What Happened When My Obsession with Wellness Became Toxic
I became interested in health and wellness when I was a senior in high school. I started with exercise and diet, discovering that I liked working out - I liked pushing myself and the way it made me feel. I found that swapping out junk food for whole, healthy foods made a remarkable difference in my energy levels.
But it wasn’t just the health benefits that I enjoyed - it was the compliments I started receiving on my physical appearance. I hadn’t been trying to lose weight, and I didn’t think that I needed to - but people all around me were constantly telling me how good I looked. My innocent gym sessions and healthy meals soon morphed into an obsession. I thought, wow, I must have not looked so great before, and this line of thinking took me down a dangerous path.
By the end of senior year, I was doing multiple workouts a day, hardones, and compulsively fixated on my meals. I had an endless list of “bad” foods - food that I would avoid at all costs. If I did slip up or had a night of drinking with my friends, I would overcompensate by working out even harder the next day. This punishing mindset was my life for the next 10 years.
I went through college in much the same way. I would eat as restrictively as possible, only eating the foods that I had deemed “acceptable”. I would work out everyday, sometimes twice a day. My life at college had been difficult, and my obsession with diet and exercise became my control mechanism to combat the sadness and stress that I was feeling.
Things improved once I finished school and moved to LA, even though I still held onto the consuming need to control my diet and exercise. I hated going out to dinner since I couldn’t be sure how the food was made or what the portions would be. I didn’t like doing things that disrupted my workout schedule, so I planned my life around the gym. This need and impulse to control was my way of making myself feel safe.
Fast-forward a few years - I had loosened up my grip and given up a little control. I was allowing myself more “cheat days” and didn’t feel as guilty about it. But things went backwards when I got engaged to the man of my dreams and started planning my wedding. Wedding planning became a catalyst - there was the pressure to be the perfect bride, and I wanted to be the skinniest version of myself I could be.
My obsession with fitness went to another level. I was doing three workouts a day, eating super clean, and was more stressed out than ever before. When I look back on pictures from my wedding day, it’s obvious that I took things too far.
After my wedding, I met with a functional medicine doctor, and it became clear that I needed to change. My doctor did every test imaginable. When the results came back, he told me that I was malnourished, had burned out my adrenals, my thyroid levels were low, my immune system was vulnerable, and my hormones were all over the place. You can’t argue with science - I wasn’t the healthy person that I thought I was. This realization was a huge hit to my identity. I had always thought of myself as a good example of health and wellness. This was a reality check - and a pivotal moment in my life.
In getting the test results and really understanding the damage I was doing to my body, I moved forward with changing my habits. I started incorporating tons of new food into my diet, including meat, which I hadn’t eaten in 10 years. I started cutting back on exercise and doing more low intensity workouts. It took several months of this new lifestyle to really make a difference, but I started feeling better. I had way more energy, I could think more clearly, my skin looked better, and my body looked better. Adjusting to my new diet and routine was tough, but the hardest thing for me, was seeing my body change. I knew the changes were good, but it was still hard to come to terms with. With the love and support of my family and husband, I knew I was changing for the better.
I remember constantly being stressed and anxious when I was obsessed with health and wellness. Any change in my routine would send me reeling - I may have looked happy and healthy on the outside, but my mental state was a different story. I used my lifestyle as a way to control my anxiety, but it ended up being the biggest factor contributing to my anxiety.
My mental shift from an obsessive state to a balanced lifestyle was tough. I knew what was best for my body but old thought-patterns had such deep roots. My thoughts would react with negativity, telling me that I wasn’t good enough if I let go. I had to learn how to put an end to that old story and create a new one. I did a lot of that work on my own, but have to credit therapy with some of the change. It was there that I learned the tools to create my new self and tools to quiet the old thoughts that can sometimes pop up, even now. I still love health and wellness - it is a huge part of my life, but now I take a much more balanced approach. I eat the food that I enjoy and I workout because I enjoy it, not because I feel like I have to. There are days that I can’t sit still and want to be super active, and then there are some days where I barely make it through a yoga class. I am okay with that. I am not out to punish myself anymore - now I focus on acting from a place of love and respect for my body.
Alex Curtis lives in LA, where she teaches yoga, works as a travel consultant, and blogs about health, wellness, anxiety, and sleep. She is also a grad student studying psychology. You can follow along with her on Instagram here: @alexcurtiswellness.