The difference between detachment and burnout: helpful or helpless

This week I’ve been challenged by my gut in so many ways:

  • lethargy and fatigue;
  • brain fog;
  • pain and discomfort;
  • bloating; and
  • even a slight fever and headache yesterday.

I’d like to say it’s self-inflicted, but that’s not the whole story.

In my body: everything is everything. My gut and my nervous system are entangled, as well as my immune system. When one of them feels threatened, the other two also go into their respective response modes. So, it’s hardly surprising to me that I’ve taken a hit.

I could tell myself this is burnout and that I am helpless. Burnout tells me not to feel anything: it’s hyper-indifference.

That’s far from the truth.

Indifference looks like detachment, but it is not; indifference is simply no interest. Detachment is not absence of interest. Detachment is absolute interest, tremendous interest, but still with the capacity of non-clinging, Rajneesh

Facing the challenges of life:

The reality is that I started off Monday delving into a situation in my life that I have been studiously avoiding for months. I’d much rather ignore it’s existence than ask myself what role I played in creating this mess.

When I turned to some of the self-forgiveness exercises that I’ve learned in recent years, I could feel the brain-fog immediately setting in, my body started to feel weak and I had this sudden desire to go to bed and sleep.

Usually, that’s exactly what I would have done. Sleep it off and then when I feel better, allow myself to be distracted by working on something different.

But I’m finally learning enough about myself and my body to recognise the ways that I respond “under stress” – I adopt strategies of burnout and shutdown, letting myself off the hook.

Detachment is helpful; shutdown is helpless

I might tell myself it’s detachment: “I just don’t care.”

But that’s not the truth. The truth is I care too much. So much that it feels overwhelming!

And in order to restore a sense of balance and equilibrium, my body does the only thing it knows how: shutdown.

It’s like an overloaded Windows – let’s just reboot, we’ve run out of memory and cache.

Not particularly helpful in dealing with the challenges of life.

But an excellent survival strategy. I will live to fight another day.

Except another day comes, and I put off fighting again. And again.

Before you know it, you start to wonder where your ability to face the challenges of life have gone. It’s not proper detachment: now it’s total indifference to life. Nothing has flavour: my champagne is flat and my desserts are bland.

Soldiering on

In the past I would have said: “I’ll just soldier through this.”

I dont’ believe in that anymore, because I know the toll that soldiering on takes on my body. My mind may be strong enough to soldier through, but something’s got to give. And in my case, what gives is my body!

No more.

Self-awareness – I cannot emphasis enough the power of emotional intelligence and becoming aware of what your body is doing and saying.

Shutting down is my body’s defense response.

And as a survival mechanism it is 100% effective. I have survived every day of life so far!

But it’s not how I want to live my life.

Somewhere between soldiering on (leading to burnout) and shutting down (not dealing with today’s challenges) there is an alternative response.

Positive emotional detachment is not a state of indifference or passivity, and does not mean lack of interest or lack of feelings,Remez Sasson quotes, shutdown, parasympathetic rebound, stress, overwhelm, chronic illness

What can I do differently? Lie flat

It’s not like the Chinese movement of “tang ping” – which is opting out of the rat-race.

And yet, it is similar in some ways. It’s all about reseting the nervous system – in my case, allowing it to rest for a moment and then reactivating it out of shutdown.

I choose to lie on the floor, because I worry about falling asleep on the bed (quite often I end up doing sleepitation instead of meditation if I lie down!).

Most people, use the breath to relax from anxiety, and while I might choose to take a few breaths with a long slow exhale, my problem is not “relaxation”. My body’s survival mode is to relax SO MUCH that it goes all the way into shutdown.

In Polyvagal Theory, they would call this Parasympathetic Rebound – where you swing on the pendulum from full stress/fight/flight mode all the way into total dissociation and shutdown.
Like a possum that plays dead. Also knows as death-feigning for lizards.
Worst-case scenario – your heart stops because you literally shutdown. This is how someone dies of fright.

Not particularly useful as a response in the modern world!

Lying flat and just breathe:

So, my particular challenge is to come back from brain-fog and feeling absolute fatigue in my limbs and a strong desire to just sleep. And I use my breath and lying flat to “wake up”.

  • I start with a few short inhales and long exhales, allowing my body to relax.
  • I then switch over to long inhales and short exhales – which “wakes up” the nervous system.
  • I finally switch to what is called “balanced breathing” – which is breathing IN and OUT to the same count. For me, that’s a count of 5-in and 5-out. You might find it more comfortable to do it a count of 4 or 6. Just try and see what is most comfortable for you.

At all times, I’m breathing through my nose, rather than through my mouth. This helps to send a message to my nervous system of safety (consider that you would use breathing through your mouth when you’re running away from danger!).

Detachment doesn’t mean I’m trying less hard. It just means that fears and emotions that used to torment and paralyze me longer have the same power over me, Kelly Cultrone quotes

Back online and face my challenges:

The real challenge is that when I get up from the floor (anywhere from five to ten minutes), rather than finding something else to do, I made myself come right back to the work that triggered me into shutdown!

I can tell you that in order to finish that, I had to lie flat four times. It’s wasn’t one and done.

It was no more pleasant to continue working through it at the end than it was at the beginning.

The only difference is that this time I actually finished it. I didn’t burn out. I wish I could say I was effectively detached and unaffected – but that’s far from the truth!

Detachment – lack of attachment to the outcome – allows you to be wholly present and vulnerable. I struggle with this.

Chronic illness: learning to ride the waves

And, like I’ve said at the beginning – since then, I’ve also noticed a reaction in my body: yesterday I had a slight fever (inflammed and angry, perhaps?). Before that, I was really bloated in my belly, with discomfort.I’d love to blame that on food or an infection, but I have nothing to point to or blame.

I haven’t soldiered through the last two days, pushing myself hard. I gave myself permission between calls to rest momentarily. Yesterday, at the end of my last call, I gave myself permission to have a nap: I was wiped out!

Living with chronic illness can be challenging – especially as I realise that everything impacts everything. My mental and emotional health go hand-in-hand with my physical well-being.

When I get sick physically, my mental and emotional health are impacted. And when I have a mental or emotional challenge, it takes a toll on my body!

Thriving in spite of chronic illness is a journey: some weeks I’m out on my bike a couple of times a week, and other weeks taking the dogs for their daily walks is the most I want to do.

The more I practice self-awareness and notice how I respond to stress and life, the easier it gets.

It might be easier if I didn’t face my challenges head-on: but that’t not really who I am! I wish I could say I was detached from the outcome: but I’m heavily invested.

I want wholeness again. However many small steps it takes to get there.

Without a doubt: Well-being is an inside job!

Detachment is not about refusing to feel or not caring or turning away from those you love. Detachment is profoundly honest, grounded firmly in the truth of what is, Sharon Salzberg quotes

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