Many years ago, I worked in a staggeringly, unrelentingly stressful environment, while functioning on very little sleep (courtesy of my one and three-year-old sons). Reluctant to throw in the towel, I clung on to the job by my fingernails, just about scraping through each day before bracing myself for the inevitable trauma of the next. Some people put on weight when they’re under extreme stress. I go the opposite way: the daily assault of stress hormones made me skinnier and skinnier, no matter how many brie baguettes and chocolate brownies I ate to try and stabilise my weight. I recall being gobsmacked when a colleague, alluding to my dramatic weight loss, asked me what my “secret” was – I found it extraordinary that she could think being so underweight was either desirable or intentional.
And it wasn’t only the alarming weight loss – every other week I seemed to be hit with another illness, or my face came out in hives, or I’d develop a weird back problem. And still I battled on, desperate to live up to my professional reputation. One day, in the grip of another mystery illness, my legs buckled under me while I was in the ladies, applying blusher to try to tart up my putty-coloured face. I picked myself up and, though clearly unfit to be at work, I doggedly insisted on driving 40 miles to take a client meeting. Ever the professional, as they say.
Eventually, I faced the glaring reality that there was no option but to resign, which I duly did. But I was persuaded that things would improve and, against my better judgement, I relented and agreed to stay. That same week, I woke up to find that my right eye was bright red. No amount of eye drops had any effect and it was galling to attend client meetings (not to mention my close friend’s 30th birthday bash) looking like a half-cocked extra from the Twilight movies.
I’d never really suffered from eye infections before, save for a very rare attack that would disappear with a dose of eye drops. But my vampire-red eye just wouldn’t shift. Week after week, there it was staring back at me in the mirror.
And, all the while, the stress I was under at work actually increased. Three months after my first attempt at resigning, I resigned again – this time for good. And guess what? That redness in my eye promptly disappeared.
At the time, I came to view the redness as a sort of facial red alert, yelling “Alert! Alert! Leave this job, you fool. LEAVE THIS JOB. NOW!!”.
Now that I’ve retrained as a health coach, I still see it as my body’s red alert button. Our body is an incredibly intelligent system that communicates with us constantly. It whispers at us when something is out of balance. When we blithely ignore that signal (much like sticking a plaster over a flashing red button on our car’s dashboard), it turns up the volume. And if we still ignore it, it resorts to screaming at us and bashing us round the head to try and grab our attention.
But there’s another explanation, too. You see, when we’re in the “fight or flight” state (the sympathetic nervous system) and our body is primed to run from a predator, it’s not concerned with long-term functions of repair and regeneration.The fact is that a puny eye infection presents little challenge for a properly balanced body – we’re amazingly efficient at resolving minor infections and our body is in a constant state of renewing itself. But I was very far from being properly balanced. Instead, I was awash with stress hormones that kept my system in a constant state of inflammation.
Looking back, I don’t believe that I actually breathed fully for the duration of my time in that job. After I’d walked out the door for the last time, my body did a strange thing for the following few days. I’d be washing up or preparing the dinner and suddenly I’d take a huge involuntary intake of air – just like when you’ve dived too deeply under water and you come back up to the surface. I think that was my body gasping for air after 12 months of constriction. I distinctly remember that, at the time, a little bit of me whispered: “Hmm, now that’s interesting.” That little bit of me was the piece that, many years later, would push its way to the surface. It turned me into the health coach I am today – someone who now helps others to connect their own dots and deduce what their own body is trying to tell them.
So, now that I’ve shared the story of my red eye, I want to ask you: is your body talking to you? Is it pressing a red alert that you’re choosing to ignore? If so, take a minute to consider what it has to say.
Believe me, it knows best.