I was lying on the sidewalk. Cold, January concrete supporting my head. Tears streaming down the sides of my face towards my ears.
Over a dozen pairs of feet raced by me before someone acknowledged my strange placement.
“Are you alright brother?”, an eventual stranger asked.
“I think I might be having a heart attack.”
“Do you want me to call an ambulance?
“That’s probably a good idea.”
He was reaching for his phone at the same moment that he saw an ambulance drive by. He waved them down and told them what he was seeing.
He was too far away for me to hear what he was saying. My best guess was that he said something along the lines of, “This dude is lying on the ground. His eyes looked freaked out. He might be on drugs, but he seems pretty harmless. You should come check him out.”
The EMT kneeled down beside me and started taking stock of my symptoms. Numb arms, heart racing, difficulty breathing, feeling of impending doom.
The verdict? This was my first panic attack.
The EMT assured me that it wouldn’t kill me, I wasn’t dying, it would pass soon, and she would stay with me until I felt stable.
Turns out, she was right. I didn’t die. But that day smacked me awake in a huge way.
Our Bodies Say No When Our Mouths Haven’t Been Saying It For Us
This panic attack came at the peak of me working my butt off at a job that had increasingly gone against my core values, being in a relationship that wasn’t going anywhere, and spending time with friends whom I felt disconnected from.
Basically, all of the major elements of my life felt entirely out of alignment. And instead of setting boundaries (saying no) and proactively making decisions to get myself out of that situation, I let them all fester into something much larger.
As my anxiety started up, I shoved it down. It asked questions, I ignored them. It gave me emotional evidence, and I gave it logical rationalizations.
As I’ve said in the past, every time we resist feeling an emotion it goes down to the basement to lift weights. It gets stronger. Then it comes back up and bangs on the door again, even louder.
For me, these panic attacks were my body’s way of saying “Stop ignoring me! You need to make some serious shifts, and fast!”
And instead of making the small, difficult decisions that I had needed to during the six months leading up to my panic attack, I now had a tsunami of emotional overwhelm crashing down over me and dragging me under.
And, as it is with experiencing any difficult emotions, the only way out was through.
The Five Major Elements Of An Effective Life Overhaul
It’s now been several years since that morning on the sidewalk, and I now see it (and the months that followed it) as one of the most catalyzing transitions of my entire life.
As someone who doesn’t tend to go by half measures, I dove head first into shaking up my life.
Within 48 hours of that first panic attack, I quit my job, ended my relationship, distanced myself from my most toxic friends, and donated/gave away over 90% of my material possessions (because, hey, why not clear physical space as well as emotional space?).
Looking back over that transition, I believe that the following five categories had to be shaken up in order for me to feel human again. And, having helped countless clients through similar massive life overhauls, I trust that some of these will resonate with you if you’re looking to shift your life back into alignment.
1. Your career
This area of your life is a force multiplier in so many ways.
If you love your work, it spreads throughout your entire life. The same rule applies for if you hate it.
If your work is blissfully fulfilling, you’ll be happier. You will be a better friend. You’ll be a better partner. You’ll be more mentally and emotionally present. You’ll communicate more effectively. You’ll find it easier to be more loving and caring for others. When your cup is full, it’s easy to overflow into the people that surround you.
Conversely, if you hate your work because it’s exhausting/draining/out of alignment with what you actually want to be doing, you’ll feel miserable. You’ll be a shitty friend. You’ll be a difficult partner. You’ll find it challenging to be loving and caring for anyone else, even if they happen to catch you on a good day.
One of the first things that I ask my clients when they come to me with any combination of “I’m unhappy/I have no sexual desire/I’m thinking of leaving my partner” is “How has your work been going for you lately? Are you doing work that you love?”
And most of the time the answer is a simple, clear ‘No.’
The concept is becoming a cliche, but I deeply believe that (especially if you are contextually fortunate enough to be reading these words on a digital screen right now) we are all able to have emotionally fulfilling careers.
No, I’m not saying that we are entitled to them and they should be handed to us without any effort. But I am saying that you are allowed to find a career path that makes use of your natural gifts and talents in a way that benefits the world while simultaneously making you happy. Sure, it might take a few years for you to be working consistently in your dream job, but even the slow, progressive realization of that goal will feel more satisfying than plopping yourself down in a six-figure salary desk job that isn’t what you want to be doing.
