I was sat at my computer trying to slow down my breathing while my heart pounded in my chest. My hands began to tingle and my fingers curled into clawed fists. I tried to speak but my jaw felt as though it had been detached from my body, as if my face was melting. I could barely move my chin to speak and the little movement I had felt as though I was trying to chew on an angry wasp. Whilst gasping for breath, my body released a flood of emotions an tears making it impossible to communicate in anything more than grunts.
It was a panic attack. I’d heard of panic attacks and they seemed really simple. Just slow down your breath or breathe into a paper bag. It can’t be that difficult.
In the moment, I can honestly say that it felt like I was dying. My face was contorted and my arms were going numb from the lack of circulation. I couldn’t speak.I read the symptoms and could only assume that I was having a stroke (and this thought is not a reassuring one).
It came from nowhere and I can’t give a reason for why it started with any certainty. It would be much easier to understand if I was being chased by a polar bear or stood on the top of a burning skyscraper. But I wasn’t. I was working at home whilst drinking a cup of tea, my last day working before a week long holiday. To all intents and purposes, my day should have been a relaxing one.
That was six weeks ago.
In the aftermath of the attack (once the ambulance had been called and the paramedic had given me the green light), I was physically and emotionally exhausted. It feels as though my stress threshold has plummeted and seemingly small events can cause significant wobbles. The slightest disruptions can cause emotional spirals not to mention the impact of the bigger disruptions (Brexit anyone?). My ability to make decisions (which wasn’t a strength to begin with) has completely evaporated.
I’ve now realised that panic attacks were just a symptom of the wider problem and that the chronic levels of stress within my life have accumulated until the body has physically begun to crumble beneath the strain. I’d reached the point of burnout and the panic response was body’s way of forcing me to shut down.
Over the past six weeks I’ve had to step away from the life I knew, to unpick the behaviours that have resulted in this burnout and to shut down the computing system which has become emotionally overwhelmed. This process would be easy if the human brain had an ‘off-switch’ or button that could reset the brain’s factory settings. But this button doesn’t exist and the switch-off process has required consistent effort over time.
Unlike a computer, the brain may not want to be switched off and I’ve found myself fighting against becoming more relaxed, finding new problems to solve and additional projects to occupy myself. Ultimately I’ve realised that this voice, fighting against such relaxation, is probably one of the reasons I reached burnout in the first place and that maybe it’s time to stop listening to it.
It’s now time for me to start switching the computer back on and I have the opportunity to experiment with which software I should re-install and which wires to plug back in. Just like switching off, this is not a matter of pushing a button, in fact the computer may need to be rebuilt completely. Something in my life has to change or it’s likely that I will be facing burnout once again within a matter of weeks.
On a more positive note, I now have an opportunity for change and to experiment with the options available to me. To look under the stones in my mind and to see what’s hiding beneath, to learn about myself and to use this learning to make changes.
Do I know what these changes will be? Unfortunately not. The fact that my body had to reach burnout before I would listen to the warning signs suggests that it’s all to easy for me to put my wellbeing on the back burner, and that is something that I need to remain mindful of in the future (Is this just me?).
Recovery will take time and I understand now that there is no silver bullet when it comes to mental wellbeing and any health improvements will be gradual. At the moment, the most important thing is for me to start taking steps the initial steps towards a healthier mind and body whilst giving myself the time and space to reflect on the options available to me.
I would like to invite you on this learning journey with me. Any ideas? What new things should I try? I’m all ears!