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Yin and Yang: Repairing Your Health After Leaving a Toxic Job

Even after you’ve left a toxic work environment, you haven’t truly left it behind. As important as it is to find a new job, you’ll also want to invest energy into taking care of yourself physically and mentally.

We all crave recognition and fulfillment at work — it’s human nature. But what happens when we don’t get that sort of appreciation and kindness? Our appetite for comfort can take a seriously unhealthy turn.

Many years ago, I was earning big money at a billion-dollar consulting firm. The pay was great, but the stress was not. Enmeshed in a world fraught with anxiety and emotional distress, eating became my coping mechanism.

On my drive home from work, I would stop by several fast food restaurants — White Castle, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s — to eat my stress away. From the ages of 17 to 20, I never once bought groceries. Ever. This unhealthy behavior caused my weight to balloon to 300 pounds, which created a whole new set of problems.

To say my life was toxic would be an understatement. I was “that guy” on airplanes who spilled over the armrest onto my seatmates. I had plenty of money, but it didn’t matter. I was killing myself before I could legally buy a beer.

Long story short, I decided to get my life back on track. I splurged for gastric lap band surgery, which helped curb my cravings. More importantly, I left my unhealthy work environment behind. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

As time passed, I realized how much that stressful work environment had taken a toll on my mental and physical health. As the American Psychological Association notes, people living in a state of constant tension are at risk of everything from depression to chronic stress. I escaped my own personal hell, and I fully encourage any frazzled professionals to remove themselves from similarly destructive work environments — regardless of the consequences.

Leave Today for a Better Tomorrow

Why don’t more people feel empowered to leave bad work situations? Many believe they can keep their professional and personal lives separate, but that doesn’t work in the real world.

Once they get home from the office, the stress from their jobs haunts them like an evil Chucky doll. They might try to push negative thoughts out of their minds, but they already have high levels of cortisol pumping through their veins. In fact, one study from the International Journal of Epidemiology showed that the stress of being in a bad job was more harmful than the stress of having no job at all. Yikes.

Of course, workers stay in unhealthy environments for plenty of other reasons. A nasty supervisor might feel like a more appealing option than an unknown quantity elsewhere. When I hear friends talk about staying in a bad place because of this fear of the unknown, I suggest they practice Stoicism like emperor Marcus Aurelius, philosopher Seneca, and — most notably today — New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Stoicism means practicing indifference to pleasure and pain, but we can achieve it by letting go of our fears.

Let’s say your greatest fear is that you won’t have money for food if you leave your terrible workplace. Face your fear by forcing yourself to live off of Top Ramen for a week. Doing so will help you see that the worst possible outcome is not as bad as you think. Will you take a hit on the wallet if you deliver your resignation? Perhaps. But you’ll have something that money cannot buy: happiness.

Time and Energy Heal All Wounds

Even after you’ve left a toxic work environment, you haven’t truly left it behind. As important as it is to find a new job, you’ll also want to invest energy into taking care of yourself physically and mentally. Start the healing process with these four must-dos:

1. Give meditation a try.

Take 10 minutes of the day — using an app like Headspace or Calm to help — and just be at peace. Worried this is stuff for hippies? Meditation actually has far-reaching positive effects when you do it correctly, and about one out of every seven workers say they engage in this sort of activity.

Train your brain to view incidents as occurrences that will pass rather than catastrophes. If you lose an important negotiation or account, don’t immediately assume that you’re going to lose your job. Let the moment pass while you stay engaged, but don’t let your emotions spiral out of control.

2. Become more active.

Instead of traversing the drive-thrus of Bend, Oregon, I spend my time biking up the sides of mountains. Being on the trails provides me with a sense of solitude and oneness with nature. Plus, it’s a lot of fun. When you incorporate pleasurable physical activity into your routine, you’ll enjoy reduced stress, increased endorphins, lowered irritability, and enhanced concentration.

3. Trust a bit of self-reflection.

How often do you take the time to self-reflect? After leaving a toxic work environment, it’s essential to incorporate some mindfulness into your mix of health-inducing practices. Ask yourself whether you might have contributed to the toxicity by gossiping or fostering an unkind, unproductive work atmosphere. If you feel like you might have played a role in the problems, work toward avoiding similar shortcomings in the future. Otherwise, you’ll end up in the same boat again.

4. Continue to read and learn.

Want to learn more about Stoicism and other principles that can help curb stress? Carve out some time to read a few books, beginning with Simon Sinek’s “Leaders Eat Last.” One of his most powerful quotes succinctly explains the scientific difference between positive and negative workplaces: “Our brains are wired to release oxytocin when in the presence of our tribe and cortisol, the chemical that produces the feeling of anxiety, when we feel vulnerable and alone.”

Your life will never be perfect, but it can be so much better if you’re living a purposeful life that’s free of unnecessary stressors. Start each day by asking yourself five “why” questions, such as “Why do you work where you work?” Follow the trail to its natural conclusion, making sure your responses line up with your core values. Once you know you’re doing what’s best for your mind, body, and spirit, you can jump into your day with a sense of purpose.

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- MARCUS AURELIUS

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