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The Surprising Physical Toll of Stuckness

About six months into my stint as the Vice President of Digital Media at a large newspaper company, my face exploded.

Why? Because I was stuck.

Being the VP Digital at that particular newspaper company, at that particular time, was a mighty tough gig. I had had a bad feeling about the role, but I took it anyway, blinded by money and status. After all, I was the youngest female VP in the company’s history. Woopty doo!

Inevitably, I hit a wall that I couldn’t push through. And soon, my face broke out in severe cystic acne. I was in my late thirties, an executive responsible for millions of dollars of revenue per year, and I was covered in zits. At its worst, I counted 13 giant cysts on my chin, forehead and cheeks. My stuckness was written all over my face. It still is. That terrible time has left me with physical scars.

In the present day, I’ve got a lot going on. It’s all good and exciting stuff, but it’s also been frustrating at times, I’ve hit some roadblocks, had some bad luck, and things are moving much slower than I’d like them too. I’m not stuck, but boy am I’m anxious about becoming so. I have high hopes for the coming year. But every once in a while, a terrible, sneaky thought pops into my head.

What if things don’t work out?

So I wasn't entirely surprised this past Monday morning, what should appear? A zit. A big one. I know this zit well. He always appears in the same place, on the bottom third of my chin, just a little to the right. We’re old friends. I’ve named him Oscar.

Oscar visits when I’m off balance. He’s a warning signal, telling me to get my shit together or worse will follow, because Oscar has friends.

Your body is often the first place your stuckness manifests. Or as Tessa, an executive knows a thing or two, put it to me recently:

“When you’re not authentically yourself, it impacts your health. Your body will let it out because you’re too much of a professional to let it show in your emotions.”

– Tessa, executive

When I was the CEO of a struggling tech start-up and stubbornly refusing to ask for help, I suffered a summer sinus infection that lasted 6 weeks. And when I was bored and uninspired as a strategy consultant, my body craved sugary pick-me-up treats in the afternoons, and maybe a glass of wine or two in the evenings. I gained fifteen pounds.

Acne, infections and weight gain are the traditional ways the stress of stuckness physically manifests in me. But everyone is different.

According to the American Psychological Association, stress can affect your musculoskeletal system leading to migraines, pinched nerves and other unpleasant conditions.

Penelope, one of my Unstuck Project interviewees, was bullied by her boss. Nothing she could do was right. She was belittled on a regular basis and there were constant battles. Despite the bullying, Penelope deeply respected and admired her boss. So she began to internalize the bullying. And she began to believe that she was unworthy. And this rendered her less and less effective in her job. She was stuck. And the physical toll of those weeks and months was substantial.

“I carry a lot of my stress and anxiety in my neck and shoulders. I developed double vision in my left eye. My left shoulder was literally up to my ear. I had a lot of tests, but it was a massage therapist who ultimately fixed it. Another time, I had no movement in my right shoulder. I was so tense, my muscles were pulling my ribs out of place.”

– Penelope, entrepreneur.

Sophia, another interviewee, experienced back pain to the point where she couldn’t walk.

“There was a compressed nerve in my back that caused me to lose function in my right foot.”

– Sophia, director.

Chronic stress causes our bodies to remain on guard all the time, as if waiting for a cougar to leap out of the forest. When we're unable to release that tension, trouble ensues. In addition to the difficulties Penelope and Sophia experienced, muscular tension can lead to headaches, migraines and sleeplessness.

Stress also stimulates the release the hormone cortisol, which can affect the functioning of both the male and female reproductive systems and leave you drained of energy. An abundance of stress-induced cortisol caused interviewee Mia, a CEO, to suffer a terrible hormonal imbalance that left her in bed for two years. But that didn’t stop her, she ran her company from her bed, creating more stress, and prolonging her illness.

Stress can also affect the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and respiratory systems in a multitude of ways, from heart problems to stomach troubles to asthma attacks.

But perhaps the scariest stress-affect is how it can age you prematurely by shortening your telomeres, the sections of your DNA that live at the ends of chromosomes. Their job is to keep your chromosomes from unravelling. Trust me, you don’t want short telomeres and unravelling chromosomes – they can lead to Parkinson’s, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

According to researchers, what you eat and how much you exercise influence the length of your telomeres. I suppose that’s not too surprising. But how about this: negative thought patterns such as cynical hostility, pessimism, rumination, suppression and mind wandering (i.e. not staying in the moment) shorten the length of your telomeres.

That’s right – your telomeres are listening to all your negative stuff. And they're reacting accordingly.

Chances are, if you’re unravelling, so are your chromosomes.

Holy crap!

The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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