THE BLOG

How Stress Speaks: An Ode To Lost Eyelashes

06/01/2013 01:20 pm ET | Updated Jul 31, 2013
Pilar Gerasimo

I want to tell you about my eyelashes. The ones that fell out when I went through a really stressful, overworked period about a decade ago. Because to me, those eyelashes speak volumes -- in a cautionary-tale way -- about the power of the Third Metric.

As a health journalist, I've read (and written and edited) reams about the negative impacts of chronic stress. I know that ultimately, there is virtually no system of the body that is NOT negatively affected by it.

Stress causes inflammation (a driving factor in heart disease, diabetes and cancer). It can also cause hormonal imbalances, weight gain, skin disorders, digestive disorders, lowered immunity, accelerated aging, mood problems, impaired memory and neurological chaos of all kinds.

New and alarming statistics about stress scream for our attention on a daily basis. But for me, it was my lost eyelashes that got my attention.

Okay, to be fair, there was also that rash on my chin. And that weird eye tic. Oh, and that time I broke my own foot in an ill-fated attempt to blow off some stress-induced steam. But those are stories for another day.

For now, let us focus on the eyelashes. I am not sure if they fell out in a chunk, or gradually, one at a time, but one day, I was looking in the mirror and I noticed there was a major gap where probably a dozen eyelashes had once been. This was not good.

I filled in the gap with a little eyeliner. Then I did what any good health journalist would do. I went online and started researching "lost eyelashes."

Although I found plenty of other reasons that eyelashes might fall out (including excessive eye rubbing, nutritional deficiencies and hormonal imbalances), stress was named among the top culprits. And it seemed evident that most of the other noted causes were in some way linked to stress. For me, I knew, it was the fundamental culprit.

I'd been putting in 80-hour weeks launching Experience Life, a healthy-living magazine (ironic, I know) that I'd started with a tiny team. As a result, I'd been skimping on sleep. I'd been forgoing workouts and whole-food meals. I'd been neglecting social activities and family time and virtually everything else I enjoyed, all to "get more done." And my body was telling me it was not happy about this state of affairs.

My body was speaking for itself, I realized, but also for and about the rest of me -- about my life, and about how un-lush and personally unsustainable it had become.

I love the poetry of the body, and often find (hat tip to the brilliant Louise Hay) that it has strangely literal language. When I paused to reflect on my lost-eyelash situation, I realized that it was indeed about a "loss" and also about the chronic, underlying irritation that had caused it. To me, it was also about a disturbing diminishment of beauty -- not just on my face, but in my life.

In my super-yang drive to accomplish more, I hadn't been making much (if any) time to notice beauty, or to create it. I also hadn't been making space for much fun, relaxation or pleasure. And sure enough, just like my eyelashes, those things had fallen away, leaving a noticeable and irritating gap. I could cover it up, but that wasn't going to make it go away.

While Louise Hay's classic, You Can Heal Your Life (a sort of phrase book for the body), doesn't specifically address missing eyelashes, it does reference eye problems more generally. According to Hay, they may send a message that you are "not liking what you see in your own life."

Yep, that about summed it up.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my diminished eyelashes were actually telling an epic story -- not just about my body and life, but about what happens to all of us when we ignore our most essential needs in favor of pressing demands. We inadvertently undermine both our physiological infrastructure and the things give our lives pleasure and meaning.

As I shared my eyelash story with friends and colleagues, many of them told me their own. They spoke of eyelashes and eyebrows lost, of hair coming out in clumps, of nervous tics and sleeplessness, of crying jags and indigestion, of libidos extinguished, of numbness in both body and soul.

They told me about relationships at work and home strained to the breaking point -- in large part because everybody involved was having a hard time caring for and connecting with themselves, much less with anybody else.

This made me feel sad, and a little scared. All that heroic effort and energy going out, all that work getting done -- but at what cost?

Recently, when Arianna Huffington asked me for my definition of the Third Metric, I said the closest single-word corollary I could come up with was vitality.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines vitality as:

1. The capacity to live, grow, or develop.
2. Physical or intellectual vigor; energy.
3. The characteristic, principle, or force that distinguishes living things from nonliving things.
4. Power to survive.

Clearly, when we lose track of the Third Metric, we lose not just eyelashes and eyebrows, but the basis for our very life force.

We lose our capacity to grow, to enjoy, to connect. We lose our sense of inner peace and meaning. We lose the things that, collectively, make us us. We become, in a sense, walking corpses -- corporeal husks of our former selves.

What drives so many of us to hyper-produce ourselves into this zombie-like state? It is not only our desire for the first two metrics (money and power), I believe, but also our compulsion to give our best gifts, to make our mark, to make a difference in whatever projects or pursuits we have committed ourselves to.

And yet, if we are to bring our best gifts and abilities to what we do, we must bring our most vital selves, and not our corpse selves, to those efforts.

If some little part of us is dying (even if it is "just" our eyelashes), everybody loses: Our teams, our projects, our loved ones, and of course, us.

So how do we win? No surprise here: By prioritizing simple, self-sustaining acts -- like eating real food, moving regularly, sleeping well, taking breaks, breathing, relaxing, laughing and connecting -- and learning to do so even in the face of huge challenges. By noticing all the little ways our body tries to get our attention and tell us those things are not happening nearly enough for its tastes.

I think we must begin, though, by openly acknowledging that, at present, none of this is easy. It is not adequately taught. It is not socially sanctioned. In most workplaces, it's not actively modeled or supported, much less rewarded.

And so it is up to each of us to find the courage and creativity to do it anyway. Not instead of our other priorities, but in the sacred service of them.

We must recognize, daily, that above all, this our life's work: To make conscious, often-difficult choices about how our most essential priorities will coexist.

I have often said that being healthy is a revolutionary act. But I also believe it is a delicate art -- one we must continually practice and refine. And sometimes it feels an awful lot like a wild rodeo show, one in which we are destined to get repeatedly thrown from a bucking horse, dust ourselves off, and climb back on.

In truth, I'm doing that climb again right now. I recently made a huge move from the Midwest to take on this big, exciting new job at The Huffington Post. I went from a fairly predictable monthly print-magazine schedule to a continually-innovating, fast-paced, 24/7 digital publication. I relocated from a rural farm house to a New York City apartment. And I dove headlong into my new world without most of the familiar structures (my gym, my yoga studio, my family and friends) that had sustained me in my old one.

In short, I got thrown. I missed a few meals. I skipped a few workouts. I rushed through some of my morning rituals. I skimped a little on sleep. And sure enough, about two weeks later, a little flaky rash appeared beneath my right eye. The same eye that had famously shed its eyelashes more than a decade ago.

"Okay, I get it," I told my rash that morning, looking in the mirror. "Thank you, body, you've made your point. You don't need to do the eyelash thing again."

I took some deep breaths. I did a little yoga. I ate a healthy breakfast. I took my vitamins. I left work a little earlier that day, and I got an extra hour of sleep that night. I woke with a clearer head, in a better mood.

The next day, it seemed like everything went easier. My heart was lighter. My body felt better.

And so this is my ode to lost eyelashes everywhere, to the wisdom of the body, and to everything it has been trying to tell us -- about the Third Metric we too often ignore, and about that mysterious force that "distinguishes living things from nonliving."

May we listen to what stress has to say to us before it screams.

May we all learn and relearn these lessons as often as we need to, without beating ourselves up about it.

May we all approach that crazy rodeo horse with awareness and compassion, and find ways to create more ease, vitality and beauty with each ride.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.