Mental Health//

ESPN’s Victoria Arlen Wants You To Take A Step Back and Breathe

The Paralympic gold medalist and TV personality on why “we need to still stop and smell the roses.”

Courtesy of Victoria Arlen
Courtesy of Victoria Arlen

Welcome to Thriving Mind, a resource to help you understand your individual signs of stress, take small steps to recharge, and unlock better mental health.

At the age of 11, Victoria Arlen developed two rare diseases — transverse myelitis and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis — that led her to spend years in a vegetative state. In 2010, Arlen, who today is one of the youngest on-air sportscasters for ESPN, miraculously awoke, though not without her share of challenges: She continued to experience symptoms of her neurological condition, like seizures and chronic stomach pain, and was paralyzed from the belly button down. 

In 2012, Arlen, a talented swimmer, won four medals at the Summer Paralympics. Proud of this accomplishment, Arlen looked forward to achieving her next goal: walking again. “Despite agonizing frustration, I put in everything I had every day, spending thousands of hours working and fighting for one flicker of a sign that my legs were still alive,” she wrote in an essay for ESPN. In November 2015, that flicker came, and she took her first small step. Five more months down the road, and Arlen was successfully putting one foot in front of the other. 

Since her miraculous recovery, Arlen has continued to achieve at great heights: In addition to her success at ESPN, Arlen was a contestant on the 25th season of Dancing with the Stars, and published her memoir, Locked In: The Will to Survive and the Resolve to Live.

Arlen’s experience has changed her perspective on living. In a 2019 interview, she said,  “Sometimes we forget to live. We get so caught up in the world. I didn’t know if I had a tomorrow guaranteed for a very long time, so I intend on making every day count.” 

No stranger to stress, Arlen wants to help others realize their triggers before reaching a boiling point. A new Thrive Global survey of over 2,000 Americans ages 18 to 85 shows just how desperately people want and need that knowledge: 91% of respondents said not knowing or ignoring their personal signs of overstress had a negative impact on their mental well-being, 72% wish they knew more small everyday steps to improve their mental health, and nearly half said when it comes to managing their stress, they don’t know where to start.

Because there is power in sharing our stories, Arlen opens up about her own stressors, her signs of overstress, and the small, everyday steps she takes to take care of her mental well-being.

Thrive Global: What causes you stress?

Victoria Arlen: I wear many different career hats and the combination of them all can cause stress from time to time. Constantly having to be “on” is not always easy. Balancing it all while maintaining everything else life throws at me can be stressful. I travel so much and am home about three days at a time, so it can be stressful living out of a suitcase. The last wave of travel I had I was home for 48-hours, and on my first morning home, I woke up and had no idea where I was. 

TG: What signs warn you that you’re approaching your tipping point?

VA: The signs are usually when I start to feel overwhelmed by simple tasks. And when I can’t see to organize my brain. My body tends to let me know as well: I’ll notice that I’m tired and not as energetic as I normally am. Sleep deprivation also begins and I tend to eat less. I get so preoccupied with “work” that I forget to check in with myself. Thankfully my friends and family and people on my team are well aware of the signs and know when to force me to take a step back and breathe. 

TG: What small steps do you take to work through that stress?

VA: It usually involves shutting off for a moment. Either going to the lake or the ocean and just having time to meditate and pray and take in everything. Taking time to be grateful is key for me. It’s easy to just go and go, but we need to still stop and smell the roses and be grateful. Gratitude truly is the best attitude. 

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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