? We are not burning out – we are breaking open!
Disclaimer: In reading this blog, you agree not to use this blog 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.