Brittanie's Biography & History with Stress
I was born and raised in Rockaway, New Jersey, by caring, kind and intelligent parents and family. My parents were the perfect balance of worry-wart (my father, Frank) and independence (my mother, Karen). Iwas surrounded by truly good people while growing up, who inspired and encouraged me to be creative and be myself. Throughout my young life I spent a lot of tim in Nature. I played, hiked, camped (and eventually partied) in the woods and on the ponds, rode my bike around the neighborhoods, hung out with my friends as much as possible, and even worked at My Favorite Muffin at the local mall as my first job!
As a child, and throughout my early life, I was often plagued with headaches that had no diagnosable cause. My Italian Grandmother, Lucy, said that the headaches came from the "malocchio," "from being overlooked" by my peers and not being seen for who I really was. She would hold her hands on my head and mutter a prayer in Italian. It always helped, even though I had no idea what was happening. Now I understand that the "malocchio" is the Evil Eye and what was actually happening was that I was taking on other people's negative energy. I also experienced a lot of worry, mostly about things a kid shouldn't be worrying about, such as "what happens when we die?" and "how will I escape if this house burns down?" I never really talked about these things with anyone, they just kept me up at night (a lot).
As I got older, I was affected by the "malocchio" far less and started doing more physical activity. I failed miserably at soccer when I was in early elementary school, but took dance class throughout the rest of elementary school and middle school. By high school dance, there weren't many dance options for people my age, so I joined the Field Hockey team. I was definitely NOT the best on my team...but I had a ton of passion and I really loved working out! I loved the time in the weight room and I loved running. I had no idea what I was doing, calling me an amateur athlete would be a huge overstatement. I just followed the other girls around and did what my coach told me to do. My junior year I got a gym membership and started doing cardio and taking aerobics and other group fitness classes. I loved it! Looking back I can see how much the exercise helped me manage my stress because I experienced hardly any headaches during those high school years.
I visited a lot of schools before I picked a college and narrowed it down to University of Maryland (College Park, MD) and James Madison University (Harrisonburg, VA). Something about JMU was calling to me - and I can see now it's because it was in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and was surrounded by nature, which made me feel more relaxed than the urban environment of UMD. I earned my Bachelor's degree in Business with a Major in Computer Information Systems and a Minor in Music Industry. During college, other than infrequent yoga classes and the occasional trip to the elliptical, I stopped exercising entirely becuase I was too busy with schoolwork and partying.
My junior year of college, during the most notoriously stressful semester of Business School at JMU, my headaches came back with a vengeance. I was getting them almost every day and they were crippling to the point of not being able to work or socialize. I drove to/from NJ many times during that semester to get MRIs and CATscans but, at the end of it all, the Neurologist handed me a prescription for Tylenol with Codeine and said "You're perfectly healthy. I think you're just stressed. Take one of these when you feel the headaches coming on." I went back to school with no guidance on how to prevent or manage this stress, so I did my best to rest more and not to worry as much. This is why teaching Stress Management to undergraduate students at GWU is so important to me. I can't even imagine the benefits of having even a portion of these tools when I was a college student and am honored to share them with the younger generations.
I spent the summer after college waiting tables at Klein's in Belmar on the Jersey Shore. It was the best summer of my life. I had the independence of being an adult, had a well-paying job, spent my days on the beach and my nights working with awesome people or hanging out with my awesome friends. It was awesome! In early August, however, my Mom gave me a gentle nudge to remind me about that college degree she just spent $60,000, and I (begrudgingly) started my job search. It didn't last too long because I got the first job that I interviewed for and, on September 1, 2002, I moved to New York City and began working in the Music Industry.
Over the following 4 years I worked for the Davis Shaprio Music Law Firm (NYC & LA) and Island/Def Jam Music Group Record Label (NYC). About halfway through my time in NYC, I began experiencing digestive problems, mainly constipation. Yep, I just mentioned poop! I went to see a Gastroenterologist, Dr. Joseph Felder, who had me do loads of testing, endoscopies, colonoscopies, and more. He suggested I could be lactose intolerant, so I gave up dairy for 1 month. It turned out he was right. But, beyond the dairy sensitivity, there was no other physical evidence to explain why I was having trouble eliminating waste from my body. So, after months of testing and doctor's visits, he sat me down, handed me a prescription for Zelnorm to treat my Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and said "Other than IBS, you are perfectly healthy. I think you're just stressed. Take these for 3 months and work on managing your stress." Sound familiar? Funny thing is, I took until 2010 for me to make the (obvious) connection that the Gastroenterologist in 2004 and the Neurologist in 2000 gave me the exact same message!
Anyway, I went on with my life, took the medication daily, but still had no tools for managing stress on my own and no idea where to acquire them. At the beginning of my 3-months of Zelnorm, I happened to have my annual physical with Dr. Kathleen Klink and when she saw I was on this medication she said "you know this is just a low-dose seratonin-reuptake inhibitor (e.g. anxiety medication), right?" Um....NO! I had no idea! My GI doc didn't tell me anything about that! He didn't even mention the word anxiety. I was totally freaked out! Me? With anxiety? No way!!! She told me not to worry about it because "it's helping you, right?" Yes, it was helping me. A lot. But I assumed that's because it was fixing whatever was wrong with my intestines using science. I didn't know, yet, that your gut is your second brain and is highly affected by emotion, so, technically it was science. But not the kind of science I imagined. I thought it was changing my cells or something. Actually, I may not really have thought about it at all and was just grateful to have some medicine, since that's the only thing I trusted to "fix me."