So if you’re feeling anxious and you’re not sure why, you might want to start by checking in with how your work feels to you.
2. Your social circle
“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” – Debi Hope
Another key component of your mental and emotional health is your social circle.
While some percentage of the people that you work with aren’t always going to be in your control, the quality of the people that you surround yourself with when you aren’t working should be much more choose-able.
It has been said, by millions of people, that we are the average of the five people that we spend most of our time with. And I fully agree, and have experienced this phenomenon through so many phases of my life.
Think about that concept. Really think about it.
Think about the five people you spend the most time with.
Do you wish to have the average of their self-esteem? The average of their net worth? The average of their happiness? The average of their ambition? The average of their ability to empathize?
We are a social species, and we learn (and take on other people’s character traits) by osmosis.
If, in thinking about this concept, you feel a deep pit of terror in your gut, maybe you need to make some drastic shifts in your friends circle.
If, in thinking about this, you feel insanely grateful/fortunate/ecstatic, then keep it up. It sounds like your friends are awesome.
Remember, you always have a choice. If your friends are dragging you down, I believe that it’s better to be temporarily alone and cultivating space for new, more aligned friendships, than grasping on to old vestigial shells of pseudo-intimacy with people who you no longer feel connected to.
– Your friends are consistently draining your energy? Cut ties. Set hard boundaries. Be unapologetic. There is no more precious resource than your time and attention.
– Your friends are amazing? Cultivate depth and intimacy with them. Help them in their lives in as many ways as you can. Remind them how much you love them. Be a good, caring, attentive friend.
3. Your intimate relationship
It feels funny to separate social and intimate as two different categories, since all healthy relationships have intimacy… but you get my point.
Similar to the previous section, if your intimate relationship (aka romantic partner, significant other, lover, spouse, partner, etc.) is out of alignment, it can be a massive drain of your mental and emotional resources.
Like a small puncture in your gas tank, no matter how much you try to fill yourself up, you’ll always find yourself running out of gas.
If your gut is consistently telling you that this relationship is not the right one for you, then it deserves to be listened to.
While you could argue that every one of these categories is about your health in some way, this section is about the more traditional definitions of health.
If you predominantly eat foods that are designed in a lab, consume massive amounts of caffeine, refined sugar, alcohol, and drugs, consistently sleep less than eight hours per night, and never get any exercise, you’re going to feel awful.
If you treat your body like garbage, it’s going to give you poor, inconsistent energy and a bad mood in return. Treat it like you would a partner that you adore, and it will love you back in a similar fashion.
Here are some of the easiest, highest leverage tips that I’ve come across for helping myself (and many clients) install healthy habits that then throw off abundant energy (not to mention better mood, higher sex drive, more creativity, etc.).
– Buy a big water bottle that you love. Get a quality one. BPA free. Make sure you like the texture of it and how insulated it is. Make sure the size of it fits in all of the places that you might place a water bottle (drink holder in your car, side of your backpack, etc.). Simply by owning it, putting it in plain sight, and keeping it filled up more often, you’ll be less prone to drinking sugary drinks, alcohol, caffeine, and other stimulants/depressants that your body isn’t crazy about digesting.
– Every day, go outside before you look at any digital screens. We’re too plugged in around the clock and it adds chronic stress to our bodies. If you wake up in the morning and immediately roll over and check your phone, you’re choosing to begin your day in a reactive (as opposed to proactive) state. “Oh! This person texted/emailed me… I have to get back to them/do something for them.” And before we know it, we’re running around feeling like chickens with our heads cut off… moving from task to task, and never truly checking in with ourselves.
Instead, leave all of your phones/computers/tablets/TV’s out of your bedroom. First thing in the morning, go outside and move your body. Walk a few blocks. Jog for a bit. Dance on the grass. Do whatever is the easiest and most fun. You’ll clear your head, built up stress will melt out of your body, and your entire life will feel that much easier.
– Optimize your sleeping habits. Our bodies need to recharge on a daily basis, and this occurs when we’re engaging in quality sleep. Buy black out curtains and stop looking at any blue light after 7pm. Buy a bed/pillows/blankets that breathe, that are comfortable, and that you aren’t allergic to. Make your bedroom somewhere where you can really let go and relax.
– Drink a green smoothie every day. I am so ridiculously lazy when it comes to the physical preparation of my meals, and yet I still want to consume a high volume of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. Want to know the highest leverage thing that I do to simultaneously combat both of these things? I bought a proper blender (a Vitamix) and consume a green smoothie every morning. Except for short stints where I’ve been travelling and local produce is hard to come by, I’ve aimed to have a green smoothie every day for the past three years.
