Recovering from burnout
By: Claire Rogers (United Kingdom)
I didn’t recognise the signs that I was heading towards burnout until I found myself suffering from that first panic attack. Pre-panic attack I projected an image of confidence and strength to colleagues, senior management, my staff and clients; however, I was like a duck – smooth and calm on the surface, yet always frantically kicking my feet below the surface. At the time, I worked for an American Fortune 100 company, and like many individuals in today’s society, I operated in a global environment accommodating multiple time zones, leading me to ‘always being on’ – meaning being contactable 24/7. Furthermore, constant re-structuring equated to increased working hours and unsustainable workloads, which saw me go from being an ambitious perfectionist and a high performer to becoming a highly stressed, burned out, overworked leader.
And my burnout happened in the blink of an eye. I didn’t see it coming. It happened on a Saturday morning. It was grey outside and I was exhausted. I couldn’t seem to wake up. I felt like I was jet lagged. Dazed and Confused. And I had to get it together and head to my 5 year old nephews birthday party with my husband. I didn’t want to go but I didn’t have a choice.
I walked into this dingy townhall an hour outside of London where I was greeted by 15 hyperactive kids running around playing with their nerf guns. I looked the part – I was dressed up pretty and I played the part. I put a big smile on my face and brought my extroverted personality out. But inside something was wrong. I could feel it. I didn’t know what was wrong, but something was off. And that off feeling was making me feel really unnerved. Despite this I managed to keep it together. I shined my light on the parents in the room and engaged and chatted with them.
A few hours later we could finally escape. Thank God. My hubby and I started to drive home and that’s when it happened. We were talking about random stuff. Nothing too serious. When all of a sudden I felt like someone had put a tight elastic band around my chest and was slowly squeezing the life out of me. My arms and legs started to go numb. My hands and feet started to tingle with pins and needles. I started to hyperventilate. I couldn’t breathe. I frantically tried to pull air into my chest. I looked down at my chest where I could quite literally see my heart pounding away frantically. My body and mind is ravaged with overwhelming, mind blowing feeling of terror.
I’ve felt fear before, but this is next generation level fear.
Oh my God. I’m going to die.
I’m going to die right here in this car. I don’t want to die. I’ve got so much more I want to do.
Something clicks in my mind. Something inside me tells me I’m having a panic attack. I don’t know how I know. I just know. Knowing doesn’t make it easier. I’m still ravaged with overwhelming feelings of terror. And the terror lasts about 30 minutes.
By the time we get home I’m a broken, fragile wreck. And I can’t snap out of it. That tenacious, resilient, passionate girl that I used to be is gone. She’s left the building and isn’t coming back. I can’t find her. I can’t dig deep and get her back to get back up again; she’s gone.
And she’s gone for 18 months. Instead this new girl moves in. And this new girl is terrified. Every day I wake up terrified. I shake uncontrollably. My heart is constantly pounding in overdrive. My body and mind are constantly flooded with overwhelming mind blowing feelings of fear. I’m perpetually terrified of when the next panic attack is going to strike. And because of this I develop a fear or fear itself. I go from being a girl that has trekked across the globe to becoming a girl that’s scared to walk into Starbucks for fear of not being able to open my mouth to speak and for fear of collapsing in a panic attack right there in the middle of the coffee shop.
And besides my husband and mum, I don’t tell anyone what’s going on because I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I thought I was weak. I thought I would be fired. I thought it was just me.
And so I hide the private world of hell I’m living in. Emotionally I’m in pain. Mentally I’m depressed. Spiritually I’m stressed. Yet physically, I smile. I dress the part. I act the part. I deserve an academy award.
That first panic attack led to further panic attacks which eventually led me to sink into my own private world of hell – chronic fear, anxiety and depression, which lasted 18 months.
Ultimately, I was able to recover my mental health by putting myself through my own intense therapy of one. Meaning, I didn’t see a therapist, but I put myself through my own individual therapy.
I unpicked, pulled apart and dissected every single moment of my life and went to those dark places that I did not want to go to in my mind. I shone a light on all of the darkness, all of the sadness, all of the fear that I had accumulated over my life – trauma that I had previously chosen to ignore, and I called myself out on my own limiting beliefs and self-sabotaging behaviours. I also re-evaluated my desire to climb the corporate ladder.
I read hundreds of books in self-help, personal development, neuroscience, philosophy, mindset, business, success to spirituality and everything in between. I took courses and I studied. My ego was already crushed from the anxiety and depression and so I was a sponge. I soaked up all the knowledge and I applied it. I mastered it and eventually with time I built myself back up again to be a new and a better person. And as I did, the panic attacks, anxiety and depression left me.
My recommendation to anyone going through panic attacks, anxiety or depression is to ask for help. I didn’t ask for help and as a result I made things harder on myself. I also recommend putting yourself through therapy – either with someone or on your own, like I did. Analysing and dissecting your life, behaviours and beliefs is extremely cathartic. And although it’s tough, going to those dark places – it’s worth it, because you eventually get to the light, which makes it all worth it.