Living Heart:full

A Year of Well-being over Well-doing

Living through this past year arguably felt like two years, not one! Originally, my intentions were to try to heal from burnout, seek to live with more intentionality, and explore what living holistically looks like. Thankfully, it seems I got what I prayed for! Yet it was far from easy, linear or clear; indeed as life should be. I had absolutely no definite plan and no concrete goals to achieve; I was simply too tired. I needed a miracle, and by the end of the year, a miracle is what I received…

Being someone who loves to set goals, plan, work diligently to achieve what I set out to do and put my heart into work I believe in, it killed me on the inside to reach the point of being unable to work, despite the willingness to. It’s as if my thinking brain shut down one day and just wouldn’t restart.

It took a couple months of inexplicable insomnia, physical fatigue, apathetic mood and frequent illnesses for me to finally discover that these were all psychosomatic symptoms of burnout. My mind, and consequently my body, were becoming too exhausted to function. I was forced by my own body to pull the brakes from work and take a hard look at my unsustainable workaholic lifestyle habits that had led to this burnout.

The Biology behind Burnout

So in efforts to physically heal, I resolved to learn what I can about the mind-body connection. Throughout the year, I explored the world of mental health, the psychology of well-being, as well as the physiology of stress, anxiety & burnout and how they manifest and affect the body. I discovered some unhealthy habits and behaviours I had that fed more stress and anxiety, and tried to replace them with healthier ones. I came to terms with the fact that good sleep, exercise and nutrition are simply non-negotiable to well-being (physically, mentally and emotionally) and cannot be sacrificed for anything else.

Here’s the gist of what I learned about the mind-body connection:

Our bodies exist in two states, each of which serves a function: a rest state (parasympathetic response) in which we calmly live our lives in peace, and an activated state (the sympathetic response, also known as the stress response or Flight/Fight/Freeze response) in which we generate energy in order to face danger and deal with difficult situations.

Our bodies have their own wisdom and a natural way of alternating between the two states. Whenever it perceives any given threat (whether physical or emotional), it activates the stress response and generates the energy you need to deal with the threat. When it perceives the threat is over, it restores calm in the body by triggering certain physical reactions in order to release the excess energy (like yawning, heavy deep breathing, an urge to vent emotions, seek support from others or feel like crying).

Most threats we face everyday are emotional, not physical. But our bodies can’t tell the difference, and the stress response is triggered either way, in any significant or insignificant occasion. These threats can be: dealing with an emergency at work, getting fired, meeting or missing a deadline, quarreling with a family member or child, receiving a distressing call or email, and the list of modern life stressors goes on; basically any threat that might harm your well-being, body or at worst, is a threat to your survival.

Encountering too many stressful situations in everyday life activates the stress response in the body more than necessary (aka chronic stress), which isn’t healthy because it dysregulates your nervous system with time and might eventually lead to fatigue, anxiety, depression and so many other physical symptoms.

A healthy vs. unhealthy nervous system (Reference)

We all cope with stress in different ways based on what we are exposed to during childhood and or habits we pick up until adolescence, whether we’re aware of it or not, and not all are good for us. These coping mechanisms might be: over-eating, smoking, binge-watching entertainment, procrastinating tasks, social media scrolling, video games, coffee, workaholism and other more harmful addictions. Stress isn’t just in our physical body but also includes our emotions in the brain. These physical habits actually serve an essential emotional function to us, that’s why we keep doing them in excess even when we know they harm our well-being.

These coping mechanisms help regulate our emotions in the moment. They instantly make us feel good or calm or more relaxed and numb out our negative emotions. But they make things worse on the long run by becoming addictions if they are the only way we know how to cope with our difficult emotions. And indeed there are better ways to cope with our emotions if we learn them. If we can consciously identify our emotional needs which need to be met, we can find healthier ways of meeting them without harming our bodies or overall well-being.

Many dysfunctional behaviours we engage in might be a sign that we are living out of balance; that we have some needs that are not properly being met (whether physical, emotional, mental or spiritual), so we compensate their absence by engaging in other behaviours that might fill those needs, but in unhealthy ways. In that perspective, they are messages from our mind and body that something needs to change and balance needs to be restored.

Anxiety manifests as the physical reaction of an extended stress response in your body that is accompanied by worrying thoughts in your mind. The problem is that most times, we’re not aware of the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety, and the body doesn’t perceive that the threat is over, so it doesn’t calm itself down, and so we tend to stay in the stress response for too long until it starts taking a toll on the body.

This means we have to consciously learn and practice regulating our bodies to relieve the stress in order to return to the calm state by making it feel safe again. Some of these practices include: breathing more deeply, releasing any bodily or muscle tension in the moment, stretching the body with exercise or any movement, drinking water, finding a way to laugh, changing our positions or moving around, cleansing the body with water, picturing ourselves in a time or place when we felt safe or happy, smelling a scent we like, hugging another person or reminding ourselves that we are safe in this moment, and finally turning to God in prayer; all this helps the body to enter a state of peace and calm. We do all of this naturally and instinctually of course, but discovering that they indeed serve a purpose and benefit to one’s well-being was deeply inspiring to me at least.

