When we asked readers to tweet about the moment they knew they needed to de-stress, the responses were alarming. Breaking points were marked by health crises, family problems and other types of suffering. We decided to go deeper into some of these stories in the hope that others can recognize signs of extreme stress and start to figure out their own paths to de-stressing.
When I look back on my high school experience, it's mostly with envy. I would love to be that girl again. Though it didn't always feel this way at the time, I was on top of my game from the beginning of freshman year to sometime in the spring of my senior year. Teachers liked me, I had a large and diverse group of friends, I was reasonably popular and I was one of the top students in my class academically. Though not a star athlete, I played sports. I took all the advanced classes. I got awards at the end of each year.
But all that excellence came at a personal cost. I was always stressed out about something as a teenager, and the source of my stress was typically related to a scholastic or extracurricular obligation. The smart-and-good-but-also-fun-and-cool girl reputation could be a tough one to maintain, and I remember always feeling like I was being pulled in 100 different directions by expectations from my parents, coaches, teachers, friends, long-distance boyfriend and, most of all, myself.
I remember vividly the moment I began to realize I needed to take a deep breath and stop stressing myself out so much. I was pulling an all-nighter at the family kitchen table, working on some project or studying for some test. Though I've learned since that all-nighters are typically reserved for procrastinating college students, they were common for me in high school -- not because I procrastinated but because I had convinced myself that anything less than a manic, obsessive approach to the task at hand wasn't good enough. It never occurred to me at the time that this might be unusual for a teenager. I had a deep, overwhelming need to get the highest grade on that test and to have my project be the one the teacher used as the example in front of the whole class.
As my mother was heading to bed that night, I sat at the table, dog-tired and waiting impatiently for a new pot of coffee to finish brewing. My mom was trying to convince me to go to bed, that whatever I had done to prepare would be good enough and that I need not expect so much from myself as a senior in high school. After all, I had worked so hard all through school, and the end of senior year is a time to relax a little. Of course, I refused and insisted she didn't understand. With tears in her eyes she said, "One day, however many years from now, when you're holding your first baby in your arms, looking into their eyes, you won't even remember your high school GPA. It will never matter enough for you to put yourself through this."
Now, I love my mother very much. Her message, although not fully received at that very moment, was entirely true. But I must say her flair for the sentimental -- dare I say, the dramatic -- moments in life is difficult for mere mortals to match. The truth is, I do still remember my high school GPA. (4.13, weighted, which apparently was only good enough to get me ranked No. 6 in my class. But I'm not bitter anymore.) So while I don't yet have a baby to hold in my arms to test my mother's theory, chances are I won't spontaneously forget it anytime soon. But her point was not completely lost on me, and it has been reinforced countless times since.
It turns out her sentiment couldn't have been more correct; I could have graduated with a 2.5 GPA, and it would not have changed my post-high school trajectory. Not. One. Tiny. Bit. That spring, shortly after the all-nighter, I began receiving my college decision letters. One by one, the rejections and the wait-list, might-as-well-be rejection, letters trickled in. With each one my sanity unraveled a little bit more. I got drunk for the very first time that spring, and as my best friends to this day will tell you, that night was a doozie. The scene still plays in my head as though it was last night: Having just finished a tough serving shift at Uncle Bud's Catfish, Chicken and Such with my feelings of resentment and inadequacy at an all-time-high boiling point after weeks of the letters, I marched into the party, found my best friend, snatched up the full water bottle of vodka she offered, turned it up and, well... the rest is history, as they say.
It's a funny story, sure, and one we reminisce about often. But that night stands out in my memory as one of my most confused and vulnerable moments. For weeks, I'd been struggling with a sense of failure and helplessness. I couldn't understand how all my hard work, my agony over every little detail, my drive for constant approval hadn't been enough for those admissions officers. It felt like it all I had ever worked for meant nothing, and at 18 years old, facing the end of the only chapter you've ever known, that's a really scary feeling.
I ended up attending my "safety school," where I had the time of my life, met my future husband, and did just fine academically -- certainly good enough to enter my chosen field and even to return to school later for my master's degree. And guess how many people along the way requested to know my high school GPA? Not one, single, ever-loving person.
As an adult, I'm still a little high-strung (my husband will certainly attest to that). I still strive for perfection in my work and stress myself out unnecessarily, and God knows I have put myself through countless more all-nighters over the course of undergrad, grad school and my time as a high school student teacher (not to mention the occasional, but very real, panic attack).
But in these moments, my mother's words and the expression on her face that night during my senior year never fail to appear in my mind's eye. Though I may chuckle at her melodrama, the memory of how right she turned out to be is all the reminder I need to take a deep breath and just ... chill out a little bit.
The truth in her words has been reinforced in my life time and time again: Few projects are actually worth the stress we Type As put ourselves through. Chances are the difference between the work you get done when you don't stress and what you get done when you do stress won't even register with whoever it is you're trying to impress -- they see what you did do, not what you would have done had you given yourself a stroke over the project. As a lifelong overachiever, this is one of the most frustrating lessons I've had to learn.
And for the record, I have every intention of calling to mind my 4.13 whenever that distant moment comes that the nurse places that baby in my arms. Though she did teach me a lesson, I can't let my mother think she was actually right, after all.
Is there a moment you hit a stress breaking point and knew you needed to change your life? If you'd like to share your story, please send personal essays under 1200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration in this series.
Follow Caroline Cooper Huddleston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@itscarolinegre