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What Collapsing from Exhaustion Taught Me About What It Really Means to Be Healthy

It was the biggest turning point in my life.

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My mantra was “I think I can” from one of my favorite childhood books, The Little Engine That Could. I kept moving and pushing to do everything I wanted. My can-do attitude got me more responsibility at work. I had not one role, not two, but three different roles at the same time without a raise. I aimed to please, so I just took on more work when my bosses asked me to. Sometimes I was triple-booked for meetings in three different countries.

After a long workday, no matter how exhausted I was, I would rush off to see my friends or race to the gym or go out. Resting wasn’t on my agenda. By pounding it out in the gym, however, I was just stressing my already stressed-out body. Even though exercise is usually healthy, it wasn’t what my body needed at the time. I was only adding to my stress. I got more and more exhausted.

And then one day, my body came to a complete halt. That morning, I went down to the 7-Eleven to get my favorite hazelnut coffee, hoping this time it would clear my brain fog. It never did.

I made my way back home and I ran into my landlady who lived downstairs. She mentioned a new restaurant that opened up downtown. One second I’m listening to her talk about the restaurant’s menu, and the next second I’m on the floor.

I was beyond confused and I wanted to understand what had happened, so I saw a doctor. But I didn’t get any clear answers from them. I was apparently healthy, I didn’t have any underlying conditions or illnesses. But deep down, I knew there had to be more to it. I was determined to find answers and get my body and health back on track.

I realized I needed to find out the truth about what my body needed.

I knew it would take more than eating chicken salads every day and working out two or three times a week to make myself truly healthy. I wanted to look at everything affecting my health—my sleep and self-care, my relationships with myself and others, my environment, and my spirituality—to make myself whole again.

I learned lack of sleep was one of the main reasons for my collapse and chronic exhaustion. But as I peeled back more and more layers, I realized there were plenty more things stressing my body out. I felt on edge and burned out, but I hadn’t noticed until my body gave out on me. I hadn’t seen the red flags for years.

I was irritated on a daily basis by things that normally wouldn’t have bothered me—irrational anger would strike when someone asked me for help or to do one little extra thing. I dealt with constant brain fog and a dilapidated memory. I had trouble remembering if I had sent an email or not. My new normal included symptoms like tightness in my chest, fatigue, upset stomach, insomnia, restlessness, and a lack of motivation and focus I kept feeling on and off for years. Since these symptoms were never acute or debilitating, I dismissed them. I thought they were just part of everyday life.

Worst of all, anxiety was my constant companion. Disaster scenarios plagued my mind, like the thought of losing my job.

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While you may not come to the point of collapse like me, I know you can relate to feeling stressed, anxious, and tired, especially if

  1. You feel like a robot just going through the motions. You wish there was more to life than trying to keep up with your exhausting to-do list.
  2. Your mind doesn’t quiet down and it’s hard to focus. You don’t know how to keep still or just be. You always need to be doing something.
  3. Sleep isn’t a priority. You get less than the seven-hour minimum your body typically needs.
  4. You’re always connected to work (even off the clock) through your beloved smartphone. It doesn’t leave your side, you check it constantly, and leaving it somewhere else makes you feel uneasy.
  5. You’re easily irritated and frustrated when things don’t go as expected.

It’s time to take care of yourself and find out what you need. Take charge of your health and well-being. It’s up to you—no one else will do it for you. Take the time to find out what will make you smile, laugh, feel good, and be healthy, then do it.

There is no set formula for being healthier and making yourself feel better. Everyone is different. The way you, your body, and your mind react will be unique to you. Work with it. Be true to yourself. If ultramarathon running is the latest craze among your friends, but you’re utterly wiped out after running a mile, listen to your body. It’s telling you something. Find out what is going on with your health and what you actually need. Do what’s good for you.

This originally appeared in Recharge: Find Joy, Boost Your Energy, Take Charge of Your Health.

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