Stress is a term that's commonly overused, but for anyone in doubt of the impact stress in high doses can have on a person, all you need to do is read Paula's story.
In 2016, Paula, who was in her mid-thirties, was working as a strategy consultant in London. The days were long, her workload was heavy, but she was hardworking and dedicated to her job. So she gladly put in the hours. But those hours were painfully long. For six months straight, Paula was working 80-hour weeks—with no weekends off.
On November 2, 2016, it all started to take its toll when Paula began to feel funny during a conference call. "I started feeling a numbing, tingling sensation down the right-hand side of my face and I started to feel a little dizzy," she said. Not too concerned, Paula recalls how she "just put [her] head down and carried on working."
"My colleagues' faces were of absolute shock and horror"
Unknown to Paula at the time, she was in no fit state to continue working. "I walked out of the meeting room I was in and as a couple of colleagues approached me, their faces were of absolute shock and horror."
Paula's colleagues were so alarmed because her face had started to droop on one side. She was taken to the hospital and assessed for a stroke (a drooping face on one side is a common symptom), but doctors quickly realized this wasn't what she had suffered, and sent her home.
"Although the whole episode was a bit scary, I didn't pay much attention to it so the following morning I was back at work," Paula said. But over the following month, her attacks recurred four more times. Still, she tried to carry on as normal. "It was a busy time in the office and I didn't want to let anybody down," she said.
A month later, however, in December, she was unable to ignore her symptoms any further. And after it emerged her attacks were a rare and very severe form of a migraine triggered by stress, she was signed off over Christmas.
"The rest seemed to have a positive effect but as I was ramping up and getting ready to return to work in January 2017, the attacks returned," said Paula. And this time, they were coming daily. "Every day I would wake up and within a few hours an attack would start," she said. Where initially only half her face had been temporarily paralyzed, now it was her hand, arm, and leg, too. "I'd be unable to control or move them," Paula recalled.
She became mentally disoriented, too, as a result of the high levels of stress she'd endured for so long. "I would forget places. I would walk down the street in my neighborhood and I would get lost. [They were] streets I'd walked a million times," Paula said, adding: "I even started to mix up the names of some of my closest friends."
What happened to Paula was scary, but with the support of her friends, family, and employers, as well as great medical treatment, she's finally got herself back to normal—albeit a far healthier version of normal. "I changed my diet, exercise, sleep, and mindfulness routines," Paula said. She's back at work (at a much more favorable pace) and also has a machine she carries around with her at all times, which helps to keep her brain stable.
"I felt like everything was going to come crashing down any moment"
Looking back now, Paula can't believe how much she had overdone it. "I don't think I had spent a day away from my laptop in the previous three months. Weekends had become an alien concept," she said. "I couldn't eat or sleep properly, I had a constant feeling of being overwhelmed and I felt like everything was going to come crashing down at any moment.
"The reason I didn't speak up was because I thought that would be perceived as weakness, that I would be showing my family, my friends, and most importantly, my employer that I wasn't coping with my responsibilities and I wasn't a top performer."
This, of course, is not true. It couldn't be further from the truth. We're not invincible, and our bodies and minds can only take so much. We need to recognize when stress is starting to affect us and reach out for support.
"We need to feel more comfortable and secure in ourselves to put our hand up and say 'I need help,'" Paula said.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.