Stress Was Destroying My Health — Here's How I Stopped It
Checking into the emergency room, alone in my pajamas with tears streaming down my face . . . that should have been my low point. My wake-up call. I'm in my late 20s, but I felt that childlike, paralytic helplessness that morning, like I needed my mom.
This wasn't the first health scare I'd experienced in the past year, and it definitely wasn't the last; I had been in and out of doctor's offices and urgent cares with a slew of inexplicable physical ailments for several months. Despite being a fitness and health editor and "doing all the right things," according to many a health practitioner, I was deteriorating. Drastically. To make matters worse, my mental health was tanking and in a seriously dangerous place.
Why would someone who does all the right things be in such poor physical health?
Unfortunately, that hospital visit wasn't enough to get me to stop everything and reevaluate. I didn't hit the proverbial "panic button" until I started having dissociative panic attacks months later. Not to be too lighthearted, but at that point, finally, Gretchen Weiners had cracked.
Why would someone who exercises five to seven days a week, eats healthy foods, goes to acupuncture and physical therapy, uses essential oils and meditates, and — as mentioned — does all the right things be in such poor physical health? Perhaps you find yourself nodding along, and if you're anything like me, the culprit may be simpler than you'd think: stress.
I know, I know — everyone has stress! But that isn't a reason to ignore it and let it build up. If you do that for too long, it can sabotage your body and brain. I joke a lot about my situation, and hyperbolic humor is among my favorite coping mechanisms, but I mean it when I say that stress was killing me. It manifested in chronic illness, mysterious pains and ailments, severe depression and anxiety, and panic disorder.
Fast forward four months to today, and I couldn't be further from that place. I feel like I was reborn; I wake up feeling excited, feeling joy, and feeling hope for the first time in a long time. My ailments are all but gone. I show no markers in my blood of the chronic illness I once battled. The debilitating depression and anxiety have disappeared, and I haven't had a single panic attack in months. So how did I get here? I like to think of it as a three-pronged process, with the first being the most important. I could write a book describing it in its entirety, but here's the gist.
Step 1: Hit the Brakes
If you're at a place of totally overwhelmed, there's no amount of acupuncture or meditation that can dig you out of that pit. You're putting a bandage over an infected wound, sister. You've gotta hit a hard stop on everything.
This means you have to stop work. Social activities. Obligations. Your phone. Anything you can turn off should be turned off. Do you have PTO at your job? Can you take a short break? Perhaps your employer offers health leave so you can seek treatment. Maybe you need to quit. Nothing is worth sabotaging your health.
I took health leave and packed my bags for sunny San Diego to spend time with my family while digging my toes into the sand on quiet mornings. I deleted Instagram (gasp!), turned off my phone for a week (double gasp!), and tuned out the noise of the rest of the world so I could tune into myself. This was absolutely imperative to have any sort of clarity.
Step 2: Find Clarity
This piece of the puzzle wouldn't have been possible without the help of a fantastic psychiatrist/psychotherapist. I've been attending weekly sessions with my therapist and am thrilled to say I'm no longer on any kind of anxiety medication. I've made more progress in the past few months than I had in the past few years.
Once your phone is off and you're away from the noise of everything that was consuming your life, seek clarity in multiple forms of treatment — but chiefly in the form of therapy. Read self-care books (I can recommend about 15!) to find inspiration and take solace in the fact that there are others who have walked this path. Fill your mind with fresh, positive ideas and healing methods.
Use your free time to journal, work on a vision board, do some coloring or crafting, cook, walk barefoot on the beach or in a park, and totally de-stress so you can figure out what you want next. This phase is crucial to determine what was "off" in your life and what was hurting you — but also what brings you joy. Don't put a restrictive timeline on this.
Step 3: Rebuild Strategically
Now the fun begins. You've eradicated the stuff that doesn't serve you, and you've identified what you have that you love and what you desire for your future. You know what you want.
All those healing modalities you were using before can finally take hold now that you've rooted out your biggest stressors. Try meditation and acupuncture again. Diffuse those oils. Take a warm bath. Try a mood-tracking app to see how you're feeling each day and what contributes to it. Write down a list of things that make you happy and things you know will make you even happier . . . and then do those things. Add them in slowly and strategically, like an iPhone factory reset, but for your life.
I knew I wanted a puppy, so I finally made that happen. I knew I wanted to walk barefoot on the beach every morning with a coffee or tea in my hand, so I built that into my days. I slotted in time to exercise, read, and listen to music, along with a slew of other joy-inducing activities and habits. I committed to spending more time with my friends and family.
Everyone's journey to happiness will be different. Your stresses are different from my stresses. What makes you happy may be different from what makes me happy. But I promise you, if you're drowning in stress and suffering physically and mentally, there is hope. You're not helpless. The key to happiness is inside you — you just need the clarity to get it.