Right before my high school graduation, my class held a party where we did a set of tongue-in-cheek “awards” for everyone. There were only 22 people in my graduating class, and many of us had gone to school together since kindergarten—so we knew each other extremely well in selecting the awards.
One of my best friends received an alien sculpture in reference to a long standing class joke. Our class football star got a giant fake trophy. My prize was a stress ball. You know, one of those cheap foam ones that they always give out at health fairs. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was disappointed by the gift.
For four years of high school, I had been very actively involved in the community: I was the student body Vice President, co-captain of the mock trial team, student leader of the choir, and highly enthusiastic bench warmer on the varsity volleyball team. On top of all that, I had maintained great grades and invested in a lot of friendships. And yet, despite my mountain of accomplishments, the thing that my classmates were going to remember the most about me is that I had been stressed out all the time. I was upset because I knew that it was true.
As much as I hated to admit it, stress was the defining feature of my life when I was a teenager. Term paper due next week? I was an anxious wreck. Not sure if we had a good enough team that year to compete at the state level? Time for me to freak out at someone. As a high schooler, I was perpetually stressed about everything in my life, and everyone else around me was forced to deal with it too.
By the time I finished my senior year, I was exhausted by it. I remember leaving the pre-graduation party with that stupid stress ball in my pocket and thinking, I don’t want to be this person anymore.
I wish that I could say that I figured it all out over that summer, but my first semester of college was terrible. I finally reached my crisis point and unfortunately began to crash and burn both academically and personally. But then things did start to get better—a lot better! When I was finally forced to reach out and ask for help, I started to learn how and why I had gotten to be such a stressed out mess in the first place (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t because of school!). I came to understand some critical truths about the way my brain works and strategies for taking better care of my mental health. As I embraced my new concepts for less stress and more living, I not only figured out how to better manage my stress, but actually how to avoid becoming stressed out in the first place:
- Therapy: I never would have been able to unpack the root causes of my stress problems without the help of a couple incredible psychologists. I went through a lot of emotional and family trauma in the years after my dad passed away during my freshman year of high school. I thought that I was dealing with it at the time, but I really wasn’t, and it wasn’t until I was in college and had the time and space in therapy to realize just how much I went going t as a teenager. Everything in my home life seemed so out of control for a while, and it made sense that I obsessed over school and my activities because they were some of the only things I could control. Therapy has helped me understand how this is a pattern that I have repeated several times in my life and how I can escape this cycle of amplifying my stress on one aspect of my life when I am feeling out of control with something else.
- Sleep: I function great when I get enough sleep, and I completely fall apart when I don’t. It’s that simple. My senior year of high school, I averaged only 4 hours of sleep every night, so is their any surprise that I wasn’t managing very well? I have learned to prioritize having a regular sleep cycle over almost everything else in my life, because it really is the make or break factor in my mental health.
- Limits: Some people can work two jobs, play on a sports team, go to school, travel internationally three times a year, do mission work, be actively involved in their church, and play music in their spare time, and I am not those people. I have enough energy to work my one full time job, spend time with my husband, and dedicate my spare time to a very select group of close friends and outside activities. That’s it. I have to say no to a lot of invitations because my threshold for managing busyness is very low. It has taken me a long time to accept this, but the truth is that it’s okay to have a simpler life and schedule—especially when I can enjoy my scaled down life without stressing out.
- Success: I have handled some very stressful situations over the course of the last few years: moving about a dozen times; financial uncertainties; medical crises; saying goodbye to close friends and family. And although I have had a few rough days, by and large I have handled all of these things exceptionally well. I’m beginning to believe that I will not be crushed by the problems that at first seem overwhelming. I can roll with the punches now and trust that everything will be okay. I can choose not to stress out when stuff happens because I know that I can handle it. To the girl for whom every new assignment was once a crushing blow, the ability to stay calm now even when the big stuff happens feels kind of like a super power.
It’s a been almost a decade since my class gave me that stress ball and I realized that I needed to change my life. I still struggle with stress and anxiety, but I know that it doesn’t define my life anymore. I am getting better and better at avoiding the stress traps that my mind sets, and I continue to focus on improving self care for my mental health. The best part, though, is that for the first time I’m living really well and genuinely happy. There is a wonderful life outside the walls of being stressed out all the time, and I’m grateful that I got pushed far enough over the edge to find it.
Photo Credit: Flickr/J E Theriot