When a health problem issues a wake-up call, we do just that: wake up. Here's how three women overcame health challenges and reset their paths to wellness.
Sue Jones, 45
Founder, yogaHOPE, a nonprofit that brings yoga to women in need, Boston
How I Felt
When I look back on my thirties, I realize I was depressed, though I didn't know it at the time. I was 25 when I met my husband, and we moved to Maine, where I grew isolated and stressed out trying to be a good mom to two small children while living with a man who didn't provide emotional support. Even though I was running my own successful restaurant, something was wrong. Somewhere, I had lost my connection with myself.
I moved to Boston and began practicing hot yoga, and started really feeling again. The sweating was incredible: It was as if all the emotional toxins were pouring out of me, and I was hooked instantly.
But the comfort and euphoria I felt after class evaporated at home. The discrepancy made me question my happiness, and I separated from my husband to figure things out. It was hard -- I felt like I was ruining the lives of my children -- but I kept practicing and started therapy.
Yoga helped me notice my feelings without judging them, and therapy made it easier to put words to the emotions.
What I learned
My therapist sent me to a psychopharmacologist, who diagnosed me with severe depression and warned that I was a danger to myself. I had to hand over the painkillers I'd been collecting, and I started taking an antidepressant. It didn't exactly make me happy, but it allowed me to continue with yoga and therapy without hitting bottom again.
I returned to my marriage and started yogaHOPE, an organization that teaches yoga to women in domestic-violence shelters and wellness programs. The work helped me heal, too, because I was surrounded by teachers who supported my ideas and valued me.
Soon it became clear that my husband wasn't the person I thought he was. Slowing down and learning to be mindful was empowering; it helped me end a marriage that wasn't healthy for me and allowed me to find compassion for myself, my ex, and for others.
I'm still helping myself by helping other women, and I've received so much. Giving back reminds me that I have something to offer.
The Doctor's Take
When you're depressed, you need to step outside yourself, away from the negative thought cycle," says Pamela Hops, MD, who practices integrative family medicine at the Continuum Center for Health and Healing in New York City.
"Yoga, which builds strength while promoting calm, is powerful; research shows it helps improve mood, perhaps by increasing the brain chemical GABA. Some women want to avoid medication, but as Sue discovered, correcting a chemical imbalance can shift enough to give you clarity. Volunteering has been linked to the production of neurotransmitters, like endorphins, that decrease pain and boost feelings of well-being."
Aziza Myers, 35.
Account Manager, New Hampton, New York
How I Felt
A few years ago I was nauseous for a week or so. I thought nothing of it until one day at work, my headache wouldn't go away. I saw my physician, and when she took my blood pressure, the top number was in the 200s.
"Your pressure is so high, you could die!" she said. "I'm gonna have to keep you."
"Keep me?" I said. "I'm just out to lunch!" I'd had high blood pressure for a while, but no one had suggested it could lead to anything more serious. At checkups I was usually told that my BP was slightly high, but since I was too young for medication, I should just watch what I eat.
I was admitted to the hospital and tested, and a specialist confirmed that I had kidney disease. (Read more about kidney disease at the National Kidney Foundation.) When the doctor said that within a year I'd be on dialysis, I felt like my life was over. I didn't want to be on dialysis six hours a day. I thought, I'm young and hip, I want to be healthy!
I kept asking God, Why me? What did I do? I prayed for strength. Eventually my mom -- who has high blood pressure herself -- convinced me to get a second opinion. The next doctor was easier to talk to. She gave me confidence and explained that kidney failure and dialysis weren't inevitable.
She encouraged lifestyle changes to help lower my blood pressure and improve my kidney function. I began to understand that I wouldn't need dialysis if I could get my kidneys healthy enough to take care of my body, and if I could minimize the work they had to do by losing weight.
I stopped eating so much soul food and switched to more veggies and whole grains. It's still hard to stick to a healthy diet, but now that it's life or death for me, I have more motivation.
