EXTREME CASE of STRESS – excerpt from “Under Pressure”

“To be identified as ‘talent’ in my organization, you had to tick the box ‘mobile.’ Only if you were ‘talent’ were you entitled to be in the mysterious ‘succession plan’ and offered an interna- tional assignment. In today’s flat organizational structures, multinational companies have few other options to develop people other than to move them cross-functionally, i.e., from one department to another (for example, from marketing to sales) or from country to country. I also, unfortunately, belong to the generation where we were brought up to believe that having a big multinational name on your CV was a must if you wanted to move ahead.
“I had climbed up the corporate ladder quite fast. I had travelled around the world so much that there was absolutely no excitement left in boarding an aircraft or any glamour involved in using the airline lounge. I had conditioned myself to be able to fall asleep the minute the plane took off. Some days I would get to the evening and realize that I hadn’t had any water or even been to the toilet all day. More sophisticated personal tasks such as plucking my eyebrows were forgotten. I was really exhausted, day in day out, completely overworked and in a zombie-like state.
“On one overseas placement I found myself in a country where, despite speaking the language fluently, I found it impos- sible to adapt. Every day around 3 p.m., I would feel tired and listless, and this triggered a habit that would soon become a real issue for me. Almost on automatic pilot, as though watch- ing my life going by, I would leave work, head for the nearest supermarket and buy three to four kilos of chocolate, which I would then consume in less than thirty minutes. I would burst into tears without understanding the reason why and be unable to stop. I would hate myself, feel disgusted and would throw the leftovers in the bin. Sometimes, after a few minutes, I would go to the bin to look for them and I can still remember the awful smell of the kiwi peels that were in the bin as I tried, frantically, to find the chocolate.
“No one at the office knew what was happening to me; I was an expert at hiding it and was the happy, cheerful col- league during the day.
“This went on for a few months. I hated being with people, I stopped going out, lost interest in everything and everyone. All I wanted was to be on my own in bed watching TV. My menstrual cycle was no longer regular and I had gained twelve kilos.
“One Thursday morning, the normally conscientious me just could not get out of bed to go to work. It was the first time that had ever happened in my working life. I was the type of person who would not get ill or stay at home if I did not feel well.
“It was the same on Friday. I went back to my own country to see my doctor, and, as I was waiting to see him I read one of the leaflets in the surgery and recognized my symptoms as depression and binge-eating disorder (BED). He did not want to let me go back to work but I insisted, so he prescribed me an antidepressant. I instinctively felt it was the wrong thing for me but I took it. I went into a deeper depression, this time a ‘silent’ version of it. I call it ‘silent’ because I had absolutely no feelings of any kind—bad or good, happy or sad. I could not even cry anymore. I felt empty. For the first time in my life I would look out of my apartment window and understand why somebody would want to commit suicide.
“That’s when I met a therapist who helped me get back on track, and to whom I owe my life. I gradually stopped the antidepressant and became ‘alive’ again. With his help I man- aged to fully recover.
“People ask me today if I can eat chocolate. And the answer is yes, I can! Like a normal person, I can eat a normal amount when I want to. For at least a year after what happened I felt uncomfortable because I was afraid of ‘falling back’ into the darkness and kept ‘testing’ myself. I know now that I am ‘safe’ because I am able to deal with things in a different and more effective way.”
This case study exemplifies what happens when your unconscious takes control in order to protect you. In this case the eating disorder began as an attempt to soothe the symp- toms of stress—chocolate contains “feel-good” chemicals, after all. But the effects are only temporary. The British Psychological Society (2004) defines BED as engaging in uncontrollable episodes of binge eating but without compensatory purging behaviours; these episodes are associated with eating much more rapidly than normal, eating until feeling uncomfort- ably full, eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry, eating alone through embarrassment, and feeling disgust or extreme guilt after overeating. Other examples of loss of control are when people turn to alcohol, drugs, or obsessive behaviours—all are responses to extreme stress.

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