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.
I sat in my home office--lights off, door shut. I held my knees to my chest and rested my head against the window. Looking outside I could see the remnants of my marigolds, chewed to pieces by moles I lacked the energy to cope with. My computer sat open on my desk across the room, the cursor blinking rhythmically against the blank white background as my Master's thesis taunted me. My husband stood in the doorway unnoticed. He stepped into the room and turned on the light, our dog and cat in tow.
"I'm worried," was all he said, and he was. So was I.
We hadn't even been married a year at this point. I was in my second year of graduate school and completing my thesis while working fulltime in my first real career. My husband, after graduating with his Master's degree about eight months prior, was still unemployed, despite his best efforts to find work. At 23, I provided the sole income in our relationship. I looked at our daunting student loans and what it would take to get ahead and I didn't stop to think about anything. I just kept going until I couldn't anymore. Hours went by as I sat in that position. The sun went down, the computer screen faded into sleep mode and my glance did not change. I was transfixed by the dead flowers outside my window. I planted those flowers, and every one of them was dead.
At some point in the hours I spent at that windowsill I realized I was not looking at the flowers anymore. As I stared outside I was looking at pieces of myself. Once thriving young flowers, my garden was now a pile of weeds and shriveled petals. I recognized my own health was in disarray. I was constantly sick, I ate more foods from a drive-through window than items that grew out of the dirt and I went to sleep every night with either a pencil in my hand or a book on my chest. I masked it well. Not many people knew about the anxiety attacks, the Xanax, the constant state of worry I lived in. I did what I could to hide it from myself. It wasn't something I liked to think about, but trapped on that bench by my window watching the street light come on over my mailbox, I realized it was time I started thinking about me.
People say to take a deep breath, to go for a walk, to take a nap--and when you struggle with deep-seated anxiety and poor stress management skills, things like that don't always help. For me, de-stressing was a life-changing process that took a long time to grow into. It started with the power button on my computer. I accepted the fact that in many cases, tomorrow was just as good as today. I shut my books and turned off my computer and implemented a curfew. I cut myself off from anything that might cause stress, including social media. Then I went to bed.
The changes didn't stop there. I started thinking deeply about the way I treated my body. The foods I ate, the activity I engaged in, the amount of picking and poking and insulting I did in while standing in front of a mirror. I had developed an itching tick. Without having to think about it my right index finger would find its way to the back of my scalp and pick and pick and pick until it drew blood. Scabs developed, I feared I was going to start losing my hair. When I tried to stop picking, heaviness grew in my chest. I realized that I was literally picking myself to pieces--emotionally and physically. I needed to adjust my entire perception of myself and my body if I was going to de-stress, and that is something I am still struggling with.
I focused intensely on the way my body felt, journaling every migraine, every bowel movement, every sneeze and every idea that passed through my mind. Within a month of my night on the windowsill I found that a long-thought problem of stress-induced IBS was actually gluten intolerance. Empowered by this knowledge, I threw myself emotionally and intellectually into developing a healthier diet. I started actually cooking for the first time in my life. I gardened, I ran, I did yoga. I swapped out coffee and soda for ice water and herbal teas. I listened to my body, in every way that I could. As I reduced the physical stress that I was putting my body through daily by living a generally unhealthy lifestyle, I found I was better suited to cope with the emotional stressors I was left with.
De-stressing is more than a day at the spa. It is a realignment of the system you are living in. I now make it my top priority every day to set the pace I am going to function at. I work with deadlines, I am confronted with stressors and I have things I want to accomplish--and for the most part I accomplish them. I haven't lost any ambition and I never decided to stop working as hard as I ever was, but I stopped buying into the fast-paced systems of those around me. When I hear a friend tell me how busy she is, or I get a ranting phone call about something someone said, or I look at my bank account, I no longer get activated.
I realize that everyone struggles with some degree of stress and anxiety, and that when we don't know how to manage it ourselves we put it off on others--often those we care about. This might not be intentional, but it happens every day. I am not cold on the phone. I can still empathize with my loved ones and I am always happy to be a shoulder for someone to lean on, but that doesn't mean I need to buy into any of the stress I'm surrounded with. I'm content smiling every day. And to get to this point I had to first come to terms with the fact that there is a lot of stress out there, but I don't need to worry about it.
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.