“What’s wrong with me?”
That was the first thought that came to mind when I collapsed while getting ready for a 6 a.m. flight.
It happened on a chilly Wednesday morning in March.
One of the many mornings my alarm clock would wake me up at 3:30 a.m. to my first stress episode of the day.
During those business travel mornings, there was no time for journaling or mindfulness morning rituals. The best description of my morning ritual back then was “the mad rush.”
Jump out of bed, shower, put on sunscreen, moisturizer, a pinstripe suit, my black Birkenstocks, and my business shoes in my carry-on, and hop in the car to drive the 30 miles to Sacramento International Airport.
And upon arrival, I had to run an additional stressful obstacle course: the drive up the six floors of the airport parking lot to the top, where I had a better chance of finding parking. Then a run to the elevator to get down to the third-floor bridge to go through security, then a run to the gate of my departing flight, heart racing, palms sweaty (while still checking my pockets to make sure I didn’t leave my cell phone in the X-ray machine of the TSA pre-check).
Except for that Wednesday morning, my body said enough.
As soon as I walked out of the shower and stepped into my bedroom, I fell flat on the beige carpet.
I don’t know how long I was unconscious, but it was clear that there was no way my body could handle the spiral driveway, the security lines, or the run to the gate that morning.
Never before had my body pulled a hard stop to my actions.
But the thing is, it gave me plenty of notifications that I was running on empty long before that epic collapse.
On top of my usual pains (heart palpitations, brain fog, anxiety, insomnia, drinking wine at the end of the day to relax), an intense pain in my lower back had been consistently getting in the way of what I enjoyed and what recharged my batteries.
I’d been passing on going out to dance salsa more times than not. I skipped the last two tango milongas and had to tone down my hikes, weight lifting, and group exercise classes.
My body was talking to me, but I wasn’t listening.
I was too busy beating myself up for its (seeming) “malfunctioning.” And that included my cognitive functioning.
It would take me almost two hours to read one of my manager’s critical emails and even longer to respond carefully. It was as if my life depended on making sure I’d give him no ammunition to take away my job or financial security.
And the more my focus and productivity diminished, the harder I’d beat myself up to whoop me back to tiptop performance levels—and the worst I felt.
Falling flat on my face was the cherry on the bitter cake that was my “American dream” life.
Because without the inside view of how living my life in stress mode affected me, the only narrative I had for that experience was to see it as a failure, a flaw, or a weakness.
A limiting belief that was even more evident when I compared myself to all these “blessed” people on Instagram. Unlike me, they seemed to handle their life demands beautifully.
I couldn’t help but question my “good enoughness” when looking at their perfect lives in their neat, perfect kitchens with granite countertops, while their perfect kids in the background were wearing matching outfits.
I was clearly not one of them.
I was a single, immigrant mom with a big, lofty job title and the responsibility of managing 13 states 6,500 miles away from home with no support.
Not to mention, unlike the “blessed people” on Instagram, I didn’t grow up privileged.
I had to work hard to fit in and live in this affluent suburb in a big house with granite countertops and a big car. I had to get a scholarship to go to university in England from Greece to study toxicology and develop drugs for cancer to prove “I’m worthy.” I had to move another 5,000 miles west to California to build a 20-year long, successful career in corporate healthcare.
The path to feeling good enough was long, exhausting, and futile.
But this is what I thought I had to do to relax and enjoy my life, finally.
So, falling flat on my face that morning was a rude awakening. It came to remind me that all of that was a façade.
I didn’t belong in that world. And my life (as good as it looked on the outside) was not the fulfilling life I dreamed of.
I was all alone, face on the floor, weeping, unable to keep up with the big house, the car, or the lofty job, feeling burnt out, weak, flawed, and broken.
Nothing reinforced the limiting belief that “burnout is a sign of weakness” more for me than being “the toxicologist that failed to protect myself from toxic stress.”
“It’s never too late to turn on the light.” ~ Sharon Salzberg
There’s one thing I didn’t realize on that fateful Wednesday morning:
And that’s how my brain functions under the compromised state of my stress response.
The backstory of my outward success was that I lived in fight or flight mode 24/7. There were countless threats an immigrant woman had to face in the male-dominated space of corporate America while running circles in my hamster wheel existence.
And it’s easy to mistake being under the influence of the neurochemicals of stress for too long for a personal flaw or a weakness.
Because by default, when our stress response gets activated, the part of our brain that we share with reptiles and mice (limbic brain) takes over, launching automatic reactions.
In the meantime, the brilliant, evolved brain (neocortex) that houses all of our great skills (like our creative problem-solving or critical thinking) goes offline for our survival.
Far from a flaw, this reflects our brain’s efficiency in mobilizing our systems for defense when facing an imminent threat.
We want our limbic brain to automatically launch our stress response when confronted with an imminent threat. Because when the fear alarm of our brain (amygdala) rings, an incredible cascade of events unfolds to prep us for necessary defense. It floods our bloodstream with adrenaline and cortisol and shuts down all our energy-demanding functions.
Still, that means that when we’re living in stress mode for too long, our immune, digestive, and cognitive functions go offline—hello brain fog.
This is our brain on stress, an invaluable survival mechanism that has kept us alive for millions of years. It helps us avoid getting hit by a truck when it cuts us off on the freeway or getting devoured by a mountain lion, should we encounter one while hiking in Yosemite.
But the response becomes maladaptive when the threat is the 6 a.m. flight we need to rush to, a critical email our manager just sent us, or our worries about the future.
