I used to think I handled stress well. That was before Larry died, before my whole world got turned upside down and left me feeling as though my WHOLE life was one big stressor.
Besides the obvious grieving for my husband I also had to figure out how to help my children grieve. In addition, Larry was a sole proprietor and after he died the responsibility of keeping the business going fell on my shoulders. In one fell swoop I went from having a partner in life, parenting and business, to being on my own and being responsible for EVERYTHING!
This was definitely the most difficult time in my life and I now see I was in over my head. It’s no wonder my body couldn’t keep up. To make matters worse, that first year after Larry died I didn’t give much thought to what I put in my body. While I know I was doing the best I could, I wish had been better informed about the physical toll stress can have on the body.
Stress is something we all face. Even our children are experiencing more stress at a younger age. Stress can come in many forms: physical (injury), chemical (toxins), mental (worry), emotional (grief), nutritional (poor diet), traumatic (surgery) and psycho-spiritual (financial instability). With all the various forms of stress in the world there really is no escaping it.
So instead of asking how to avoid ALL stressful situations, the real questions are: what is stress and what does it do to the body? When is it good? When is it bad? And, what can we do to manage (i.e. live with) stress?
So what is stress?
Stress is the body’s natural defense mechanism against a threat, either real or perceived.
A real threat may arise when you’re crossing the street and notice a car is speeding toward you. An appropriate response would be to run for your life to avoid getting hit. You may notice your heart beating faster and you experience shortness of breath until you get to safety. After a short while your body will return to the state it was in before the car came speeding at you.
This is also known as the “flight or fight” response. According to Walter Cannon, a physiologist, neurologist and Harvard researcher, when there is threat, either perceived or real, the body will involuntarily prepare itself to flee (that is, to remove itself from conflict) or fight (protect itself or those around it). Cannon himself coined the term “flight or fight” after much research in the early 1900’s.
Now let’s discuss a threat that’s perceived. You may be working for a company that’s experiencing financial difficulties and continually lays off employees. You go to work each day in fear of being told that you, too, will be laid off. Your body experiences the same symptoms mentioned above; increased heart rate, shortness of breath and atypical sweating. The difference between this perceived threat and the real threat is that under a perceived threat the body doesn’t always return to the state it was before the threat arose. Hence you start to live in a state of chronic stress.
This is exactly what I faced when Larry was first diagnosed with his illness and it continued way past his death.
So what does happen to your body when it’s under stress?
When stress occurs the brain and pituitary gland respond by releasing adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone stimulates the adrenals to increase production of the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. The main adrenal hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine, are the main stimuli to the stress response. This is what happens to the body when these hormones are released:
• Heart rate increases
• Blood pressure increases
• Body temperature may become irregular
• Certain blood vessels constrict to increase blood flow to muscles and brain (ever heard of superhuman strength during a time of crisis?)
• Blood flow to the digestive tract decreases (are you constipated or having difficulty losing weight?)
• Adrenaline raises blood sugar and stimulates the liver to produce and release more glucose into the blood. This is very important for everyone to understand but especially for those diagnosed with diabetes.
As I mentioned above, living with chronic stress does not allow the body to return to its normal homeostasis state (the state you were in before you lived with chronic stress).
Does all that information make you feel more stressed? Yikes!
But remember there is good stress and bad stress. What’s the difference?
I see this information as a good stressor. Knowledge is power and the more you understand internal and external factors that affect your level of stress the better you’ll get at taking time to actively manage stress in your daily life.
On the flip side, chronic stress is certainly not good for your body. Living in a chronic state of stress lowered my immune system, left me susceptible to many illnesses and I believe is the cause of my thyroid disorder. I’m sharing this with you to help you make better decisions, which will hopefully help you in coping with stress.
So what can you do to manage stress?
Psychologist Richard Lazarus believes it’s not stress that’s the problem, but your ability to handle stress that determines what it will do to your body. Here are some of the many stress management techniques you can put into practice:
• Exercise: start slowly if you’re beginning a new routine and be careful not to physically tax your body. Walking is an excellent way to get back into exercising.
• Eat a nutrient rich diet
• Go to counseling
• Try your hand at journaling
• Incorporate meditation and/or prayer into your day
• Remember: be gentle on yourself and the time you need to heal!
I will be covering all of these stress management techniques -and more- in future blog posts.
What about grief and stress?
This is a tough one, I’ll be the first to admit. We didn’t ask for this stress in our life, but we’re left to manage the best we can. I wish I knew four years ago what I know today (don’t we all!) Perhaps I would’ve followed the “be gentle on yourself” advice a little more closely. Or maybe I would’ve altered my diet sooner. But I can’t change the past and I certainly don’t dwell on it (who needs that kind of stress!) Instead, I focus on today and what steps I take in my life to manage stress going forward.
One of the biggest changes I’ve made since being diagnosed with valley fever in 2012 was to find a way back to writing. I gave up writing for the first two years after Larry died. I had too many other issues on my plate to deal with.
After getting sick and taking months to recover. I reevaluated my life and the amount of stress that was in it.
At this point, the majority of my stress was related to the business. Larry’s business was in real estate investment and development. I found I was most stressed when I had to deal with city inspectors, contractors, and unexpected issues that arose and cost more than anticipated (which is typical in remodels and development!)
I didn’t want to live with that kind of stress anymore so I had to make a choice: how did I want to live my life? To figure this out I asked myself the very same questions I posed to you in last week’s blog, Finding Your Higher Purpose.
This is my answer to last week’s questions:
• What comes to mind immediately when someone asks you what you love most? My children.
•What can you do over and over without it feeling like work? Write.
• What would you be doing right now even if you weren’t getting paid? Writing, helping others heal.
That’s when it hit me. I wanted to be a good mother to my children. When I’m stressed, I’ll admit, my patience is short, especially with my children. So I knew in order to be a good mom I had to be good to myself. I had to find a way to get back to doing what brings peace and joy in my life.
It took me almost another two years to prioritize and get my business affairs running smoothly so I could do what I’m doing today. It’s a juggling act most days trying to write, take classes for my holistic nutrition certification and take care of business issues as they come up, but finding a way to fit into my life what I love makes me more than willing to do it!
Thank you for being a part of my higher purpose!
Of course I still have stress in my life. Remember, I have three adolescent boys! But I practice various stress reducing techniques on a daily basis, depending on the situation.
I pray you’ll find a way to incorporate stress reducing techniques into your life.
PS. Be a friend and share this newsletter with anyone you know who may be living with chronic stress.