The year I turned 28, I made partner in a large hospitality group, got married, and had heart surgery; in that order. The preceding 15 or so years, I was living at an accelerated pace — playing multiple sports in high school while also starring in all the drama club productions, graduating early from Columbia while holding down a full-time job and training for marathons, juggling an insanely full workload in the nightclub biz and enjoying the fruits of my labor to the maximum (read: partying all night and working all day). I did what I had to do to maintain this pace, while my adrenal glands, nervous system and fiancé all suffered in silence. To the outside world I was “crushing it”, but on the inside, I was slowly dying — literally.
The glorification of busyness has been lamented ad nauseam so I’m not gonna do that here. But think of how many times you’ve heard a friend tell you they are, “great, but slammed” and that things are “beyond insane.” This is not a new phenomenon but it is escalating rapidly, to the detriment of our health, sanity and relationships. Amplified by the pressures of social media, we all feel the need to do more and sleep less. We are driving ourselves harder and faster and ignoring the signs that it is time to slow down, expecting a magic supplement or a 3-day retreat (that will cost a month’s pay but look *so* chill on Instagram) to cure us. News flash: anything that takes time to break is gonna take time to fix.
“My doctors looked at me like I was some kind of freak, for the most part, and I experienced a lot of shame around the fact that, in some ways, this was preventable.“
“Your heart is skipping every 3rd beat. You need to get surgery immediately or you’re at risk for sudden heart failure.” The diagnosis was earth-shattering; I was in denial and I was pissed. I never went to the doctor because my schedule was too packed with important meetings and calls and now this. When would I even schedule this surgery? I had a honeymoon to attend. Shit, I was in the middle of opening a nightclub. My career was FINALLY taking off for real… and now I had to hit the pause button?!? I’ll never make “30 Under 30” now. WTF! How could you betray me like this, self?
But obviously, I did not have a choice. Over the weeks that led up to my heart surgery, I started to come to grips with reality. Turns out I have a genetic condition that leads to things like arrhythmia, vasovagal syncope, and even sudden heart failure. Most people don’t experience any symptoms unless they are pack-a-day smokers, morbidly obese, over 70-years-old or, “under extreme stress.” As a 27-year-old Physique 57 devotee, it was clear which camp I fell into. My doctors looked at me like I was some kind of freak, for the most part, and I experienced a lot of shame around the fact that, in some ways, this was preventable. I brought it upon myself. Some of us get gentle taps from the Universe to slow down, while others, well, we need a full-on bitch slap before we will even begin to contemplate self-care.
I only tell you that part of the story so that you don’t assume I’m some uber-chill, ashwagandha-golden-milk-latte-sipping zen type who this shit comes easily to. Never was, never will be. I share my story as a cautionary tale, kinda like those pictures of meth people with no teeth. And after years of studying how I f-ed myself up — constant stress, 4-5 hours sleep per night for years, stimulant consumption, dieting to be “thin” rather than healthy, never taking a day off even when I was literally dying/dead — I have learned a thing or two (or fifty) about the importance of self-care. I took a year sabbatical from work and got certifications in taking care of myself — yoga, meditation, health coaching, and MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction). While I truly believe that self-care is important for everyone, it is a non-negotiable for those of us who are “Type As,” overachievers, #girlboss types.
In the past week, I have had two uber-successful entrepreneur friends end up in the hospital dealing with stress-related issues. LADIES AND GENTS: It’s time to stop the madness. All the professional success, accolades, money, and Instagram followers mean very little when you are suffering, physically and emotionally, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Even for the busy AF people out there, self-care strategies are feasible and actionable and this is your kick in the pants to start making them work for you.
What in your life causes you the most significant stress? Is it your job — with a grueling schedule or an unrelenting boss? Is it your finances — your student loan debt and bank account balance? Or maybe you’re still part of a friend “clique” that wants more and more of your time and offers you very little in the way of true emotional support? These stressors will be different for all of us. Pause for a moment and list the top two things that stress you out. What keeps you up at night? What makes you feel the most physical anxiety, you know, the heart-racing, tight-breathing, butterfly-stomach feelings. Your mind may be telling you “no” but your body will tell you “yes, this is stressing us out.” Once you identify your stressors you can start dealing with them actively rather than letting them fester inside your gut.
Say No. Say No. Say No.
Set rules for your own schedule. I personally can only “grab drinks” with one person per week. I have a full-time job, a toddler, and sit on the board of a charity. So if you want to see me and you don’t have some connection to those three main priorities in my life, I’m gonna send you a calendar appt for six weeks from now and not feel bad about it. This is not being a bad friend. This is an act of self-preservation. I do not want my battery drained by Thursday afternoon and so I say “no.” Don’t wait until you already feel like shit to start canceling plans: be proactive and under-schedule yourself, leaving time for things like sitting still and breathing. Seriously.
