Elizabeth “Liz" Stewart morphed from the grip of an anxiety-laden existence into a holistically balanced lifestyle focused on wellness. She explains how pure determination to live life better can help, beginning with the simple acts of seeing and breathing differently. She tells her story in her own words.
By Miriam Stevens
My name is Elizabeth Stewart, but I go by Liz. I live near Marion, Ill., up against the Shawnee National Forest. I am full-time remote, based out of the West Frankfort office.
My position at WPS Health Solutions is a S.W.A.T. (Specialized Workforce Action Team) representative. We are like WPS' own SWAT team—when any area under WPS Military and Veterans Health or WPS Government Health Administrators needs assistance, we are called in to assist. Sometimes this means very minimal training, with very little job assistance, which means that we must be very resourceful to be effective.
I'm currently assisting on the TRICARE East contract in Customer Service, helping with written correspondence from both TRICARE providers and beneficiaries. I started with WPS on Feb. 18, 2019. I came to WPS for the Veterans Affairs contract.
One of my lifetime regrets is not joining the armed forces when I was younger and healthier. When I found out that there was a job where I could serve our veterans who sought outside medical attention, I was ELATED!
When I started at WPS, I was around 200 pounds. My son was having outbursts and getting suspended, weekly, from kindergarten. I was operating in the only mode I had—survival.
In June 2019, my son and I were playing around, and my shirt got lifted and exposed my stomach. His eyes lit up and in the most genuine tone he screamed, “Wow! Look at mommy's giant belly!" Something about that comment shook me into a new perspective. After that, I was on a mission to lose weight. As I started eating right and losing weight, I noticed I started to feel better. When I would eat simple carbs and sugar, my energy would wane.
For most of my life—and this is probably going to prove how limited my thinking was—but before coming to work at WPS, I honestly believed there was very little relation between physical and mental health. Since coming to WPS, the articles, the LMS, and my supervisors have helped me to truly understand what a key role my mental health plays on my physical well-being.
In Sept. 2020, my son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. This was another pivotal point in my life. Whatever energy I exhibit at home directly affects my son. If I am stressed and rigid, he becomes stressed. It's essential for the health of both of us that I be in a calm, centered state as much as possible.
The 2018 picture shows me just a few months before starting at WPS. The 2022 picture is who I am now, 3.5 years into my WPS career. In 2018, I was 220 pounds, never exercised, rarely ate vegetables, and devoured all carbs … all day, every day. I was such an anxious mess, constantly worrying about the future while simultaneously beating myself up for the past. It was no wonder I was always on the lookout for ways to escape my mind.
My anxiety would often rise to the level where my hands would shake and then go numb. When that happened, it would dominate my entire day. To try to avoid getting that anxious, I started cutting more and more activities out of my life—like turning down adult social interactions.
This eventually made my life bare bones: get my son ready for school, go to work, get my son off the bus, make dinner, do homework, get to bed, rinse and repeat. I truly loved my job and my son, so I thought what I was doing was enough. So, why did I continue to be filled with so much anxiety? One night, I was watching an interview with a man from the Netherlands named Wim Hof. It showed him wearing nothing but swimming trunks, diving into ice-cold water and swimming around, completely unfazed by the freezing temperatures! It also showed him teaching others how to use their breath to control the senses in their body so they, too, could dive into freezing water.
I thought to myself, “If your breath can make you calm while half naked in those freezing cold conditions, then what could my breath do for me during my anxiety attacks?" That December evening, I decided to test his breathing method under freezing cold water in the shower, where I lasted for almost two minutes. Standing under that uncomfortably cold water, focusing on big breaths in and out, feeling so many different things inside and outside of my body, I knew there was power in breathing.
I remember growing up when I would get really upset, my mom would say, “Breathe. Take a deep breath." And I remember thinking, “I already am breathing. I'm alive, aren't I?" Thinking back, I chuckle at my naivete.
Tapping into our breath is a secret weapon that we always have access to. And yet, we so rarely take advantage of it. After the night of the cold shower, I started practicing breathwork every day. I quickly noticed how my breathing was like a muscle: the more I worked it, the more powerful it got.
Our brains and our bodies are amazing and so powerful. Our brain is like a supercomputer, which we have the power to control. I realized my brain had gotten a virus; it needed to be cleaned up and rebooted. Breathwork gave me the ability to clearly see and do just that.
Today, I still get anxiety, but I use it as a tool. When my heart starts beating and I feel like I need to retreat, I use one of my breathing techniques. I remind myself of how amazing I am and how I can accomplish anything, then I close my eyes and go within and ask myself questions to find out what the cause of the anxiety is. Often, I discover the source of my anxiety is a belief that I established as a child and is no longer true as an adult.