Many serious and chronic diseases in the body, particularly in the nervous system, arise as an outcome of living under chronic stress and/or years of suppressing one’s negative emotions, not just poor diet or genetics! Which means that your lifestyle choices directly affect your mind, body and overall well-being. (Read more by Gabor Maté)

The biggest lesson I learned from all the above is that everything about our being is interconnected.

What we think, what we feel, what we choose to suppress or not to feel, what we do, what we don’t do, what we experience in our bodies and what we neglect about our bodies; both absence and presence of these factors affect each other and exist in interplay in the living ecosystem called ‘You’. We can’t shortcut our way to maintaining well-being or use workarounds to bypass our fundamental human needs. Health and well-being is a holistic concept, not just about eating healthy or fighting physical disease. It involves acknowledging and meeting the needs of the mind, body, heart and spirit equally, and doing each of them justice.

The Treasure below Burnout

On a deeper level however, I realized my experience wasn’t a unique one. It’s something many of us are facing as a generation. It led me to pause and deeply reflect on our modern lifestyle as millennials: how technology has led to a new age of hyper-excess, and the ways it can damage the mind, heart, body and spirit (captured in Adulting in the Age of the Internet), which calls for rediscovering what our young generation has lost, but still direly need as human beings.

Adulting in the Age
of the Internet

How has technology shaped our experience of adulthood in the world as millennials?

It also brought me to realize that whatever way forward there was in order to live life more intentionally, the answers would stem only from within. It demanded a return to my inner essence and a clear articulation of what truly matters to me in the end (captured in What 28 Chapters of Life Taught Me). It compelled me to awaken from living on auto-pilot and start living with more intentionality.

What 28 Chapters of Life Taught Me

The personal truths forever unspoken amidst the lightness of everyday conversations…

But beyond all of that, looking back at how this year unfolded, it turned out, like any struggle really, that it was a priceless blessing in disguise; a gift I desperately needed but never asked for; the mark of a new chapter in life and work; another opportunity to manifest my inner essence; a step further on the path to becoming who I am meant to be, whatever that may be.

You see, what really happened this year, personally speaking, is that I learned how to live like a human being, not human doing…

I learned to unlearn the toxic beliefs I had held about being productive above all costs or getting things done no matter what, even if it is for something I believe in. I learned that my worth lies in my being, not doing. I learned that balancing all areas in life is not a luxury in this day and age. I learned that living holistically isn’t about self-care, but in living in alignment with one’s whole being: heart, mind, body and spirit, instead of just one part of it. I learned the absolute importance of setting boundaries in all aspects of one’s life. I learned not to over-identify with my passing thoughts, feelings or physical pain and set boundaries around them.

I learned to accept my wounds as something on the path to my own unique becoming. I learned that struggle is the means in which we become, and we don’t get to choose what that looks like. I learned that all my fears were there to keep me comfortable and safe, but that is not why we are alive nor should live like, if we are to grow and become. I learned that the present is neither fatal nor final, even though it feels like it sometimes. I learned to be with emotional pain instead of try to ignore or numb or suppress it.

I learned that it’s okay to be where you are, as it’s entirely different from who you are.

I learned that healing cannot be rushed and growth cannot be forced. I learned that being present means being with what is, finding peace and contentment in the here and now, instead of dwelling in the past or anticipating the future as a means of escape. I learned that what we want doesn’t correspond to or matter as much as what we need, which is something always beyond our current sphere of awareness. I learned that what’s meant for me won’t pass me by, whether I like it or not, whether I seek it or not, whether I avoid it or not.

I learned to rearrange my priorities in accord with what I truly believe and want to live by, not what mainstream society, peers or even family dictate. I learned that there is no standard timeline or default checklist to follow in life, even if society tells us to think and pressures us to behave as such. I learned to simply be in my season of life, not to rush into the next without taking time to enjoy the scenery.

I learned that sometimes it’s necessary to let go of control in order to make room for miracles to happen and surprises to take place. I learned not to stress as much over everything difficult I encounter and to calm my anxiety whenever I notice it is triggered. I learned to stop forcing things if they’re just not happening. I learned to lean on others for support instead of letting myself drown in silence as usual. I learned to see the roses, and not just the thorns. I learned to lean into discomfort, however slowly, instead of avoid it. I learned that I belong in the arena, and the time had finally come to step outside after years of ‘thinking’ about it.

I learned that living a life aligned with the spirit is unapologetically a life worth living and perhaps why it’s the hardest. I learned that in every single moment, Divine Love, Mercy and Grace exists beneath the surface level of reality; and that I am always being taken care of.

I learned & grew so much on the inside & outside that there is no appropriate response but to be eternally grateful for it all.

To Him belongs all praise.

Time to Reflect

✦ How does stress or anxiety show up in your life?
✦ How do you cope with modern life stressors? Are they healthy?
✦ What can you consciously do to maintain your well-being?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments 👇🏼

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