Go the “F” to Sleep
Not getting enough sleep for prolonged periods of time will make you feel not so great. Did you know that people with insomnia are 10 times more likely to have clinical depression and 17 times as likely to suffer from anxiety? Lack of sleep is bad for your mental alertness, your heart, your personality and your waistline. The “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” ethos is a bunch of bullshit. Turn your phone off and get in bed. Take naps on the weekend to make up for the inevitable busyness of the week. And sometimes, you SHOULD skip that Soulcycle class and hit snooze because you love yourself and want to BE healthy, not just LOOK healthy, right? And don’t take my word for it — personal guru of all things, Arianna Huffington, knows a thing or two about being a mega boss and she is sleep’s biggest fan.
Carve Out Time Every Single Day For Yourself
I get it, you’re busy. You don’t have the time to luxuriate in a lengthy self-care routine on a regular basis. So rather than meditating and sauna-ing and sound-bathing for three hours on the weekends and doing nada during the week, pick a concise routine that works for you, and stick with it. For me, meditating every day for 20 minutes is non-negotiable. I set my alarm to do it every morning and I look forward to it. If 20 minutes seems absurd to you — start with 5. With apps like Headspace and Insight Timer, you can even put headphones in your ears and meditate during your commute.
The important thing here is finding something you can commit to on a daily basis. I have a friend (no names) who takes 10 deep, calming breaths with her eyes closed every time she uses the bathroom. Genius! The tricky part, of course, is sticking with it, even when you don’t think it’s working. Self-care is not a quick fix like popping a Xanax and tuning out your life. It’s more like a craft that you hone on over a lifetime, plugging away for weeks then seeing bursts of progress along the way. Your self-care routine can and will evolve with your life — new job, new family members, new commutes — and can serve as a source of comfort during tumultuous and stressful times but only if you commit.
Build a Support System
Misery loves company, and so do workaholics, complainers, and energy vampires. To combat this, you need to find a core group of people who want you to be happy and live your #bestlife. You might already have great friends who fall into this category or you may need to cut some people out of your life. Your support system can include teachers, therapists, and even people you only know from Instagram or podcasts so long as what they bring into your life supports you and reminds you of why you embarked on this self-care journey in the first place. In an ideal world, you have at least one person who will call you out when you slip back into your eye-twitching stress-addict tendencies. Kind of like an AA sponsor but for pulling all-nighters and cuddling your iPhone at night. If you don’t have someone like this, DM me (for real). I’d love to be your stress-relief fairy godmother.
Did you know that 90 percent of serotonin is produced in the gut? That means no amount of meditating and sleeping and positive quote reading is going to help you manage your stress/moods if you aren’t taking care of your microbiome. Eating your greens, staying hydrated and taking a high-quality probiotic are more important for your brain than they are for your waistline. You don’t have to be a rigid dieter — in fact, that will usually leads to more stress. So indulge at that cookout and lick that ice cream cone, girlfriend. Just throw some spinach in your smoothie and know that every ounce of kale you consume is being converted into happy juice in your belly.
Make Time for Play
When is the last time you laughed out loud, ran barefoot in the grass, or danced like nobody was watching? There was a time when I only hung out in cool places with cool people in cool outfits on cool nights. I shared banquettes with the Olsen twins and the Hilton sisters and got into all the best clubs and rarely — if ever — was it just plain fun. You had to stress about your outfit, your hair, and seeing your credit card tab the next morning, so while it was “technically” my play-time it was far from stress-free. I love to get dressed up and go out as much as the next person, but if your nights off always involve posing for BFA AND you have a full-time job, you’ll be on the fast track to burnout.
The best part of having a toddler is that I play every day. I make plastic dinosaurs talk, I get soaked in the splash park, race down the slide and chase after the ice cream man. This is not only fun, but an incredible source of endorphin production and yes, stress relief. Find some friends you can let your hair down and laugh with (or just have a baby — I swear, it worked for me!).
Self-care is not only a crucial part of maintaining physical health, it is also the most powerful form of self-respect and self-love that exists. Cultivating a calm peaceful existence and working hard are not mutually exclusive. You can be ambitious and career-driven and still say no when you are in need of rest. You deserve to be wildly successful but more than that, you deserve to be wildly happy. Committing to self-care unlocks the possibility of having both.
[Editor’s Note: Since we’re not know-it-alls, always make sure to consult with a doctor before trying anything new. We’re here to guide and provide information that could potentially help, but each person is different so do what’s right for you!]
Feature image via Coffee and Bouborn