For me, being healthy also means being able to cope when I am not well

Portrait series "The universe inside me" with Nica Disler | 12th Dec 2022

Nica Disler realized that something was really wrong when she suddenly found herself in a beige pantsuit on the floor of Zurich's main train station in 2017, unable to operate her cell phone. Her job in a management position, in what was then an increasingly toxic work environment, had left its mark.

Referred to a psychiatrist by the emergency center, she was given sick leave for what was suspected to be 'burnout'. "In that moment, I didn't even want any intense therapy, and I thought that what had happened was quite a good thing," she says today. Suddenly, she had time for herself again, exercised a lot and felt better because she lost weight she had previously gained at work. "I made the dangerous link that mental stress also has benefits because it felt good to lose weight." It was only in retrospect that she realized that while the medication-only therapy, as well as daily running, helped her pass time, it never allowed her to address the deep-rooted issues. Also, her weight dropped so much that she became underweight. After three months at home, the next job offer came: a position as a consultant at the renowned PR & public affairs agency, furrerhugi. Enthused by her future colleagues and inspired by a new euphoria, she started with the new challenge.

The Dangerous Focus on Functioning

"The term burnout actually has a kind of negative stigma. Many people have the impression that these are people who just don't want to work. I find that I even make snide comments about it myself sometimes." So you often think to yourself "Well, I've had stresses too and I'm not that weak. So I wanted to tackle the new job in a positive frame of mind." The healthy work environment and positive team culture allowed her to take enough time for exercise, focus on her nutrition and leisurely activities. And yet, there were workdays she could only start after an hour-long crying fit. "When my supervisor spoke to me about my bright future at the agency, I suddenly realized that I definitely didn't want that." With the sympathetic support of her boss, she reduced her workload and began training as a federally certified naturopath in Ayurvedic medicine on the side. As an enthusiastic yoga practitioner, she was already familiar with the subject: "I had already been to India regularly for yoga retreats. In recent years, I had just kind of lost touch with yoga and meditation."

In a movie, now would probably be the part where everything comes good. "Everything looked great from the outside. High-performance environment, with a supportive employer who actively promotes a healthy work environment, good prospects for the future, and my new education in full swing. And yet, there were still dark days. At one point, I was sitting on my motorcycle thinking, 'What if I just yank the wheel around now?'"

When everything was finally going well, Nica really derailed

The second breakdown came unexpectedly on the first day of vacation. Packing the suitcases presented as an unmanageable task and Nica barely made it out of bed. With empathetic support from her husband, she tried to pull herself together to pack over several days. On the fifth day, she somehow made it to the Engadine mountains. How exactly, she doesn't really remember. By the end of the vacation, however, she was not relaxed, but more exhausted than ever. "I had no energy for having to explain or justify myself at work." She took more sick leave but, even in her new more positive work environment, didn't dare tell anyone the real reason. "At the moment when you hit a psychological low, it's incredibly hard to be open about it with your employer. You have no capacity for it at all."

Once again, she was referred to a therapist, this time by her primary care physician who knew her. Nica's well-being with the caregiver was brought into focus. The referred therapist was a good fit, "She involved me in the process, didn't push me to do anything, but did make it clear to me that I needed to actively choose the healing process. I've played competitive sports for years and I'm used to being a little exhausted at times. But those first few hours of therapy with her were some of the most exhausting I had ever experienced. Yet also some of the best I've ever done."

Another positive experience was that here she was not immediately supposedly diagnosed and thus labeled. "It also made me realize that two people can have the same symptoms but need different diagnoses and treatment options. Psychological stress does not always manifest itself 1:1 in the same symptoms. They have to be looked at and treated individually. The same way we treat in Ayurvedic medicine." Reflecting together on the last few years, they came to the conclusion that the burnout they had suspected three years earlier was probably a misjudgment: "At that time, I wasn't working harder than in other phases of my life, when I was always able to maintain a very high pace. But at some point my predisposition to depression and the toxic work environment at that time with a lot of pressure, stress and also humiliation came together and I imploded." An important realization that paved the way for her to heal.

Healing processes are not always linear

And yet, suddenly, they were there again. The days when Nica couldn't make it out of bed. What came again, and intensified this time, were concrete suicidal thoughts. "I felt like I was a burden to those around me, and I was sure that if I was gone, I wouldn't bother anyone anymore." Thanks to the now deep trust she had in the therapist treating her, she managed to actively address this issue with her as well. Through joint meditation, hypnosis and talk therapy, she also regained access to her own tools: meditation, yoga, mindfulness, exercise and the careful use of herbal medicines that suited her individual healing process. The therapist mastered the balancing act between respecting Nica's own knowledge and desires as a budding alternative practitioner, and also maintaining Nica's clear and important role as a client at the same time.

We actually all know what is good for us

"I think my body works in waves." Waves that, depending on the conditions and strength, pull her down into a whirlpool, or carry her as a feathery surfer across the wide water. "If my mood is rather bad in anyway, stress is added, maybe some emotional strain, then it's a dangerous wave that can crash over me." What helps her navigate the wild waters when - or even before - such a wave rolls in is meditation, yoga and exercise. Tools she's actually always had. "I don't think the problem is a lack of intrinsic resources. We actually all know what's good for us. The problem is just that sometimes the door to that is closed. Then we no longer have access to the things that help us the most."

Right now, that door is open again for Nica. She's taking time for herself, accepting her emotions - both good and bad - and watching her own healing process optimistically. In her current self-employment as a yoga teacher and naturopath, she designs her own day-to-day work around her own studio. Her attentiveness is not only to the well-being of her clients, but also to her own health. "I am cautious, wait and see. I know that the door can close again - but it doesn't have to. I don't expect it to. That's a difference. A lot has happened in me since I sat on the floor at the HB back then. I have developed further. And if I need help again, I now know where to find it." This awareness allows her to be optimistic and yet notice early signs.

"What does being healthy mean? For me, it means being allowed to be sad and accepting that as okay. This mantra of perpetual happiness is extremely toxic, even in yoga culture, which I'm strongly rooted in. You just have to do the handstand and then you'll be fine. No. Being healthy also means being able to deal with being crappy. Through my own experience with my depression, and thanks to a great therapist and drawing on my own resources, I can do that now. And that makes me stronger."


About Nica

Nica has two master's degrees, including in biology, social psychology, communication and management. She worked for many years as head of the national tobacco prevention campaign, as media spokesperson for the FOPH, as head of communications for the health and environment department of the city of Zurich, and finally as a consultant in the health policy field on a national and international level. Dhara is Nica's heart project: a modern yoga studio with online and offline offerings, as well as a natural healing practice with deep roots in the Vedic tradition of yoga & Ayurveda. Dhara is Sanskrit and stands for river or for the earth. As a verb it means to sustain, carry or support. Dhara creates space for movement, prevention, healing and meditation.

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