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.
Ironically, I realized that stress had taken over my life when its biggest cause suddenly disappeared. My emancipation from stress came the day I was laid off: September 30, 2008. At first, I felt like my world had crashed as hard as the stock market did that day. But within just a few short hours, I felt more peace than I had in years. I didn't know why, since the news wasn't good for job seekers. My calm reaction was so out of character that it made friends and family uneasy. Where was the type-A corporate "have it all" woman?
Although my approach to career didn't have the hip moniker at the time, I was the "lean in" poster child. I was the director of marketing communications at an international manufacturing company. Nice home, two children and a great husband. Proudly, I even found time to run and was training for a marathon. Who could want for more, right? I was doing it all. So I thought. But unwittingly at the time, I was like an ill-fated candle -- burned at both ends. Both work and, more importantly, my family suffered.
At 5'2", I weighed little more than 90 pounds. I took medication for acne and more medication to help me sleep. I was spending ridiculous amounts of money on things to save time -- pre-cooked meals, laundered shirts, and suits bought online and delivered to my hotel room when I didn't have time to dry clean or pack before a trip. At least twice, I flew separately to meet my family after the start of our vacation.
My son, who has Asperger's Syndrome, was out of control, which meant his behavior was controlling our household. His anxiety was so bad that he was vomiting sometimes three or more times a week, and my short fuse fueled the fire. My house was so messy that I didn't want to let neighbors in. I was forgetful to the point of feeling unnerved. I'd had to modify my marathon race registration to run "just" the half, since international travel, 70-hour workweeks and weekly trips to my son's therapist really derailed the training.
My visceral reaction of panic and embarrassment about the layoff quickly abated. And I didn't want to find a new job -- at least not for a while. I remember the first morning after the layoff. When the school bus pulled away, I looked at my stay-at-home neighbor and said, "What do I do now?" She said, "Park your ass on the couch in front of the 'Today' show, enjoy a cup of coffee and take a few minutes to think through your day. Hell, go back to bed if you want. Give yourself a break!" So I did.
In the weeks that followed, I felt energized by pecking away at the personal to-do list that had nagged at me for years. I painted the garage doors. I refinished the kitchen table. I cleaned closets and sold clothes to consignment. I framed and hung pictures. Then, I moved on to more. I ironed the shirts instead of having them laundered. I cooked dinners for our family to sit and eat together. I used a list at the grocery store. I cut coupons...and liked it!
But most importantly, I slept. Through the whole night. With no medication. I awoke feeling refreshed and void of the panicky feeling of what the day might hold, or of what I was forgetting. Sleeping and hitting the to-do list cleared my head and created positive momentum. It led to more patience with my son -- which led to a huge improvement in his anxiety, his behavior and his school performance. There was far less tension and less chaos in the house. I was a nicer, more loving and attentive parent and wife. I no longer needed the acne medication.
I'm convinced that my sudden calm and clear head also led me to a healthier career. The marketing agency I'd hired prior to the layoff called me at home. They offered me some freelance work to cover someone's maternity leave. As this agency bucked the business trends with sustained hyper growth, I was able to keep working even when the new mom returned to work. A change in my LinkedIn profile led to more work from former bosses and co-workers looking for help. Which led to referrals. I even finished a project for the employer who let me go. Except this time, I was paid for every hour I worked.
Certainly, I'm not making nearly what I used to. But I don't resent urgent work requests or long hours here and there. I appreciate everything that I have, and realize that the other stuff was just...stuff. Even my children still comment about how much better our life is now, and they thank me for "really paying attention" as they say, and for being "nicer." I can feel guilt for what was, and gratitude for what is. And I wouldn't have what is if it weren't for what was -- or at least I wouldn't appreciate my "is."
Over the years, I've had to remind myself of the importance of maintaining this "career-style," and to clearly draw the line and reaffirm expectations with clients. It makes me so much better at what I do, on both ends. When it's time to focus, I can. Situations that would have sent me over the edge of anger or anxiety just don't anymore. I elect to stay out of office politics and soul-draining gossip.
And four and a half years later, I'm mindful to stop to be grateful every single day for my stress emancipation and recovery. Yes...recovery. Of course, stress is still a part of life, but it no longer controls me.
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.