How anxiety leads to burnout

Through all the challenges in my life – and in all my attempts to deal with challenge, there has been but one thing that has soothed me above all else.

Despite the thousands of dollars spent on retreats and workshops and yoga and therapy and massage. Despite the many books and courses I have done. Despite all the tools and practices I have at my disposal – many of them that I now teach – there has been one enduring phenomenon that has worked regardless of the issue that I’m trying to fix at the time.

And that thing – the magic elixir that cures all ills – is heart-centered, vulnerable, glorious connection. Or, more specifically, the knowledge that I’m not alone in my struggles.

Through years and years of anxiety, through burnout, through autoimmune illness, through postnatal anxiety… the one thing that has softened my rigid body and mind is understanding – deeply in my body and bones – that to be experiencing pain is to be human. And there are others, just like me, feeling alone and tired and exhausted too.

And so for you dear ones who may have a little mate called anxiety in your life, here is what I want you to know – for sisterhood, for solidarity and for healing.

Recently, for no known reason, I have been experiencing an increase in anxious feelings in my body. Whether it’s my gut bacteria, my subconscious, the solar flares, the moon’s movement… no-one knows. And I’ve learned that it’s not important to get anxious about the cause.

And as I have witnessed the fear rising and the tension building… and noticed that gnawing, restless, empty feeling of anxiety in my body as the stress hormones coarse through my brains and make my brain and tummy flutter, I have come to see it in a new way.

As is the way with any journey, it is always cyclical… with days that are fluttery and biting and days that are less so. And as we circle back to the winters, to the fears, to the anxious feelings and nail-biting, we can witness it with renewed wisdom and understanding.

And like a series of frothy waves crashing on the shore, unveiling the truth, this bout of anxiety has given me a new vision of what it is that anxiety is to me.

First of all, I have realised a difficult truth to comprehend.

That most of my life – most of my accomplishments as well as most of my pain, has all been fuelled by anxious feelings in my body.

Anxiety is rewarded in our society – high functioning anxious people are often lauded for being efficient and outstanding across multiple areas of life. People used to look at my CV and then look dubiously up and say ‘how old are you, again?’. Flattery, perhaps, but not enough to quell my inner fretting.

My fretting can be summed up with one simple question that has governed most of my adult life – ‘am I doing it right?’. I’ve always felt in my body a distinct sense that everyone else is doing it right, and I, flailing around, am not.

Except that on the outside, I look like one of the most functional, high performing individuals there is.

Just this morning when I was confessing to a friend that if I had another child, I’m not sure I could cope… in my mind the early days of becoming a mother were so anxiety inducing that I quiver at the thought of them. And yet she reminded me that to everyone else, I looked like I was loving life – a calm effigy of motherhood floating through my days.

Another example.

Such is the depth of my unworthiness that I often think to myself ‘but, did I really work hard enough to burn out?’

I know, ridiculous.

For anyone who has every experienced anxiety – or, a flighty amygdala over-prone to releasing stress hormones at the drop of the hat – you will be familiar with these questions.

These musings of our perceived inadequacies when everyone else is seemingly loving life.

So anxiety has helped me, fuelled, me, to achieve almost everything I am proud of in this lifetime.

It has also perpetually called me back to take good care of myself. It has allowed me to develop my intuitive ability to help others. It has warned me when there is a situation that will not serve me. It has helped me to let go of places, relationships and activities that don’t serve me.

It has been responsible for almost everything I’ve worked towards – and it’s only recently that I have begun being able to discern between things I actually desire (at my deepest subconcsious level) and those that I fear not doing.

It is in this dance, also, that I have come to understand that sometimes there is no barrier between the two. Things I have done out of fear have always served me in some way, if only to highlight the fear itself.

And those are all amazing, wonderful things. Thank you, dear anxiety, for pushing me so.

I’ve been reading Sarah Wilson’s outstanding book on anxiety – First We Make the Beast Beautiful (essential reading for stress heads), where she argues that it is in the crippling anxiety, the rock bottom, the panic attacks, the lying awake on the cold bathroom floor at 4am moments that allow us to finally surrender. To let go. And let life, and grace, come in and pick us up.

In my life, this has certainly been true. In every moment of gripping so tightly and squashing emotions so earnestly, I have, at some point, allowed myself to let go and be carried, supported by others or something greater.

