For many years I worked with my friend Mark in the fitness industry. Mark was the epitome of good health: he exercised daily, ate a ridiculously healthy diet, and did everything by the book to stay in tip-top condition.
But Mark was always a little neurotic, and it seemed harmless on the outside – so much so that we’d joke about it. His neuroses started as a young child: he’d pull out his hair, eyebrows, or eyelashes. He said he was searching for something concrete – something he could count on. It served as a punishment or penance of some sort, he figured.
Like many kids, Mark sought his father’s approval. Mark wasn’t sure what his father thought of him because he never talked about his feelings. At 26, he decided to write his dad a detailed letter telling him how much he loved him and how he enjoyed the time they spent together. When his dad received it, he immediately called his son and told him the letter meant the world to him. It was what Mark had been searching for all his life: his father’s approval.
Two weeks later his father shot and killed himself.
“I had put my doubts and fears behind me, and I was truly growing up. I was in my senior year of college with my whole future before me. And then my dad took his life. I had no answer for this,” Mark said. “I began to unravel.”
Although he was devastated, the approval Mark had received from his father before his tragic death empowered him to move forward – or so he thought. Mark ended up spending the next 20 years sublimating his grief and trying to be the man he thought his dad wanted him to be. For a while he showed up at work every day and went through the motions.
Then he began to feel guilty about his father’s death.
Mark wondered whether his dad would have stuck around if he’d been a better son, and as his speculating increased, his anxiety worsened. He hit rock bottom when he spent three isolated weeks at home with bronchitis. He thought he was dying, and his fixations and anxiety were bringing on so many physical symptoms that he was visiting the doctor every day.
Mark didn’t realize it, but he was having a nervous breakdown. Whatever this was, he thought, he didn’t think he would survive it.
Though not a clinical diagnosis, a nervous breakdown describes the point of exhaustion reached after a prolonged period of anxiety, depression, and stress. It leads to a sense of feeling overwhelmed and helpless – of not being able to cope with life – and to utter exhaustion.
The symptoms of a nervous breakdown mirror those of depression and the warning signs of suicide. This is where neuroplasticity comes in to save the day: it’s the amazing potential of the brain to recognize itself by creating new neural pathways to adapt as needed.
Mark recognized that he needed to break his pattern of self-inflicted negativity. He attended a seminar on mind control and learned how to focus on positive self-talk and stop looping his neurotic thoughts.
He found a new question: What is it that I want to do?
This question opened the door for Mark to investigate many different options in his life. He transformed his fear into excitement, realizing he has a choice about how to interpret his life experiences. He now understood that every day he can choose how he thinks.
“I learned that we all think in words, and that those words – those stories – directly affect the chemical reactions in our brains. And those reactions, in turn, affect all of our behavior to the negative or the positive. The choice was up to me,” Mark explained.
After all those years of depression and anxiety, Mark learned to face his grief, embrace it, and be joyful again. He now channels his stress and boundless energy to make positive changes in his life and the lives of those around him. His anxiety that used to be a glaring red light that filled him with fear has instead become a green light that signals him to go forward. He continues exercising and eating healthy, but also incorporates relaxing, meditating, and setting boundaries into his daily routine.
Positive and optimistic people tend to live healthier lifestyles. There are many paths to embrace that optimism, and Mark’s path shows that you can achieve it by changing your thinking. Mark took his grief and turned it into an opportunity to know himself better and to face the challenges of life with a renewed spirit and optimism.
Kristi Hugstad's mission is to reach out to those wrestling with grief and addiction, and offer the opportunity to find a safe place to confront their pain and fears, address them, change them, and ultimately move through them to a new perspective and new life. As a thought leader on grief, she is an author, speaker, certified Grief Recovery Specialist, and host of The Grief Girl radio show and podcast.