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.
The moments when we realize we need to change are the most precious in a human life.
No one should be afraid of scales. They are simply an instrument that reveals mass. I hadn't stood on one in three years.
I had been telling myself that all that mattered was how I looked. I thought I looked good. I convinced myself most mornings, as I'd puff out my chest and pull in my belly, that a little roundness looked good on me.
If 10 is your stress level in the middle of a car accident and 1 is your stress level waking up from a good nap, I learned four months ago what happens to a human body when you walk around at an eight or nine for six years. Hint: You get really fat.
It's not like people didn't try to tell me.
My brother is a surfer, thin and fit and living in California. My dad once joked at a family reunion, "Put my two sons together and they are the perfect size." I thought it was a good joke.
I was an athlete into my early thirties. I played college tennis, became a runner after that and a swimmer when running hurt too much. I took pride in my fitness.
When at 37 the physical trainer my wife hired for me asked, "You used to be an athlete, right?" it should have triggered a competitive desire to change. But his workouts hurt too much, and he was a 22-year-old football player who took pleasure in humiliating the older chubby guy, so I stopped going.
When at 38 my doctor asked, "You've been in shape before, right?" and I couldn't remember when, it should have been a clue.
When at 39 I couldn't get through a quarter of the workout with the college golf team I coach, the guys' commentary about the large animals I resembled should have made me aware I needed to de-stress. Great irony: I work with them on managing stress on the course.
I used to be able to run up mountains. Literally, in high school, I ran up the last 2,000 feet of a 14,000 mountain in Colorado. I hiked one of those mountains with a buddy last summer and I asked if he'd be climbing faster on his own. He said, not thinking, "Oh yeah, but this is much more relaxing."
Nothing anyone said, however, made a difference. The siren call of a cheeseburger, or three, always satiated the stress each evening. My survival response was soothed by what all ancient men craved: meat.
Then I got sick. I thought it was just a virus, but I couldn't sleep or eat for two days. I could barely breathe at one point and when I finally went to the doctor, it was no big deal. Just a simple case of strep.
What was a big deal was when I got on the scale and the number said 253. I have no memory of what the doctor said after that.
To be fair, I'm a big guy. At 6'4", I was built to hunt down large, angry beasts and protect my tribe. But when I was running, I weighed under two hundred pounds. My fighting weight is 205.
That night I asked my wife why she didn't say anything. She said, "I didn't want to make you feel bad, and you know I love you no matter what you look like."
No matter what I look like?
Had I become her worn but well loved stuffed animal that stayed in the closet because it brought back fond memories, but was too shabby to leave in plain sight?
I started imagining what 50 pounds would look like as a mound of ground beef or a stack of American cheese. I calculated the number of martinis it would take to put on forty pounds. The answer: over a thousand. And worse, the body compensates for eating or drinking a little more at first, so the answer over the years is thousands.
Then I asked the simple question: Why? What had happened that I stopped paying attention to my fitness and what I put in my body?
The answer was simple: I misunderstood who I am.
I go by a number of titles in my life. I'm a minister. I'm an executive coach and speaker. I'm an author. I'm a golf coach. I'm a community organizer. In each of my roles, I attempt to help people.
In all I do, I'm a teacher, cheering people on as they learn the most important skills and lessons that make life worth living. We're all worth loving, even on our worst days, and I try to help people focus on what's most important so each day gets a little better.
But what I forgot, as I tried to serve others, is I need help too. Working 60 hours, often more each week, I used entire pizzas rather than a walk to calm down. I chose wine, in my fatigue and frustration, over the very techniques I speak and write about.
The wine wasn't the problem; the problem is that I kept my stress at such a high level all the time that no amount of wine allowed me to truly slow my brain down.
Then I stepped on the scale.
Why did I let myself stay so stressed for so long? I forgot the most important lesson about stress. It is not a bad thing. It comes from our brain when we're not seeing something important we need to pay attention to.
What was I ignoring? The best teachers and coaches are always learning. I spent so much time helping others that I forgot to make time to explore new lessons and learn new skills. Every day is a priceless moment to savor a beautiful world. I wasn't recharging my body and brain so that I'd have enough energy to enjoy my work and my life.
We each can reduce stress when we figure out what our brains are trying to tell us. We all have more power than we realize to improve our lives each moment.
16 weeks after stepping on the scale, I'm down 19 pounds. I'm still screwing up most weeks, but not as often. I'm still trying to do too much without first recharging, but now I let stress teach me when I need to step back.
Now I realize and I continue to learn: even the stressful moments are precious.
This story appears in Issue 54 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, June 21.
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 Jon Wortmann on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JonWortmann