The TEDx Talk included by Lucas Rockwood—these breathing techniques stuck with me from the first time I watched it. I ask my body to guide me so I can do what is best for it.
Learning how to tap into my breath completely changed my life. A YouTube video that helped me in my journey is “How are fat loss and breathing connected?" by Rob Wilson. I've lost 90 pounds and 20% of my body fat.
I joyously do something physical for my body every single day. I treat food like fuel and try to only put premium stuff in it, but I listen to my body and my soul, and if they want a piece of cake, then they get it! In September, I went back to teaching dance for ages 6 through adult. I constantly challenge myself to see how much further I can go, and I couldn't do any of that without the power of breathwork.
Wim Hof said something I think about often: “Live in amazement, because this world is AMAZING!" Today, I fully appreciate my life, my body, and this amazing planet that we live on. I can't get enough of this fall weather! I hope you get outside, put your earbuds in, listen to the TEDx talk and start your breathwork journey.
Part of remaining in a centered state of energy has been my mission to find a hobby that sparks passion! In September, I went back to teaching dance after being away from it for over 15 years.
It dawned on me recently that one of the greatest gifts I had been given in life was time and money toward a craft that sparked an immense amount of joy, passion, drive, and inspiration. I was a very seriously competitive dancer for many years, went on to do it professionally for a little while.
I recently realized that, while I haven't been formally dancing in a while, there is still some passion, with a little technique, buried under all that dust. After reading an article about one of our fellow WPS employees who empowers little ones through her dance classes, I was inspired to pass on what was once given to me.
On the first day of one of my hip-hop classes, one of the little 11-year-olds in there told me it was hard for her to do some things sometimes, especially when she sees someone else who does it better. So, I made that whole class all about not comparing yourself—made it about celebrating how each person does it differently with their own style and how beautiful that makes life. I told her that when our brains do that, it's just bad programming; tell your brain to stop comparing and, eventually, it will.
A week later that girl came to me and said, “I took your advice! I told my brain to stop comparing, and it did!" She emphatically continued, “and I have had the best week!"
And I want to note she did look more confident, and then she even danced more confidentially! I get tears in my eyes thinking about this. Going back to teaching dance after 15 years of being away from it and still rehabbing my foot from surgery in April, a lot of insecurities have come to light. But that little girl telling me her self-esteem improved because of my advice—that has made all this craziness worth it.
Back in June 2021, Aiden, my son, and Marleigh, my niece, had their first dance recital at the Marion Cultural & Civic Center. This was another thing that fanned the flame of my passion for dance.
My classes will have their first performance in December, so I am feeling the pressure to choreograph something fantastic for all of them, while not skipping too many beats with my son.
Planning my free time has become critical! I must plan out when I'm going to choreograph, plus the usual meals, quiet time, homework, etc. ... I “bond" with Aiden for a minimum of 10 minutes every day. This is time to play a game or go for a walk, where we just bond. I don't use it as a teaching moment, and I don't point out what he could improve on. This venture has added a whole new and very complex angle to my life. My weeks currently consist of being in the studio three nights a week and Aiden attending Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) two nights a week.
Some hobbies and things I like to do: Yoga and meditation have been MAJOR sources of relief for me during the pandemic. Most importantly, I feel those two practices have helped me tune into my body and separate my mind/thoughts. When I'm able to tune everything else out and focus in on my body and give it what it needs, i.e., nutrition, sleep, exercise, deep breaths, etc., then when it is time to work, all my energy and focus can be on work.
These were not easy things for me to incorporate into my life; they felt VERY unnatural! Meditating and quieting the mind is like a muscle; I must work it every day to make it stronger. A few other things we like to do that are easy for me to be mindful in are:
We also do a lot as a family with my brother, sister, mom, and nieces, like going to a trampoline park or a water park.
Joy to me is being truly grateful and fully in the moment. I can't be in the moment if I'm worried or thinking about the past or future. Take a mental note of how you feel when you look at the trees and the sky—no judgements if you feel nothing. But I promise you, the more you work on breathing, the more amazed you will be at the scenery that surrounds us.
When I began working at WPS, I had no idea that it would not only better my finances, but it would teach me how to achieve a true work-life balance. WPS encouraged me to find out who I am and show up as that person in the workplace. They gave me a safe space and tools to identify what aspects of my personality were holding me back in life. Their emphasis on mental health has completely changed my life for the better, I am so beyond grateful!