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Advice / Career Paths / Career Stories

How My Body Told Me It Was Time to Leave a Toxic Job

author April Zimmerman stands with her back to the camera looking out on a lake between mountains studded with trees, wearing a backpack and her hair in a ponytail under a baseball cap
Courtesy of April Zimmerman

I paced around the bedroom, phone to my ear, and paused at the door to our second-floor deck. Through the window, a garbage truck lurched and screeched down the street, grinding at my already shot nerves. “I thought a lot about our conversation last week. I decided the best thing for me to do is end my contract when the month is up.” Even as I said it, I second-guessed myself. Am I doing the right thing? Should I keep this up a little longer? Am I irresponsible for quitting when I just got a raise?

My boss paused on the other end. “April…really? What happened?”

What happened? Was he kidding? I wanted to hurl my phone at the wall. Every conversation I had with him instantly became wasted breath.

Two years before this infuriating phone call, I was hired as a contract-based content writer for a small marketing agency. Initially my projects were strictly focused on writing, but within a couple of months my role expanded until I was leading content writing, project management, and social media management on three huge client accounts. My pay did not increase accordingly.

The physical warning signs started soon after I was hired. My body was communicating, but I wasn’t listening.


Ironically, the bulk of my assignments involved writing HR content focused on people-first cultures, employee mental health, pay gaps, and more. Meanwhile, I was immersed in a workplace that valued cheap labor and quantity over quality. My work suffered because of it. I couldn’t focus on creating good content because I was overwhelmed trying to create enough content.

It took two years and loads of self-advocacy for me to finally attain a livable wage. When I started talking to my coworkers, I found out that my overseas colleague was paid $50 a month for part-time design work. I realized the culture wasn’t just toxic; it was unethical.

The physical warning signs started soon after I was hired. During my chaotic onboarding process, I noticed my hair shedding significantly. As my responsibilities piled up over the next few months, I had increased difficulty sleeping. I began experiencing episodes of heart palpitations, lightheadedness, trembling, and shortness of breath. My counselor later told me that these were anxiety attacks. My body was communicating, but I wasn’t listening.

Four months before I gave my notice, I renegotiated my contract in the hopes that more money and a (very) specific outline of monthly deliverables would alleviate the growing pressure of the job. They didn’t. They were just a Band-Aid. Not the super-glue kind. The kind you have to replace every time you wash your hands.

In the week leading up to my phone call with my boss, I started to grind my teeth in my sleep. I couldn’t open my mouth to eat or talk due to excruciating jaw inflammation. I woke up out of nowhere every night, unable to fall asleep again. I had severe, chronic stomach pain and no appetite. I knew my job was at the core of it all. I didn’t know how to fix it. Or maybe worse, I knew it couldn’t be fixed.

author April Zimmerman seen from behind walking on a sand path toward the beach with trees rising up on either side
Courtesy of April Zimmerman

“Pressure is emotional and physical,” says Matt Raeder, Clinical Director of CentrePointe Counseling and my counselor of 15 years, whom I saw for sessions at least once a month throughout my time with the company. It seemed apparent to him that my “not feeling well” was directly related to the mounting pressures and expectations of my job. I was doing well in the other areas of my life. My previous financial struggles had improved and my relationships and friendships were growing. My work life was where I experienced the most pain.

“Stress is residual,” he says. “It builds up in your system and continues to build.” In our sessions I learned how emotional stress can manifest in physical, mental, and behavioral symptoms—including my changes in sleep and eating habits, teeth grinding, jaw clenching, gastrointestinal issues, and difficulty focusing and solving problems.

I was familiar with chronic, accruing stress. When I accepted the position in 2019, I was 13 years into a career as a massage therapist. My body was tired and broken then, too, and I could no longer see as many clients as I needed to pay rent. I was desperate for any opportunity that paid me to write. Now, I made enough to cover living expenses, but I felt undervalued, under-appreciated, and overworked along with the rest of my coworkers.

As a massage therapist, I was adept at noticing the physical manifestations of stress, trauma, and grief in my clients. It was harder to identify—and act on—my own body’s demands for care, attention, and change.

“It’s easier to find a job when you have a job,” was the overwhelming sentiment in my household growing up. But in my case, it didn’t feel true at all. I repeatedly told Raeder I didn’t see an end in sight, couldn’t find relief in my off hours, and didn’t have enough energy to invest in job applications and interviews. I felt trapped and I didn’t trust myself to make any decision, much less the right decision.

“When you get to a point where you’re beaten down physically and emotionally, you can’t make good decisions,” Raeder told me. I worried that the longer I stayed with the company, the more likely I’d be to take any job to get out of it, and the more likely I’d be to end up in a similar situation. I realized that in order to make healthy decisions, I needed space to recover.

Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention to your body. Your body will give you indicators.

Matt Raeder

The day before I picked up the phone to quit, I sat on the sofa with my partner, Fred, and cried. My stomach hurt. My body shook. He listened. Then he put a hand over mine and said, “April, do you see what this job is doing to you? You deserve better, and you deserve to give yourself what you need to find something better.” As the day wore on I gave it more thought. By that evening I knew what my body was telling me: “Enough is enough.”

Within hours of giving my notice the following day, my stomach pains dissipated, I felt noticeably lighter, and I slept through the night for the first time in months. “Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention to your body,” Raeder told me. “Your body will give you indicators.” I finally paid attention—and it paid off.

It’s been three months since I ended my contract. I read for enjoyment again. I write and publish work I love. I planted my first garden and spend time outside daily, watering and weeding and taking walks with Fred around our sweet neighborhood. My relationships, with both Fred and myself, are truer and healthier. I feel more like me than I have in a long time.

I’ve learned to pay attention these last few months—to my body, my intuition, my health. I notice how my gut feels when I’m worried or scared, how my heart races when I’m anxious, how easy I breathe when I’m relaxed. I am less stalled by decision-making because I have more trust in my visceral feedback.

I’m still looking for my next job, but this time, I’m looking for the right job and the right people. Just as I’ve begun to trust my body to tell me when something is wrong, I’ll trust it to guide me to what is right.

Read more on The Muse’s “toxic aware” landing page.

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