I’ve done a TON of research on all of the various nutrients that our bodies need on a daily basis, and the following ingredient list is the cumulative result of all of that research…
My go-to ingredients for a full range of goodness are spinach, black kale, green kale, avocado, carrot, acai, cinnamon, cacao nibs, pumpkin seeds, almonds/pecans, nori (seaweed paper), himalayan pink salt, coconut oil, a greens powder, a vegan protein powder, and almond milk/coconut milk/water. And if that combination is too green/healthy tasting for you, you can add in banana, blackberries, and blueberries to taste.
Final note on the smoothie, if you include all of the ingredients in the aforementioned list, it does end up being a fairly caloric one (especially if you include coconut oil, the nuts, the coconut milk, and a full avocado). But I’m also a believer in having a large breakfast, a medium sized lunch, and a small dinner (you get a higher quality sleep without an overly full stomach). To reduce the calories somewhat, use half an avocado, only the pecans (no almonds) and skip the coconut oil. Or just throw it all in and realize that you might have just consumed half of your day’s caloric needs in a single drink. Hooray for low maintenance nutrition!
(I didn’t think I’d end up writing about smoothies for 300+ words in this post, but life is full of surprises!)
– Schedule play into your calendar on a weekly basis. Much more on this in the next section.
“The opposite of play is not work – it is depression.” – Dr. Stuart Brown
Is your life overly serious? Do you find yourself working, and optimizing, and hustling, and pushing constantly?
One of the biggest differences between children and adults is the difference in how much each group plays and laughs.
Children, in their pre-societally conditioned state, feel free to laugh, play, and enjoy themselves. But at a certain stage in our development (or socialization/suppression, depending on how you look at it), people start to learn that life is supposed to be serious. And you have to get a serious job and solve serious problems. As a consequence, as adults, we start laughing and playing less often.
Many researchers believe that a lack of play should be considered as serious of a health risk as a chronic lack of sleep. Play helps us to regulate our emotions, feel socially connected to our communities (and ourselves), and alleviate stress and anxiety.
If you’ve been feeling a distinct lack of fun or playfulness in your life, here are three of the easiest ways to incorporate play into your life once more.
– Take a play inventory. Ask yourself, “What did I used to do for fun before life got in the way? What did I love to do in my free time as a 5-15 year old?” Often, our truest and most fulfilling forms of play are the things that we were naturally drawn towards before we decided that life needed to be a serious endeavour. Sit down with something to write with, and give this some thought. If you aren’t able to come up with anything, ask those who knew you the best during those ages. Friends, family members, and other acquaintances might have a better memory for what we used to fill our time with than we do.
– Find a way to move your body that you genuinely find fun. Instead of exercising or working out because you feel like you should, figure out what kinds of movement feel genuinely enjoyable to you, and prioritize those ones. For me, those activities are walking along the oceanfront, practicing martial arts with a personal trainer, playing trampoline dodgeball, doing improvisational theatre sports, and dancing.
– Schedule it. Show me your calendar and I’ll show you your priorities. Once you’ve figured out what registers as play to you, it’s merely a matter of scheduling it and making it happen. Tell your friends that you’re looking to boost the play that you add into your life and invite them along with you. It’s rare that you’ll have friends rebuff your offer with an, “Oh not for me, thanks. I’m not looking for any more opportunities to laugh and have fun.”
(Side note: I’ve mentioned it before, but the book Play It Away helped me a lot in making play a part of my life again. It’s a quality, value-dense read written by a friend of mine named Charlie.Within a few weeks of picking it up I had reconnected with my childhood hobbies, and effectively re-prioritized play. As a result, I’ve felt lighter, happier, and I’m far easier to be around compared to when I was ‘all work and no play.’)
Can Overhauling Your Life Really Be That Easy?
Yes, it can. I’ve done it several times. And it’s always worth it.
Which area of your life most needs an overhaul? Start there.
Dedicated to your success,
Ps. The headline of this article is intentionally facetious. Major life transitions are never entirely easy. They are almost always the most challenging things we have ever dealt with. If you need help with your unique transition, feel free to reach out and chat with me directly.
Pps. Want to really overhaul your self-love and self-care practices from the inside out? The following articles might appeal to you…