There’s a quote from the Dalai Lama that I encountered a few months back. I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but I think it deserves a second mention:
The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most, answered, “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
Today I went for an annual check-up with my doctor. Every year they make you fill out a routine survey concerning changes over the last year, eat/sleep/exercise habits, health concerns, etc. When my doctor read through my survey and saw all yes’s where there should have been yes’s and all no’s where there should have been no’s, she looked up and asked me, “No concerns? None at all?” Her eye contact was friendly, but she seemed to stare right into me. I finally responded “Well…. I guess I have this habit where I pull on my hair when I’m anxious. I start doing it unconsciously and I’ve noticed myself doing it enough that it bothers me… but not enough to make me seriously concerned…” She smiled (relief? amusement? sympathy?) and told me that there was actually a medical term for the condition (trichotillomania), and it was not entirely uncommon. But it was an indication of anxiety.
This was a woman who had know me for 20 years, since my birth (really, who knows you more intimately than the doctor who has taken care of you since birth?), so I listened seriously to what she had to say. She started by saying that she knew I was someone who always set high goals and who didn’t like to settle, but the higher I reached, the more likely and more often I would fall short of my goals. It was the simple truth. And that some people chose to lower their expectations in order to lower their stress levels. Or if I didn’t want to do that, I’d have to learn to deal with my stress and anxiety in a different way – in a non self-destructive way. Not that hair-pulling is the most destructive of behaviors, but it still could be a sign of a greater problem.
It was also important to learn how to manage stress, she said – and here she thew out a bunch of medical terms about high hormone levels and long-term effects on blood vessels – because ultimately it would contribute to the chronic blood and heart conditions that affect people later in their lives and are responsible for a decreased quality of life and the shortening many lifespans.
As a 20-year-old in good general health, sometimes I feel invincible, to the point that I get surprised when I get some minor illness (dehydration, common cold, etc.). And then suddenly I am crippled, both mentally and physically – try writing a lab report when you have a fever and you can’t grab tissues fast enough to blot your runny nose. I am a part of the college student body that ‘cures’ exhaustion with shots of 5-hour energy. I ‘forget’ to eat fruit for a week (excluding the half a lemon I squeeze into my gin and tonic), and consider French fries vegetables. I skip going on runs because I’m lazy, and am probably not in the minority as someone who skips breakfast to get an extra 10 minutes of sleep.
The Ramen noodle-diet, serial all-nighter lifestyle is not sustainable – and certainly not indefinitely so. We’ve all shared stories of friends, acquaintances, classmates who have had gotten ill, who have had mental breakdowns, developed drinking habits, etc. We don’t think it can happen to us until it does or we start to notice the warning signs, and even then sometimes we choose to neglect the severity of the truth. Taking the first step to realize that something isn’t right can be stressful in itself, but is a step in the right direction.
The final thing Doctor Uphoff said to me was that, I didn’t have to accomplish everything right now. I’m 20 and have my entire life ahead of me to do all the things I want to do. But that’s only true if I take care of myself now – that’s the only way I’ll have a future at all. Her advice alone probably isn’t enough to stop me from choosing a heavy course load on top of research and extracurriculars; I won’t swear off all-nighters (in fact, I just ordered a case of 5-hour energy shots), but maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up just a few minutes earlier to make myself breakfast – something healthy like oatmeal with flax seeds.