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.
At age 21, I found myself in the emergency room for the second time in three days, incapable of breathing without assistance. A nurse whispered behind the curtain, "I've never seen such severe pneumonia in an otherwise perfectly healthy person her age."
Indeed, besides the fluid obstructing my lungs, I was perfectly healthy. I had run four miles the morning before I fell ill, an extra mile to make up for what I'd missed on a recent vacation. Meals consisted of mostly fruits and veggies, and I scheduled water breaks into my day. My color-coded Google calendar was always packed from dawn until long past dusk.
6:00-7:00AM: Drink 2 glasses of water, creative writing
7:00-8:00AM: Go for a run
8:00-9:00AM: Get ready for lab; breakfast + 2 more glasses of water
9AM-6:00PM: Lab (with tasks outlined in three often-overlapping colors)
7:00-9:00PM: Make and eat dinner
9:00-11:00PM: Wine night with friends
11:00-11:30PM: Get ready for bed (realistically: have insomnia, write more)
No one could have expected me to stagger into the hospital with a fatally low blood pressure and a blood oxygen level of merely 86%. (Below 95% is generally abnormal.)
For the next week, I sat limp like a ragdoll in a hospital bed, delirious with fever and gulping oxygen through a tube until my nose bled. I kept thinking of my mother and how she'd yanked the tubes from her nostrils because they were uncomfortable, how she'd hauled her collection of cords out of bed until she fell, how she too had always insisted on brushing her teeth after meals to regain some sense of normalcy. How she had died from her pneumonia. Or her cancer, or her anger, or her grief, depending on how you look at it.
I never told anyone, but I had replayed those moments in my head endlessly for a year after my mother died. Now here I was, reliving history outside my head. That should have been the moment I recognized the dangers of my extreme (emotional) stress. I'm ashamed to say it wasn't, not yet.
Once I no longer needed an oxygen tank, I left the hospital with a renewed zest for life that my sickly energy levels couldn't match. Instead of learning to take better care of myself, I came away from my near-death experience with a new sense of desperation. I was going to live furiously. I had been healthy before, I argued to myself, and this was just a freakish roadblock.
I continued to anguish, to the point of melodrama. Over my inability to run (or even walk without gasping for breath). Over my lack of progress in lab. Over some silly boy who served as a distraction. Over the death of my mother. The guilt. The isolation. I kept much of it to myself, embarrassed by my capacity for emotion and convinced I would just make people feel awkward if I talked.
A few months into my recovery, I was feeling mostly normal again, physically. I went to the gym for the first time in ages, and walking through those doors felt like reuniting with a long-lost friend. True to fashion, I started to overexert myself again.
One night, I simply didn't sleep enough. The next day, I was sick. (And sad. And a pigeon pooped on my leg. Really, that just wasn't my day.) Just a cold this time, but a devastating reminder of my weakened body and another wake-up call. I started taking better care of myself, physically. I made sure I slept at least six hours a night now, whereas before I'd often get by on two. I took my vitamins religiously, added a family-sized bottle of hand sanitizer to my cleansing regimen. I scheduled even more water breaks. My health was my new top priority. It was a good first step.
Still, my emotions didn't cooperate. I stressed. A lot. Like any high-strung grad student, I worried normal amounts about normal things like my upcoming qualifying exam. (You would be a little nervous too if you had to defend your ideas to a panel of seasoned scientists for two hours.) But I also grieved constantly, secretly. I fumed when a girl said her recent breakup made her understand my loss, but I didn't confront her. I felt guilty for even being upset, because I knew she was unhappy too. It took two more recovery-overexertion-illness cycles before I recognized the additional havoc my mind was wreaking on my body.
As a grad student in the biomedical field, I knew intellectually that stress could make you sick. I knew that stress encompassed more than just physical exertion. Chronic anxiety strains your heart, suppresses your immune system, and makes you more susceptible to everything, from common colds to cancer.
As a foolhardy 21-year-old, however, I didn't really believe that applied to me. I would sleep a bit more, work a bit less, and everything would be okay. Everything would be okay. As long as I kept working towards perfecting myself (read: running away from my old self and her sad sob story). As long as I acted normal. As long as I pretended to have complete control, I would.
For awhile, I exercised, worked hard in lab, explored the city manically. And then I got my third prolonged chest cold post-pneumonia. (Are you getting as frustrated with me as I am? You should.)
This is the part they don't tell you when they warn against stress. It isn't just about working too hard to take care of your body. It isn't just about learning to enjoy the simple things in life. It's those things and also managing grief and isolation and things you can't really change. (Or maybe you can, and I'm just not there yet.) It's the illogical shame you feel when you take a few minutes to eat lunch instead of keeping vigil by your loved one's deathbed. It's the useless guilt you feel for making your friends feel awkward when you're sad. It's the power you surrender when you let these emotions silence you.
Ultimately, we humans are not meant to be silent. We're not meant to be isolated. The psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated in the 1960s that infant monkeys reared alone became pathologically anxious. Later studies connected their isolation to weakened immune systems, and similar effects are seen in humans. This was my last wake-up call, but I only realized how powerful it could be when I stopped being silent.
There is nothing romantic about isolation, I finally accepted. I needed to connect with people. For me, this meant that I had to stop feeling guilty about burdening others with my stories. I had to share them. And because I may never stop thinking of emotional displays as a fundamental character flaw, I did this by sharing my writing, just like my mother.
I'd be lying if I say that writing is now allowing me to transcend all stress and grief. I don't think that's possible or even necessary. It's okay to be a little sad or anxious--you just can't let it fester. These wounds are ugly things, but they'll infect everything if you don't give them enough air.
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.