August 28, 2017

How Chronic Stress makes us Sick & What we can do about It.


All my life I’ve had an intimate and steadfast relationship with psychosomatic illness.

When I’m under more stress than I can handle, my mind and body call a little meeting and put me on administrative leave. They don’t even give me desk duty. Internal affairs comes in and says, “Go home. Leave your badge at the front desk. We’ll call you when we think you’re ready to return to full duties.”

Just so you know, I am writing this in between naps in my bed because I am out sick. Again.

Predictable as rain after washing your car.

This is how it goes:

My mind/body: “Hey Amy, how you been? We haven’t talked in a while.”

Me: “Hey, guys, I’m really good. Busy, but good, you know?”

Mind/body: “Amy, look…you know how this works. We gotta shut you down for a bit.”

Me: “No, seriously, I’m fine! Work is busy, I just have some deadlines coming up, a PowerPoint to submit for a speaking engagement, some social media stuff, videos to shoot, my daughter’s birthday—but it’s all good. Well, I mean, the A/C is out at the house, and I gotta figure out how to be home to meet the repairman because it’s 90 degrees upstairs. My car is still in the shop a month after getting hit, and, you know, that’s a bit stressful. Oh, and my son starts senior year Monday, and I have to turn in baby pictures for the yearbook; and crap, I need to make sure he’s got his college applications ready to send in…”

Mind/body: “Are you even listening to yourself?”

Me: (making disgruntled noises) ”Fine. What’s it going to be this time?”

Mind/body: “Do you have a preference?”

Me: (sigh) “Not really. Surprise me, I guess.”

And, the next morning, as if the tooth fairy or Santa Claus came during the night, it is done.

I wake up with fever, or I throw out my back just pulling on my pants. Sometimes my throat is covered in white gunk, and it feels like I swallowed glass. I get neck spasms. I get vertigo. Anything to take me out of commission for a little while.

I used to think I was a really sickly person. Or maybe just unlucky. And then, once I started seeing the obvious connection between the stuff going on in my life and the way I was feeling, I felt embarrassed—if not just a little bit crazy.

“Sorry to call in again, but I’m sick. Yeah, I know I was just sick two weeks ago, but now my back’s out. I can’t even roll over. Yep, going to rest. Again. Sorry.”

But now, as I spend more time researching the mind/body connection for my own clients and their wellness, I get it. This is what is supposed to happen physiologically in order to keep us healthy. Our mind takes our body off the field until we’re ready to play again. Now, if only we could see the patterns and help our body work the way it was meant to.

Our Autonomic Nervous System works automatically without any input from us, regulating our heartbeat, breathing, digestion, elimination, circulation, and so on. This system consists of two equally important parts which constantly work to keep us in balance: the Sympathetic system (“fight or flight”) and the Parasympathetic system (“rest and digest”).

Keeping the homeostasis that is necessary for wellness.

When we are in danger or under severe stress, our Sympathetic Nervous System kicks in, and the body is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, increasing the heart rate to get more blood to the extremities. Our respiration increases so that the blood is more oxygenated. Digestion shuts down so that the blood in the gut can be rerouted to the extremities. Muscles tighten.

All this to prepare us to fight or flee.

When the danger is removed, ideally, our parasympathetic system is activated to return all our systems to their usual state: the heart rate and breathing slow, digestion resumes, our muscles soften, allowing blood to flow more freely through our vessels, which in turn lowers our blood pressure.

But what happens to this fine-tuned system when our stress and perception of danger never lift?

The nervous system doesn’t know the difference between the real danger of a car swerving head on into our lane and the perceived danger we experience when our email inbox is full of requests or demands that need our immediate attention. It doesn’t know the difference between our child running into traffic or forgetting their permission slip for today’s field trip.

We are flooded with the same amount of cortisol either way.

In 2012, Dr. Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University established that chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response. The stress hormone cortisol plays a role in regulating inflammation, but prolonged stress causes immune cells to become insensitive to cortisol, resulting in increased inflammation, which promotes the development and progression of disease.

And, here’s what I see as the biggest problem: we have not yet evolved, as a species, to handle the fast-paced, technologically advanced world that we have created for ourselves—the constant availability and accessibility through our phones and computers. The stress is chronic and prolonged. The work day is never over and comes home with us, sitting next to us as we try to eat dinner with our family or relax on the couch. Our boss and clients and our child’s teacher are always there, interrupting us with questions and demands and deadlines as we sit down to watch just one show on Netflix.

Please, for the love of God, can I watch just one show without my email pinging?

So, here are three simple things I try to remember to do to keep myself healthier:

1. Recognize the pattern. It doesn’t take a scientist to see the correlation in how busy or stressed you are and how your body is responding to that. If you need, keep a calendar with not only all the stuff you had to do each day and week but how you felt physically and emotionally during those times. You will start to see the connection between increased stress and decreased wellness. For example, every New Year I wind up sick or with a bad back from all the holiday stress of December. I know to either plan on it or decrease the stress and demands leading up to it. It’s my choice.

2. Set boundaries. Boundaries exist for one reason: to protect ourselves. That’s it. Give yourself permission to say no to work or social or voluntary commitments you can’t reasonably complete. Set your screen time boundary each evening and allow yourself to put the phone down. That constant accessibility? Allow yourself to be inaccessible each evening.
Remember, a yes to someone else is often a no to yourself.

3. Make self-care a priority. Whether you need time alone to decompress after work, a non-working lunch or coffee break during each workday, time to exercise or meditate or sleep, or even an occasional mental health day, give yourself permission to do so. It is your right to take care of your needs without guilt or shame. Ask for and accept help, if you need, so you can make it happen.

With each passing year, I am more able to embrace my needs and the things that I have to do to stay well. I even recognize that my needs may be different than others.

And, I’m okay with that.

I’m okay with whatever I have to do to stay in the game.




Author: Amy Bradley
Image: Pixabay/Myriams-Fotos
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Emily Bartran
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman


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