This conversation with Dr. Klink was eye-opening and she encouraged me to do my best to get my health in order while I was on the medication so that when I went off it after 3 months, I would be healthy and balanced. This 3-month period turned into a total system reboot. At this point I was practicing yoga more regularly and my friend's helped me notice that I did feel considerably better when I went to yoga class consistently. So, I went to more yoga classes and also got more consistent with going to the gym again. I avoided dairy, started meal-planning and cooking for myself, and started paying more attention to my thoughts. Until then, I avoided this altogether and masked the problem by hanging out with friends, drinking alcohol or working. Once I started paying attention, I noticed that I was worrying about the future a lot. When my mind wasn't occupied with work or exercise or cooking, it was spinning with "what will my future be like?," "will I ever earn enough money to be comfortable and not need a credit card?," and "will I ever get married?." I came up with the mantra "BE PRESENT" and I wrote it everywhere I could. I put it on post-its around my house and my desk at work, I put it on my cell phone background, I even wrote it on my hand sometimes.
By the end of my 3-month Zelnorm experiment I was in pretty good shape. I learned that I did, in fact, have some control over my emotions (the "be present" trick really worked!) and I saw the direct effects of eating well, consistent exercise, and good sleep habits. I was motivated to keep this up and began dreaming of a life outside of the rat race of New York City. I began taking classes at Hunter College which would serve as pre-requisites for a Master's in Nutrition, which was what I originally wanted to study at JMU but didn't because I didn't think I was "good at science." Well, working full-time and going to school part-time was overwhelming and I quickly sought out a quicker path out of New York. My friend told me about this program at GWU, a Master's in Exercise Science with a Concentration in Exercise, Nutrition, and Eating Behavior. I called the dean of the program, Dr. Wayne Miller, told him my background, and he encouraged me to not only apply for the program, but to also apply for a Gradate Assistantship. I was astonished by his encouragement. Until then, all the Nutrition programs I spoke with were lackluster, at best. I was motivated!
In order to be a good candidate for the GA position, Dr. Miller suggested I get certified in as many fitness modalities possible. This way I could teach group fitness classes for free in exchange for my education. I took my first Yoga Teacher Training in 2005, along with Pilates, Aerobics, and Cardio Kickboxing. Additionally, I took as many group fitness classes that I could so I could be really good at my potential new job. I was managing my IBS (which I still did not understand at all) and feeling excited and positive about the direction my life was taking.
To my surprise, I got accepted to GWU and the GA position! I moved to Arlington, VA on August 15, 2006. I specifically chose to live in the suburbs, versus in DC, because I was sick of city life. I remember saying to my parents, "I'm ready for a car, to drive to the grocery store and put my groceries in the trunk (as opposed to lugging them in my backpack or in a taxi...this was before grocery delivery in NYC was a thing)." My Mom was so kind and gave me her 1998 Jeep Cherokee, since I had absolutely no money and wouldn't be making any anytime soon. I lived in an apartment with 2 great friends and began my graduate studies that Fall.
My health was pretty impeccable in grad school, other than a run-in with MRSA my first semester. I submersed myself into the fitness world, teaching group fitness classes, personal training, eating balanced meals that met the Government's recommendations for protein and carbs for my exercise level. I began running 1/2 marathons and worked out all the time. My health was impeccable and my stress was low. Man, those were the days! I even convinced Dr. Miller that I should spend my 2nd summer semester overseas, taking a yoga teacher training in Bali and living on an Ashram in Italy to serve as an Indpendent Study. Obviously, Summer 2008 quickly replaced the Jersey Shore in 2002.
I have never felt so free and independent in my life. After my parents dropped me off at the airport, I remember sitting in the waiting area without a cell phone and thinking "no one will be able to find me or track me down for the next 3 months, unless I want them to." What an experience! I had an incredible time. That trip was the most memorable travel I have had to date. For the month between Teacher Training in Bali and the Ashram in Italy, I travelled alone (and did meet some friends along the way) around Bali, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. I felt safe, secure and confident the entire time. I had minimal possessions...yoga clothes, light dresses, and flip flops.
During the first few weeks, I was plagued with worry again - this time about money. Due to some confusion at the Financial Aid office, my entire trip ($12,000) ended up going on my credit card instead of a student loan. I tried to participate in the mandated "Silent Retreat" days but I couldn't. Every time I was in silence my mind would not shut up about "how am I going to pay this off?," what kind of job will I do with this degree?," and "again, how am I going to pay this off???????" In the teacher training program I used lots of tools to avoid my mind - but nothing to really face what was really going on in there. I didn't get to do much exercise, other than yoga, but I think that bare minimum, coupled with walking everywhere, really kept me from going over the edge. Luckily, this and the avoidance techniques I taught myself got me through the rest of the summer and I spent the rest of my time relatively unscathed by anxiety.
Half-Grad-School / Half-Real World
I returned to reality in August 2008. Reality = credit card debt, student loans, no job, and an unfinished thesis (which was the last requirement I needed to fulfill for my Master's Degree. However, and