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 knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep.
I’ve suffered from insomnia throughout my life. Even as a young girl, I’d get so anxiously excited prior to the first day of school that I’d lie in bed all night, watching the curtains blow and wondering if a fairy might fly in to sprinkle me with sleep dust. In college, it puzzled me how my classmates would obsess over “pulling all-nighters.” I took it for granted that if I had a major exam the next day, I wouldn’t get a wink of shut-eye, so I might as well stay up re-reading textbooks and class notes.
But this time was different. This time, ten years ago, sleep became as elusive, magical, and sought-after to me as the Holy Grail was to Sir Lancelot. I craved it like a kid with a sweet tooth craves Halloween. I wanted so much to escape from the frantic, churning thoughts and emotions that consumed my days and nights. Yet instead of finding escape and restoration in fragrant slumber, I found only more tumult. I simply could not turn off my mind.
I had left my husband, my partner of the previous nine years, after trying hard to make things work. Shame pressed down on me like a pile of rocks. How could I have failed at that which I valued so highly — forging a partnership and having a family? Would I ever recover? Would I find my way out of the anxiety and confusion? Would I learn to love myself again?
I couldn’t sleep.
I asked my doctor for help. He prescribed Ambien. The first time I took it, I sunk into a deep, impenetrable slumber, as though someone had pulled a heavy blanket over my brain. I awoke with a profound sense of gratitude and relief.
But a few weeks later, I started to notice a strange hangover effect. I’d feel grumpy all day after taking an Ambien. Off-kilter. I didn’t like it. Plus, my doctor had warned me that the drug could become addictive. So after a several months of allowing myself a pill every few nights, I stopped taking Ambien. And I stopped sleeping again.
With the stress and lack of sleep came another set of unanticipated health issues. Although I didn’t have a name for it at the time, I developed what I now know is Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS. I was gassy all the time. Tummy upset. Churning and burning. Miserable.
This was the moment I knew: Something had to change.
Fortunately, I had found yoga a few years earlier. I became a self-professed “yogaholic” when I began to realize that my marriage was ending. Every other day, I would grab my mat and head down the street for a juicy, sweaty 90-minute class. No matter how bad a day I’d been having, no matter how exhausted, down on myself, and discouraged about my future, I’d walk out of the yoga studio feeling better. A lot better. Hopeful, even.
But now yoga wasn’t enough. I needed more tools in my stress kit.
So I started meditating. I had read about the benefits of meditation many times, but it took a real crisis in my life to get me to take it seriously. I tried sitting for 30 minutes each morning. I sucked at it. I could barely hold still. I’d open my eyes to peak at the clock and find that only seven minutes had gone by. I’d intentionally allow my mind to wander to the day’s to-do list or ruminating or fantasizing.
I decided to sign up for Meditation Boot Camp. Okay, that wasn’t really what it was called. It was called Vipassana, or insight meditation, and I committed to a 10-day silent retreat at a S.N. Goenka center near San Francisco. For ten full days and eleven nights, I would do nothing but sit in meditation, go for short walks, eat two meals, and listen to one dharma talk. No phones, no listening to music, no journaling, no reading, and definitely no talking.
On Day One, I nearly vomited on the meditation hall floor. I hated all this sitting and wondered if I’d make it through the ten days. It was, without a doubt, the most challenging experience of my life.
But on Day Four, my thoughts slowed during the afternoon sit. I felt… invaded by peace. As though the tornado in my brain had stopped spinning, and I had entered the eye of the storm. I bowed my forehead to the carpet and sobbed with gratitude. I could do it! I could meditate!
The rest of the retreat passed by more quickly, though I didn’t always find that sense of calm and ease in every sit. Still, just knowing that I could get there, that there was an escape from the onslaught of memories and future fantasies and self-criticism, was enough.
I came away from the Vipassana retreat feeling immensely healed. I had let go of much of my shame. I felt comfort in the bodily experience I had gained on the retreat of watching pain come and go, and knew that even the searing pain of my divorce would, eventually, pass. I was on the path to my higher self and a better life.
The best part of all? I slept like an Ambien-drugged zombie every night, with no medications. Passed out cold. Dreamt rich worlds of snakes and waterfalls. Woke up the next morning feeling utterly refreshed.
I worried, though. Would this sweet blessing of slumber stay with me after I returned to my regular life in San Francisco? Miraculously, it did. I continued meditating each day, and I continued sleeping as if under an enchanted spell every night.
The one health problem I still had to deal with was my irritable digestive track, which hadn’t made such a spectacular recovery. I wound up, after talking with many friends and several doctors, seeking the services of a naturopath.
The first question she asked me was, “Are you under a lot of stress?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The doctor explained that my gut had been severely compromised, becoming (this is the technical word for it) “leaky.” I had to take a regimen of nutritional supplements that she prescribed. In addition, she recommended cutting all dairy products, all soy products, and most gluten from my diet.
Although the change wasn’t as quick or dramatic as the meditation retreat’s impact on my sleep, I definitely noticed a difference over time from my naturopath-recommended program. Slowly, my tummy returned to normal. The gas and discomfort faded away.
Mind and body are so intimately connected. When we are stressed, our body feels it. When our bodies are under strain, our minds suffer. What I found so fascinating about my own experience coping with extreme stress was that I had to heal both mind and body–through yoga, meditation, and dietary changes. Neither alone was enough to restore my health and happiness.
Today, I am deeply grateful for the lessons that my stress journey taught me. I feel certain that I am not only more compassionate and accepting of life’s challenges, but also a more joyful, grateful, and well-balanced person.
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.