And if it weren’t for those moments, I may just have spent my life gripping, squashing, resisting, controlling… suspended half way between living and not. Unable, ever to experience the moments where we allow love to come flooding into our cold extremities and our caged-up hearts.

And so this knowledge confuses me immensely because isn’t anxiety supposed to be something that is bad? Something to be managed and quelled and medicated?

Certainly just as anxiety has led me to great heights – including landing me in this glorious life that I now get to inhabit – it has also led me to crushing, exhausting, lows.

Eating to the point of numbness for years at a time, causing great suffering within my body and mind in a society where to overeat is considered not a self compassionate act of soothing, but a monumental failure of willpower.

Eating, to me, stopped me feeling the flighty feelings in my tummy. The more I could fill it, the more density I could feel momentarily in my body.

Alcohol had the same effect, only the anxiety would return tenfold the next day.

And then there’s the illness. The constant production of stress hormones and my perceived inability to handle them led to not just colds and tummy bugs – but glandular fever, shingles, autoimmunity, chronic fatigue.

What I know now was that I needed these periods of illness and I conspired to create them so that I could have a rest from feeling anxious.

And therein is the relationship between stress and burnout. On some level, we need burnout. Because it gives us a break from life and from anxiety. When we have nothing left in the tank, there is respite from the gnawing.

Anxiety has, at times, caused me to express anger and frustration to those who I love most. It has made me cancel coffee dates with friends, it has made me flaky at best, and at worst, kind of rude. It has stopped me from fully being in the moments where I truly wanted to be present. It has prevented me (maybe thankfully) from being able to hold other people’s anxiety because sometimes I just want to scream out that I can’t handle any more anxiety in my own body – and as an empath, I FEEL EVERYTHING YOU FEEL.

And most painfully, it has made me a striver. Constantly on the move to the next thing, the next activity, the next relationship, the next job. Running away from the feelings in my body and the mess in my mind that would, like a barnacle, follow me wherever I went.

So there is the truth of it. That where I am right now is in a state of understanding that anxiety is neither good or bad, but it is something that is in my life. It is both internal and external to me. It is present and not. It is life-giving and life-leeching.

The knowledge and acceptance of this and the role that my little mate has played in my life does not mean I choose not to use the many, many tools I have at my disposal to calm my mind and body and return from my desperate grasping at externalities to the gentle and compassionate witnessing of my inner world.

For me, the tools that have been most effective are those that can be found within a 5 foot radius of me at all times. Meditation, amygdala retraining, deep abdominal breathing, re-embodiment and grounding through movement, having deep conversations with others, nature, sleeping well and laughing and loving, a lot.

Recently, I’ve taken to spending more quality time with myself.

Anxiety has made me for many years want to flee my body and mind – self disconnection and self abandonment reinforcing the very fears that keep me up at night.

And so I’ve been practicing just holding my hand on my heart, feeling my heart start to soften and saying gently ‘I’m here with you, I’m sorry I left before but I’m not going anywhere now. You can express whatever you need to, and I won’t go anywhere’. As I’ve started shifting what I teach to be less about self care and more about self allowing and self accepting, I have been able to witness the profound impact on my life of just being there with ourselves, no matter what feelings we have.

Expression, I believe, is a right that we have forgotten that we own. Feelings cannot overtake us like a tsunami if they are truly expressed and responded to compassionately.

As I’ve taken this journey, I have witnessed an exponential growth in my ability to hold the very large feelings of my daughter as she grapples with the very same things at nearly two years of age. Ditto with my clients.

But the intention with which I engage these all of these tools has changed. From one of trying to fix myself, to cure anxiety, to one of working with these energies that have, for whatever reason, followed me as I’ve muddled through life.

And in doing so I’ve gotten more comfortable with sharing my experience – knowing that the more we talk about these complexities and roll them around our tongues and heads together, the more we are able to cope on those days when the feelings get too big and we think the only way out is to ‘do’.

So know this, my love. You are never alone. Not least because you can be with yourself first and foremost. And also because your sisters and fellow humans are hurting too.

It is in the hurting that we make tweaks and refinements to make life better one tiny pivot at a time. It is in the hurting that we connect. It is in the hurting that we let go. It is in the hurting that we display our very human-ness on a daily basis.

With much love,

Meg xo

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