It was a weird and scary feeling – waking up in my Michigan hotel room on the first night of a “men’s retreat” at 2:58am with my heart pounding, gasping for air. “Why is my heart beating so fast? Did I stop breathing in my sleep? What is going on with me?” As I lay in bed trying to comprehend what was going on, it felt like I was given a shot of adrenaline – heart thumping, heavy breathing, mind racing.  I didn’t hear anything that startled me, and I didn’t have a bad dream. Trying to calm myself down to fall back asleep, I hoped that this was just a freak event and wouldn’t happen again.

But it did. Three more times.

Exactly the same way, at almost exactly the same time (I used my heart rate data from my watch to verify…I’m a nerd, I know).

After the 3rd occurence, I was legitimately concerned about my health, so I called my father, a long-practicing physician. After explaining my symptoms in great detail, he told me I was likely having panic attacks.

What? Panic attacks,” I thought to myself, “panic attacks are for weak people who can’t handle life’s issues. That’s not me”.   Or at least, that’s what I thought. As my father tried to understand the source of my panic attacks to confirm his diagnosis, he started to ask me about my stress level, and the amount of work I was taking on. It was no secret, the past few months had been extremely hard with many dental school mid-terms, studying for my board exams, podcasting, consultant work, multiple school leadership obligations, and demanding physical stress training for a marathon. As I listed off my daily activities, it was very clear that I was operating at over 100% capacity, for an extended period of time.

I had hit my limit.

I’ve never done that before – hit my limit. Having been in the military, I know how to handle very stressful situations. I am no stranger to challenges, and actually perform better when I am “under the gun”. But when the high stress, worry, deadlines and uncertainty became chronic, my body gave me a wake-up call, literally, to get me back on the path.

See, I had fallen off the path without knowing it. Sure, I was disciplined. I was up early, working out, eating healthy, all that good stuff. But I was spreading myself over way too many things. I couldn’t go a minute without worrying about something, trying to put out a “fire”, working to create something new, adding value to this company, and on and on. And what’s more, every one of those activities started to seem like a life-or-death opportunity. “If I don’t get an A on this exam, I will not be able to compete for a residency spot, and will not be able to have a choice of what I want to do, and not have enough money and…” (I admit, as I write this, I am a little embarrassed as these things clearly are not true, but my mind got into this toxic spiral). Ever felt that way? It’s like being on a treadmill that won’t ever stop.

So, what do you do when that happens? Not that it happens all the time, but sometimes it does, to all of us. How do you get back on track to living a healthy and productive life? I’d like to share some of the things that have helped me, hopefully they will be of assistance to you on your journey. I’m happy to say that after a week of some serious evaluation and doing the things below, my panic attacks went away, and I am so much happier and productive than I was a few months ago.  This isn’t just a blog to help you “feel good”, it’s about how to live a responsible, productive, valuable life in a world that can grind us to the floor.

Find Your Sweet Spot

Right now, stop and think, honestly. In what type of life situation do you complete your best work? Is it when you are all alone with no other obligations or stresses? When you are more busy and stressed with deadlines? I can tell you that as macho as I want to think I am, I actually perform my best work when I am about 80% obligated. I perform best when about 80% of my day is filled with tasks I need to accomplish. Notice, it’s not 100%, like many motivational memes and speakers tell you your life “should be”. When I have 20% of my day dedicated to things that do not stress me out, that relax me, that make me happy, that right my perspective, the quality of my work is much higher.  Additionally, my athletic performance, health, and social interaction is much better as well! What’s your sweet spot? How does it compare to where you are right now? When you find yourself in a season where you feel overwhelmed or in a lull, stop, and bring yourself back to that point where you perform best.

Detach

When we over-commit ourselves, we start to narrow our focus on things that don’t matter. We get sucked in to the stress of a deadline, frustration of a project, demands of school, and we lose sight of the things that really matter in life. We start to pay less attention to our spouses, our co-workers, our health, and instead think that our entire future existence depends entirely on this next thing we have to do. But it doesn’t. And the only way to realize that is to detach from everything you are doing. Take a day off, don’t go to school, stop reading emails. Take a few hours to breathe and remember what really matters in life. While you do that, notice that the world is still spinning, that there are much bigger problems out there than our small existence, that you are going to be ok if you don’t meet this next project.  When you detach, you are able to eventually return to your projects with a renewed, healthy perspective. A perspective that recognizes beauty in the work you are doing, understands the bigger picture of life and the role we play in it. This proper sight picture will help you make good decisions and spend your time wisely making the world a better place.

Get Congruent

Besides being a word that will make you sound smart, congruent simply means “agreeing or meeting together”. When I hit my stress limit, one of the primary causes was that I was doing so many random things that were not aligned with my overall purpose. I was trying to get good grades in school to be a successful dentist. I was brainstorming podcast ideas. I was thinking of starting a coffee business. I was developing new procedures and products for the company I consult with. My thoughts and energy was scattered all over the map! I was doing all sorts of things that were not aligned, that did not agree with my main objective. My life’s tasks and thoughts were not congruent with my main goal, and that caused me a lot of unnecessary stress and didn’t leave me with much to work with either. When you find yourself here, it’s time to start realigning your tasks with your purpose.  For me, I ended up cutting back, and even shelving some of the projects I was working on, saying no a few times to requests for my time, because they did not align with my overall purpose. You might need to put some things off, or turn down an opportunity because it is not aligned with your ultimate goal.  Remember, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. You’ll breathe a sigh of relief, like I did, when you lighten the load and focus more on what matters.

 

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