We get stuck in a perpetual lockdown of our stress response, where we’re physically, emotionally, and cognitively impaired for survival.
And, by the way, my epic collapse was the “freeze” part of the response.
That morning, while facing the maze of stressors of my exhausting 80 percent business travel job, my heart rate dropped rapidly, my brain was deprived of oxygen, and my body felt numb. No wonder I fainted!
So, if you have ever fallen into the trap of the myth that burnout is a sign of weakness, I’m here to tell you that it’s not you.
It’s not your fault.
Burnout is not a sign of weakness.
And if you don’t believe me, let me tell you what an extensive scientific literature search revealed to me about who, in fact, are the most vulnerable populations to burnout:
>> The highly dedicated individuals, the best & the brightest. (Killian, 2008; Meyers & Fine, 2003)
>> The drivers and high achievers. (Shanafalt et.al, 2012)
>> The individuals with high expectations of self. (Figley, 2012)
>> The highly engaged individuals. (Julia Moeller et.al, 2018)
So, if you happen to be a human with high aspirations, you’re bound to feel burnt out at some point. You’re not alone, and you’re in good company.
But the first and most crucial step to avoid fully burning out when you start to feel burnt out is this: Don’t take it personally.
Now, you may be thinking, “Thanks, Tzeli, but how can I, in a practical sense, apply this insight in my life when my workload is overwhelming, or my kid(s)/spouse/manager is pulling me in a million different directions, and my brain’s acting like a squirrel?”
I get it. I felt the same way too.
But hear me out.
There are simple, practical antidotes you can lean on, some of which you can access in your body in as little as two minutes and some that take patience to cultivate.
Let’s talk about a potent one: the antidote to toxic myth #1:
As a toxicologist, I can tell you that “too much of anything can be bad,” aka toxic.
Even water in large quantities can dilute the sodium in your blood to the point that it becomes life-threatening.
The same applies to stress.
In small spurts, it improves our performance. But using it for too long exceeds our adaptation capacity.
The good news is that for most toxins, there’s an antidote.
And since what leads to burnout is a sustained fight or flight activation, interrupting the activation of our stress response is our task at hand.
So, for the toxic myth that burnout is a sign of weakness, the most potent antidote is self-compassion!
Self-compassion (the concern for alleviating our suffering) is a game-changer in our quest to avoid burning out when we feel burnt out.
I could tell you all about the benefits of self-compassion and how prominent researchers worldwide have proved that it reduces stress, anxiety, and depression, and boosts immune function, resilience, feelings of self-worth, and emotional intelligence. But what I want to tell you instead is what finally helped me bring it home to my life.
I realized that the problem isn’t that we don’t know how important it is to practice self-care, mindfulness, or self-compassion. But these practices have always seemed abstract, full of platitudes, and without practical instructions for implementing them in my life. (This is why I launched myndzen, to address this missing piece to the puzzle).
And when it comes to self-compassion, I realized that it’s as essential as a life-jacket when we need to escape a sinking ship.
Our current way of being (and thinking) is very much like a sinking ship, and it’s about time we take back control of how we relate to stressors to stop them from wreaking havoc on our body, mind, performance, relationships, or happiness.
But we will stay in stress mode until we give up fighting ourselves for how our brain reacts.
Dr. Kristin Neff, the world’s most prominent self-compassion researcher, helped me understand why. You see, our brain perceives self-judgment (aka beating ourselves up for feeling burnt out) as a threat to our self-concept. That means that even if we change jobs or walk away from toxic managers, relationships, or any stressor, self-judgment can keep us stuck on a sustained fight or flight activation.
And what’s worse, unlike a critical manager or a toxic friend, who we can leave behind at the end of the day, our inner critic is with us 24/7. (We might as well take our toxic manager to bed at night because there’s no escape from our inner critic).
Self-compassion breaks that cycle.
And I also learned from Dr. Neff that there are three steps to break the spell of our inner critic anytime we get overwhelmed by life’s shenanigans and automatically think, “What’s wrong with me?”
1. Mindfulness: Recognizing that that’s just a thought and choosing to become the non-judgmental observer of that thought.
2. Kindness: Choosing to treat ourselves as we would treat our best friend in a moment of suffering.
3. Recognition of our Common Humanity: We all fail and make mistakes, and indeed, all can become entrapped in a fight or flight activation.
When we feel exhausted, we may doubt that we can find time to practice these steps, but they’re just a different way of relating to what’s happening, another way to direct our energy.
No extra time is needed to follow them and tap into our innate capacity for self-compassion.
We’re simply taking back our energy (and time) from fighting, fleeing, or freezing and replacing them with mindfulness and kindness for our shared humanity.
What’s more, when we replace reflexively reacting to stressors with self-compassion, we begin building the muscle of changing how we respond to any stressor, whether that’s external (like one more deadline on our lap) or internal (like tension and anxiety).
We can then expand our capacity to replace:
>> tension and anxiety with a breathing technique,
>> the morning mad rush with a short journaling practice,
>> perfectionism with acceptance and awareness.
And with one thought, one breath, one practice, and one day at a time, everything begins to change.
Because then, whenever a stressor shows up on our path, we see them as notifications of what needs our attention to grow, evolve, and heal.
And it all begins by choosing to get in the way of the toxic myth that burnout is a sign of weakness.
That simple shift opens the door to returning to being our best friend to deal with the ups and downs of life grounded in our own strengths, free from illusions, and resourceful in our stewardship of what matters most.