Your Body Holds the Secrets to Avoiding Burnout

By Alicia J. Journey

In a new landscape that is changing every minute, we are being forced to keep up, stay hypervigilant and quickly adapt. This is all a perfect recipe for burnout if we don’t become aware of the signs and symptoms before it’s too late. It can be tempting just to focus on what we can control, which for many of us is our work, and to pour ourselves into it without processing our mental and emotional stress. This can work in the short term, but in the long term, it is a recipe for burnout. If we do not heed the warning signs that our mind, body and emotions are sending us, we risk another pandemic, mass burnout.

I know the journey to burnout out well, but I am thankful that I also know the journey back. And I am here to tell you there is hope and another way not just to survive but to thrive. In 2013, I had just gone through a divorce and had a 2-year-old and a 7-year-old at home. I had just left my job as a prosecutor and opened my own law practice. I have epilepsy, and my seizures became more and more frequent, but I chalked that up to giving birth and hormones. And then, I started having panic attacks. I had no idea what they were. I truly thought I was going to die. Up until that point, I had nerves of steel. I could walk into a courtroom, look a murderer in the eye, and dismantle him on cross-examination. I could walk into a prison armed only with my skirt, high heels and a notepad without even flinching. Nothing had ever fazed me, but now, I was debilitated by panic attacks. I felt weak and stupid.

How could I let my emotions get the best of me? How could I be so weak-minded? It was just a little stress. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps, Alicia. Suck it up, buttercup. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. These were all phrases I told myself during this time.

I didn’t think I could stop going, and I didn’t want to appear helpless or weak. So, I kept pushing, grinding and ignoring the signs my body was giving me that something wasn’t working. I started to cope in the only ways I knew at the time. My occasional glass of wine turned into a couple of glasses of bourbon, my one cup of coffee a day turned into six, I threw myself into my work, I started working out obsessively, I stopped eating regularly, and I wasn’t sleeping more than three hours per night. I was truly miserable. I was not a present mom, and I was a very distracted attorney. I felt completely dead inside. The only thing I actually felt during that time was stress.

At this point, the panic attacks and seizures ruled my life. I was at their mercy. I was also constantly sick. I had back-to-back strep throat and sinus infections. Steroids and antibiotics were consistently in my system. This lasted for about a year or so. My coping mechanisms were the Band-aid that kept everything from falling apart, or so I thought.

In 2015, I couldn’t ignore the signs and symptoms any longer. On the day after a judge granted my restraining order against my former husband, it all started. That morning, I woke up, got the kids off to summer camp, came home and started having grand mal seizures back-to-back. I was throwing up uncontrollably. I was completely incapacitated. This continued for the next two years. I was having thirty grand mal seizures a day. My adrenals were completely shot. My nervous system was on hyperdrive, which meant even wind felt like someone was holding a blow torch to my skin. Taking a shower or brushing my teeth brought me to tears from the pain. I had two Bell’s palsy strokes during this time that left me paralyzed on the entire right side of my body for weeks. I was terrified and confused. Doctors had no answers for me.

So, when I was finally sitting in the doctor’s office in 2017, and he said the words, “we found cancerous cells in your uterus. Alicia, you have cancer,” I started crying and laughing simultaneously. I had a huge smile on my face. The doctor looked at me like I had lost my mind. He asked me if I was okay. I was fine. The laughter came from relief. I could finally put a name to my tormentor. In that moment, I made a promise to myself. I was no longer going to betray my body. I was no longer going to ignore the secrets it held for me. I knew intuitively that I had arrived here from stress. I had been feeding my body a strict diet of unrelenting stress for the last ten years, and it had become toxic. The poison pill of stress that I had given myself daily through the thoughts I allowed in, the food I ate, the negative self-talk, and the unprocessed trauma had built up in my system and nearly had the last say.

Since that time, I have dedicated myself to recovery and to understanding how I got to where I was, so that I never have to go back there again. It has been a long, winding road, and I am still learning every day. But the lessons I learned during that period of my life were nothing short of a miracle. I went through an identity crisis. Who was I when I could no longer “do” or accomplish? Who was I if I was not achieving? Who was I if I wasn’t receiving accolades from others? Who was I if I wasn’t an attorney? In answering these questions, I found myself. The gift of nearly dying gave me my life back.

Globally and individually, we are in an identity crisis right now. We are being forced to ask the deeper questions about who we are without outside influences. We are being forced to slow down. However, we are also experiencing unprecedented levels of stress. It doesn’t matter who you are; this global pandemic is impacting you. This is on top of the already high levels of stress that we, as attorneys endure due to our profession. In addition, we are dealing with remote work, homeschooling our kids, isolation, constantly changing court procedures, the loss of loved ones or the fear of losing loved ones, racial inequity coming to a boil and navigating the unknown over an extended period of time. This is the perfect recipe for another pandemic, mass burnout.

What can we do to act preventively during this time in order to avoid burnout? Spend time listening. Your body holds the answers. What is it telling you right now? Allow your body to tell you what it needs. And even if you don’t know exactly what it needs, it will tell you that you need to pay attention and search for answers. Our bodies will whisper and wait for us to listen. If we do not heed the whispers, it will yell until we have no other choice. In these unprecedented times, we must allow ourselves to slow down. We must acknowledge our mental, emotional and physical needs. Then, we must adjust accordingly. If we do not take radical action to willingly put our health and well-being first and foremost during this time, we risk being forced to through burnout or illness. It is my hope that everyone can benefit from the lessons I learned. This is why I share my story.