Luckily, I found my exercise niche: boxing. I've lost more than 30 pounds, and I've seen the results in my blood work, my urine tests, and everything else. I feel better, have more energy, and sleep better. I'm managing -- and lowering -- my diabetes risk factors, and I don't need dialysis to help control my blood pressure.
It's a plus that boxing helps me lose weight, but it's more than exercise. I love it. I use my pink gloves to work out stress. Boxing has made me more in tune with my body than I ever was. Now when I get angry, I can feel my body grow hot as my pressure goes up. I know I need to calm down and take it out on a punching bag.
What I Learned
Do your own homework, and don't rely only on the person giving you test results to put them into context. Ask questions. And don't wait to do all the stuff you know you should. I wish I'd made changes earlier.
The Doctor's Take
"Doctors should never dismiss symptoms based on age, because there are always exceptions," Hops says. "Since lifestyle is such a big component of common diseases, like hypertension, discuss your diet and exercise habits -- along with whether you smoke or take medications -- at your first appointment with any new doctor. While it's important for physicians to be realistic, don't tolerate one who is discouraging. The mind-body component is important; plus, feeling defeatist can easily zap your motivation to make needed changes. If you have high blood pressure, ask for a blood test called glomerular filtration rate, which measures how well your kidneys work; while it's recommended for all at-risk patients, few doctors order it."
Jennifer Edwards, 37
Performing artist and content creator, New York City
How I Felt
Growing up, I was the kid who always had the stomachache. Despite being active (I was a dancer) and eating well, I never felt right.
In retrospect, I was in a stressful situation: My mom had cancer, and from age 7, I witnessed her long battle. She died when I was 15, leaving me to cook and care for my father.
Over the next few years, I went through a lot. By the time I was 18, I was married, pregnant, and experiencing severe urinary tract and bladder infections. After I had my son, my symptoms shifted; in addition to stomach troubles, I suffered from blurry vision, oral ulcers, headaches, and panic attacks.
In 1992 my doctors diagnosed me with irritable bowel syndrome and told me that, eventually, I would develop colitis and might need surgery. This was in rural New Jersey -- no one talked about stress management or IBS. I was just offered antianxiety and pain medication. But I was determined to get to the bottom of my condition without drugs.
Over the next few years, things intensified (my father died suddenly, I navigated my grandmother's elder care, and I got divorced), but I continued to investigate self-healing solutions whenever I could. I tried every diet -- gluten-free, vegan, cleansing -- and I gave up anything (caffeine, alcohol, sugar) if I thought it would help. My symptoms persisted, and looking back, most of the restrictive routines just stressed me out.
I started taking classes from a woman who was helping herself recover from Lyme disease. Her breathing and self-massage techniques helped me reconnect to my physical side, and I realized that my relationship with my body was based on manipulation.
Like many dancers, I pushed my body to extremes. By trying to overcome my symptoms, I had been using the same approach. After a while, I learned to calm myself by putting my hands on my chest or stomach, and I started to feel comfortable in my body.
What I Learned
As I researched the biology of the stress response, I began to understand that my symptoms had to do with the fight-or-flight instinct -- they were related to the hormones that our bodies release when we feel threatened. I'd been doing a lot of experiments, thinking I would find the answer. But when I couldn't eat the right foods or do the right exercises, I panicked and triggered the stress response, worsening my symptoms.
Over time I developed a daily practice of listening to myself instead of fighting my natural reactions. Whenever I have downtime, like when I'm waiting for a call, I take a moment to relax. If there is an answer, it's this: breathing, stretching, and nurturing a comfortable space within. Today, these are my only guidelines, and I've been free from serious symptoms for 10 years. Sure, I still have occasional stomachaches when things get intense, but they're manageable.
The Doctor's Take
"Stress is behind many conditions, because it causes inflammation," Hops says. "The gut is especially sensitive, which is why antidepressants help IBS. Also key: the realization that you don't have to live a life with pain. Mind-body methods can raise your pain threshold to the point where it stops bothering you."
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