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Trading Your Health For Your Career Is A Very Bad Trade

Trading Your Health For Your Career Is A Very Bad Trade

By Professor Pete Alexander (excerpted from his book LIGHTEN Your Day)

Stress almost killed me—literally.

Over 35 years, I have had the privilege of being a salesperson, marketing professional, professor, and business owner, but each role had one thing in common: high stress. As a salesperson, I had the monthly, quarterly, and annual stress of reaching and exceeding my quota. As a marketing professional, I had to deal with unrealistic project deadlines and minimal budget and resources. There were also the senior executives who felt it was their job to criticize the littlest things when it came to our department’s deliverables. 

As a professor, I needed to stay on top of frequently changing digital marketing trends. I also had to manage the needs of demanding students, review their work fairly and deliver grade reports on short timelines. Finally, as a small business owner, I had to serve as everything from president to janitor. It was up to me to ensure economic prosperity so that my employees and vendors got paid and the business could grow.

In each role I held, I was a workaholic, typically working more than 60 hours per week. In parallel, I chose to be married at 29, become a father at 31 and 35, and earn a PhD in business administration at 41: a classic stressed-out multitasker if ever there was one. 

My multitasking prowess didn’t prepare me for the perfect storm of stressful events in 2008, including my father passing and my strained marriage on its way to a divorce. I was running a landscaping business that needed my constant attention, while my children expected me to be present and available at a moment’s notice.  

Under the load of the stress, my body started breaking down. First, my back locked up to the point that I couldn’t sit or stand comfortably. Then, my knees got a severe case of bursitis, causing stiffness and pain when I walked – sometimes requiring me to use walking sticks to get around. Last but certainly not least, I was diagnosed with stress-induced diabetes.

I always thought that diabetes was a disease for overweight and/or sedentary people, yet I was the opposite of that. Furthermore, only one of my cousins had diabetes, so my genes had nothing to do with it either. Nevertheless, I had it. I was prescribed various forms of insulin and medical supplies to deal with this disease. 

Several years later, my blood sugars began to rise, and I had to take more and more insulin to compensate. What I discovered was that my body was becoming insulin-resistant, and I now had to take another drug just to get my body to absorb more of the synthetic insulin I was taking. When you have to take one drug to make another drug more effective, you know you are on a slippery slope.

What I hadn’t noticed at the time was the direct correlation between my stress level and my glucose numbers. Usually, I aim for a range of 80-120mg/dl. If I’m not stressed, I’m typically in this range. When I am stressed, my numbers are typically between 165-225mg/dl, or higher under extreme stress. I finally realized that my body was telling me I needed to calm down. 

Yet I didn’t listen to my body. I was too busy with other things in life: kids, career, new relationship, volunteer work, you name it. I was taking care of other important things without first taking care of my health. And I knew better. Like clockwork, when I ran myself at full speed for too long, I would inevitably come crashing down. This would result in the flu, a sinus infection, or something similar, and I would be left bedridden and wishing I had better health.

Ten years later, my real wakeup call came.

My Epiphany

I was working long hours, including nights and weekends, trying to keep a very important and high-profile project on track. I was stress eating (meaning grab-and-go high-carb food), not sleeping well, and worrying about everything, like I normally did. One Sunday, my fiancé (now my wife) Olga and I went to lunch, and I immediately got light-headed. I couldn’t eat anything because my stomach felt like it was having a bad case of heartburn. Olga took me to a nearby fire station, where they hooked me up to an EKG machine and blood pressure monitor. My heart vital signs looked okay, but they recommended I check into the local emergency room. I thought it was only heartburn because a few decades before, I had ended up in a Las Vegas emergency room with heartburn and food poisoning, which I had picked up at a questionable roadside diner.

Rather than heading to the emergency room (ER), we stopped at the pharmacy for anti-heartburn medicine. It didn’t do anything for me, so I went to lie down. I barely remember what happened next. I later learned that Olga saw me turning green, and she gave me the choice: get in the car so she could take me to the ER, or she was going to call an ambulance. Either way, I was going to the hospital.

Lucky for me she had insisted. I was admitted immediately (I must have looked terrible), and more than three liters of fluids were given to me intravenously. I was then transferred to the intensive care unit (ICU) with a severe case of diabetic ketoacidosis. My body was eating away at my muscles and there was a ton of acid in my blood.

Professor Pete Alexander

No wonder the feeling in my stomach felt like heartburn. The doctor said that had I not come in when I did, I would have ended up in a coma within a few hours. 

Of course, as a dedicated employee, I notified my boss that I was in the hospital. At about 6:00 a.m. the next morning I received a text from my boss asking me what I was going to do about the webinar I was supposed to run at 8:00 a.m. I immediately jumped into fix-it mode. I pushed the limits of my smart phone while I tried to reschedule the webinar to another day, since I knew that my doctor and nurses would not let me go through with the webinar as planned. 

I noticed immediately that my glucose numbers started to skyrocket, and that’s when I had my epiphany. My insulin was only treating the symptom of the problem (high glucose), but I needed to treat the source of the problem, which was the negative stress that had caused such a catastrophic reaction in my body.

During my time in ICU, I was able to reflect on the journey that had led me to this unhealthy state. After a lifelong struggle with stress that I had never truly dealt with, it was no surprise that my body finally failed me. The surprising part was that it took over 40 years to happen.

What I Did After My Epiphany

Lying in bed throughout my first extended hospital stay was not only an epiphany moment but also a reality check. I realized that when you don’t have your health, not much else matters. 

I knew it was time for me to seriously start applying stress relief tools. So, I did. Friends, family, and coworkers noticed immediately that I was a different person. I was calm, collected, and focused on my vision that stress was no longer going to get the best of me. 

I decided to walk away from the corporate world, even though I had a great job, secure income, and good benefits. Interestingly, my coworkers and peers were very supportive and many of them told me they admired my decision to put my health before my career. Some of them told me in confidence that they were jealous and wished they could do the same. Inspired by this knowledge, I transformed my career to help other professionals avoid my mistakes by benefiting from the wonderful tools and techniques I have learned and experienced firsthand.

Was I scared? Yes. Was it risky financially? Yes. Was it the right decision? Yes. My extended stay in the hospital was the wake-up call I needed, and I hope if you are reading this you take action to avoid my mistake of trading my health for my career. All it takes is finding one or two simple techniques to use daily. The compound health benefits of just a couple minutes a day over time will be enormous, but you must start today.