Lately when people ask me how I’m doing, I tend to say “fine”… whether I am or not. The truth is I haven’t been “fine” since Lilianna was born eight months ago. You probably know my story: the birth complications, the surgeries, the transfusions, the blood clot, the D-MER, the drug reactions. It’s been a lot. So while I’m head-over-heels in love with my baby girl, I am also exhausted, overwhelmed, and anxious.
Lately I’ve been having a bunch of really disconcerting physical symptoms, as well. After too many ER visits, ambulance rides, CT scans, ultrasounds, EKGs, and doctor’s appointments, I’ve been worked up for everything from heart attacks to MS and according to all of that, I am indeed “fine.” The trouble is I still feel anything but.
Fortunately I recently found a book called Mind Over Medicine by Lissa Rankin, MD and it really helped me understand the situation I’m in right now, as well as the situation I’ve been in for the last 10 years. Here’s the gist:
Our mind can influence our physical body… but not in a woo-woo kind of way. In a very real, physiological way through a mechanism called the stress response. Basically when you experience stress of any kind, whether it’s a real threat or a perceived one, a life-and-death situation or an everyday annoyance, your body reacts the same. It pumps out stress hormones and shuts down any processes that aren’t essential for you to fight or flee (this includes digestion, by the way).
This is okay if it happens only once in a while and only for short periods of time — we were designed for that. That’s how our ancestors survived alongside hungry lions. But when it happens all the time and for a long period of time, bad things start to happen. Real physiological changes occur in the body, causing or worsening real, physiological symptoms. And here’s the kicker: the body cannot fix the bad things that are happening while it’s pumping out those stress hormones. So if you’re always in the stress response, it really doesn’t matter how much green juice you drink or how many supplements you take, the body can’t fix what’s gone awry.
Once I realized all of that, it made more sense. In my mind I know that I’ve been dealing with postpartum anxiety, lack of sleep, disruptive physical symptoms, and a whirlwind of emotions, but as far as my body is concerned, I’ve been running from a lion for eight months. No wonder things are falling apart. I guess some would say that means my symptoms are “just stress.” But as the person feeling the real, physical impact of the prolonged stress response… I’d say there’s no such thing as “just” stress.
So what can I do? And what can you do if you’re facing a similar situation? Eliminating stress obviously isn’t realistic, but most of us, if we’re honest, can reduce it. We can pay more attention to what we say “yes” to, what we hold on to, the stories we tell ourselves or let others tell us, and the people we surround ourselves with. All of that contributes to stress and most of it is within our control. (Things like having an infant who never sleeps… not so much!)
Even more important, all of us can counteract the physiological impact of the stress response by eliciting the “relaxation response.” It’s simple (though not necessarily easy), it’s free, and it’s like a reset button for the nervous system. There are a myriad of ways to elicit this relaxation response, everything from breathing exercises and mediation to Tai Chi and Yoga to art and music.
The two essential steps according Dr. Herbert Benson are the repetition of a word, sound, phrase, or muscular activity, and passive disregard of everyday thoughts as you do that repetition. The real key, though, is consistency. To get into this state where your parasympathetic nervous system takes over as often as possible. The larger the toll that stress has taken on your body, the more this needs to happen.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to lead by example. I’m making it my number one priority for the entire month of June to counteract the stress response, rebalance my nervous system, and get to a place where I actually do feel “fine” again. (Despite the GP, I felt quite good before and during my pregnancy so long as I stuck to my GP management plan. Now what might happen to idiopathic GP symptoms with prolonged exposure to the relaxation response? I don’t know, but I am going to test that out, too!)
I’m fortunate to be able to take some time off to do this. I have the support of my family, a fantastic assistant, and understanding folks like you who will be here when I come back refreshed, renewed, and relaxed. But I hope that you’ll take some time, too. Even if it’s only ten minutes a day over the long weekend and throughout the next month. Give your nervous system a chance to rest. Give your body a chance to repair itself and function properly. Give yourself a chance to feel fine.
By the way, if you have questions about the upcoming LWWGP Program while I’m away, Becky will be able to help you with those. Otherwise, I look forward to reconnecting with you in July. I’ll tell you about what I did, how it worked, and we’ll talk about putting it to work for you, too.