By VANESSA HAMPTON
Anyone who doesn’t really believe that stress causes a lot of issues with our health is mistaken. I, myself, have always known and advised clients that stress has a real impact with regards to weight, but I never truly understood the gravity of what all it can do to a person until I experienced the full effects first-hand.
I just returned from a trip to a health and wellness resort in Massachusetts. The timing was perfect because I knew I had been at a high point of stress for the last month in opening a second business. I needed a break and visiting a place where they offered options for whole body health would give me a moment to relax and unwind. What I got instead was so much more. Not to sound cliché, but life-altering would be a good description of what I gained from this trip.
I had heard great things about this resort, but I knew I was really going to like it when we checked in and they gave us a card that listed a few very specific places where we were allowed to talk on the phone. No cell phone use in community areas… Limited electronics?? Yes, please! Along with an opportunity to unplug, this resort offers a schedule each day that includes a variety of fitness classes, health and wellness lectures, breathing and meditation classes, creative arts classes, cooking classes, guided outdoor hikes, and community events. A full spa is on site that includes two steam rooms, a sauna, two hot tubs, and a lounge area where you can wait for a scheduled massage or other service, or just quietly read a book. Bliss!
Other services offered include one on one visits with Integrative Medicine Physicians (combining the best of Eastern and Western medicine), holistic Nutritionists, and Chinese Medicine Practitioners. In addition to all these things, you never have to worry about healthy choices in food. Everything on the menu is fresh, never processed, and absolutely delicious. Everywhere you venture on the resort, there are huge, beautiful bowls of fruit along with herbal tea and water stations. Comfort and self-care is encouraged on every front, including in your room, where a pillow menu is offered to assure a great night’s sleep. Start to finish, this place is a haven for all things health and I was so blessed with the opportunity to visit.
When I left my home on Sunday, I knew that stress was taking a toll on my body. My head felt constant pressure and my jaw was staying sore because I clinch my teeth (hard) during times of stress. I felt like a walking water balloon and I wasn’t sure if the water retention was due to stress or hormones at the time. My mind and my body was fatigued and I was even noticing dark circles under my eyes when I didn’t cover them up with makeup. I anticipated the trip would help my fatigue, but I wasn’t admitting or truly understanding how profoundly the stress was affecting me mentally and physically…until it wasn’t.
It took about 48 hours before I really began to see it, but when I woke up on Tuesday I was surprised that my skin looked noticeably different. I had color to my face and the dark circles were already gone. By Wednesday, I felt like I had dropped 5 pounds of water. The first of the emotional breaks began after visiting with a nutrition specialist on Monday. I have had some major digestive issues over the last two years and I was really hoping for a different perspective (that didn’t involve a test, pill, or surgery), and that’s exactly what this nutrition specialist offered. What she also unexpectedly suggested, however, is that my stress level may be a factor in my issues.
Even though I didn’t feel stressed when all my issues began a couple of years ago, I tend to “run hot” (as my husband calls it) all the time. I have a driver personality, and (as the nutritionist pointed out) when you combine that with being a business owner, you have a recipe for never shutting down and harboring a lot of tension throughout your body. The best way I can explain it is that I have a constant checklist in my head that follows me around and pushes me constantly. Because I love what I do and am surrounded by an amazing support system with my family and friends, I never thought of myself as stressed. What I am learning, however, is that because I am not truly ever resting my mind, and not resting my body near enough, I am keeping myself in a constant state of stress. NOT GOOD. The nutritionist explained that the stress we hold on our insides is no different that when we tense our shoulders from it. We may not even realize we are doing it, but it can cause major issues if it’s chronic.
The second wave of emotion came when the whole stress theme continued in my visit with the Chinese Medical Practitioner on Tuesday. We talked in depth about my issues and she suggested the exact same thing about the level of stress that I am holding in my body. She pointed out some things going on with my body that I was not even associating with stress and made suggestions about finding right-brain activities (the creative side of the brain) to focus on in order to rest my mind. She was also firm in her instructions about setting clear boundaries for myself of non-work time. She performed acupuncture on me and, after placing a needle in the center of my forehead, within moments, my jaw began to involuntarily separate and relax. It was such an odd and wonderful sensation. The funny thing was that I never mentioned to her that I clenched my teeth due to stress. (As a side note, I slept for an hour and a half after that treatment because it helped me relax my entire body and my mind.)
After leaving each of the specialists, I broke down in tears. I was surprised to feel a flood of relief. Sometimes you know things about yourself, but you just need some unbiased people to call you out on those things. I almost feel like I needed them to give me permission to relax and slow down. I honestly don’t want to live in a state of stress and working 80 hours a week is not something I should wear like a badge of honor. Taking good and complete care of myself, so that I stay healthy for a very long time, absolutely is. I always talk about finding balance in life and it truly is my constant quest. However, I did not fully understand what “balance” meant until now. Sure, eating right and exercising is part of it. Finding happiness is also part of it. But it’s not enough. Honoring your body and your mind means that you feel that balance and calm on the inside and that you rest your spirit.
Yesterday was my first day back home from my trip and I was determined to harness that feeling of calm that I felt at the resort. I was determined to function differently on the inside, so I was visualizing this space that runs down the center of the inside of my body. In it, I was simply picturing a sense of calm. This automatically meant that I was breathing more fully, walking a little more slowly, and even speaking a little more softly. I am making changes, effective immediately, that will help me continue forward in functioning differently and better. They include:
- Adjusting my schedule. I make my own schedule and if I am over-extending myself, it’s no one’s fault but my own.
- Setting clear boundaries of work hours verses downtime. Even though I don’t have an office away from home that I can leave every day, what I can do is make the choice of when to shut it down and save work for later. This includes taking an actual full day off every week.
- Hot herbal teas, especially ones that include ginger and cinnamon. I learned that the warmth of drinks and foods is calming in and of itself (I eat a lot of meals on the run, cold). The ginger and cinnamon are also warming spices.
- Throwing away the never-ending task list in my mind. I will be implementing the “it can wait” approach for anything that truly can.
- Puzzles, adult coloring, and knitting. I have ordered my first puzzle to put together and have actually taken up adult coloring. My mom is also teaching me to knit. I am going to take advantage of all these creative activities as an avenue of shutting down my brain and taking “me” time.
- Acupuncture & Massage. I had never had acupuncture until my trip and I have decided to make it a regular part of my self-care routine. It was honestly amazing for me. I also used to do massage regularly and have gotten away from it because “I didn’t have time”. Well, that changes now too. I don’t have time NOT to.
- Visualization and breathing. I am a very visual person and it’s amazing how just picturing “calm” will bring about the feeling. I also preach to my yoga classes and clients about breathing but I, myself, forget to stop and just take deep breaths sometimes to keep perspective and release tension.
Stress looks different for everyone and different still at various times in our lives. I have felt severe stress from being in a very bad relationship in the past. I have felt severe stress from being so insecure and uncomfortable in my skin in my past as well. My path has moved me away from those types of stress, however I am a work in progress and I now understand that any type of chronic high stress has a negative impact on our health. I know these changes that I am making at this leg of my journey will not completely happen overnight, but I want to be better. I want to continue to learn and grow and do this life better.
I know there are things and circumstances in this life that we cannot change. What we can, however, always change is our perspective and how we approach these things. We can also change how well we care for ourselves; mind, body, and spirit. What I am now truly beginning to understand is that chronic stress (the bad kind and the seemingly not so bad kind) does not go hand in hand with living a full and healthy life. Life ebbs and flows and what balance means today will look different down the road, but my commitment to myself is that the pursuit of true balance (inside and out) will always be what moves me forward.