Stress and Chronic Illness

In a world where things are anything but simple, with a body that is anything but well behaved, its no surprise that stress plays a big part in the lives of most people with autoimmune diseases like Rheumatoid Arthritis. Between juggling responsibilities and fighting your own body to accomplish them, the stress can easily reach overwhelming levels. Add in a little worrying about the future with said disease, and some guilt about the tings you aren’t nailing, and its no surprise that many autoimmune patients feel stressed. Realizing stress also increases the activity of such diseases, it’s easy to see how that could quickly become a problem.

Learning that stress is one of the most frequent triggers of autoimmune symptoms is a bit like being told breathing makes your symptoms flare-up. Stress is an inevitable part of life, especially for those with chronic disease. Let’s face it as much as you might like to, you can’t simply eliminate all stress from your life. I mean you can certainly try hiding in your blanket fort and coloring all day between snacks and naps but, eventually you will undoubtedly have to face the reality of your life and deal with the things that stress you out. That is the bad news. The good news is stress management can and should include naps, snacks, and even some time alone in the blanket fort if that is what floats your boat.

While we can’t eliminate all of the things (or people) that stress us out, it is still important to consider letting go of some of the ones you can be done with. If something or someone is constantly causing you stress, consider the ways you might be able to step away from that. Changing jobs, downsizing to a more affordable house/car, taking the time to enjoy life, can all decrease the amount of stress your body is dealing with. Less stress means less disease activity. If you live with chronic illness you already know, less disease activity is the golden ticket.

Because stress feeds disease activity, flipping the stress feedback loop from negative to positive can make a huge difference in the way you feel, which in turn impacts the way you cope with pretty much everything in your life. So, how do we flip the script on stress? The answer is good stress management. While what that looks like will vary a bit from person to person there are a few tried and true keys to successful stress management, and wouldn’t you know it, they are exactly the same as the keys to managing chronic disease!

Sleep

The number one most frequent recommendation for health and healing, it is no surprise that getting a good night of rest is one of the keys to good stress management. If you have ever been faced with an extremely stressful situation on not enough sleep, you’ve probably already guessed, sleep mitigates the level of stress hormones in our body, resulting in better function when we are rested. When stress hormones have had the chance to do their thing while we rest, our reaction to stress is more controlled. If you’ve ever lost it over a missing shoe after being up with the baby all night, that was stress hormones. The unbalanced scale tipped because of the lack of sleep, not the search for the shoe.

Exercise

The second most recommended key to healthy stress management is perhaps a bit tricky for many chronic illness sufferers. After all, for many of us exercise aggravates existing conditions. That said, lovingly moving your body is also one of the keys to continued mobility as well as a great way to keep your stress in check. It is also a healthy way to react to the body dumping stress hormones in, no bears in your woods to run from no problem, use the hormone spike to run for fun. Unless running hurts or is a no for your particular condition, then perhaps consider getting the blood and hormones cycling through in a gentler way, say with a brisk walk, a swim, or some time on a recumbent bike. (Never run from a real bear, one should only run from metaphorical bears.)

Nutrition

The third key we are diving into for stress management is nutrition. The saying you are what you eat is, unfortunately true. What goes into your body will have a huge impact on how that body behaves. Everything from our weight to our sleep patterns and our ability to manage stress are impacted by the foods and beverages we choose to consume. If you are living on sugar and caffeine and your stress is through the roof, know that your choices are fueling the stress fire. Our bodies need nutrients to make the systems work properly. Without getting into a bunch of complex chemistry, its enough to understand that every action your body takes from beating your heart to moving water into and out of your excretory system requires the movement/binding/presence of specific molecules. If the things your body needs are not being provided it will either fail to complete that process, or more often, get creative with what it has. This can lead to depleted resources and a poorly running system. A poorly running system will give everything it has to the life continuing aspects of your body, keeping that heart beating and lungs working, after that it is all about prioritization. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I’m never sure) our bodies can function pretty well with unbalanced stress hormones on board, making it a non essential fire to put out as far as the brain is concerned. In fact, if things in the body are particularly critical, the stress response may be considered just another alarm to a brain trying desperately to please its cohabitants with whatever can be extracted from Doritos and lattes.

Healthy Relationships

Something I believe should be on every list for healthier living, healthy relationships with the people we choose to spend our time with are essential to stress management and our overall happiness in life. If you are hanging around with people who drive you crazy, stress is inevitable. Spending more time with the people who allow you to get out of that head space and enjoy moments will always leave us in better spirits, and with measurably lower stress levels. Focusing on building those positive relationships and letting go of or limiting your exposure to the ones who drag you down will find you in much better shape stress-wise, and you will also be building the right kind of tribe to get you through life in good company. Essential for everyone, perhaps doubly if you are living with a chronic illness or two.

Talk It Out

Let’s face it, sometimes all the stress management practices in the world cannot outweigh the very real weight of a stress filled life. Especially when the things we are going through feel too big to handle. You may have caught on by now but that old saying ‘that that doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger’ is a crock of shit. Plenty of things leave us standing but worse for wear. Shattered yet functional. While it certainly takes strength to carry on living a normal looking life when you feel like you are barely hanging in there, it definitely isn’t building you up. Don’t allow life to drag you under all that stressful reality. Find someone who you can share those burdens with. Everything gets smaller if you get it out of your head. Rather it takes the form of a therapist or weekly coffee with a trusted friend, we all need someone to share the heavy stuff with. A judgement free zone of understanding and acceptance of us right where we are, can be exactly what we need to gain the perspective to move beyond something that has us trapped in flight or fight mode. Reaching out to people who have been there and done that? Absolutely priceless.

Relaxation

The final key to stress management, and probably the most obvious, is taking time to relax. When life is running you over with stress this idea may seem impossible, laughable even, but it is also essential. Finding time to do the things that bring you calm in the middle of a stressful situation can bring clarity and calm,which lead to clearer thinking and better decision making, and perhaps less stress down the road. Taking time to relax when you are not trying to put out a fire, is even more beneficial. In a relaxed state our bodies function more efficiently. Our heart rate and respiration rate drop, muscles release tension, and everything from brain function to digestive processes run more smoothly.

While yoga and meditation are probably the things most often thought of for relaxation, there are a wide variety of techniques that help people feel more calm. Which method(s) you choose will depend on your personality and what feels relaxing to you. If yoga hurts and distracts you, it isn’t likely to also be your type of relaxation. Perhaps your relaxation looks more like strolling quietly through nature or sitting with a warm cup of tea and gazing into the distance. As the sole resident of your brain, only you will know what brings calm to your mind and body. If you don’t know what that is yet, try some of the following.

Stress may be inevitable, but living in a constant state of stress doesn’t have to be the norm. It shouldn’t be the norm. Taking a bit of time each day to care for ourselves properly can help protect us from the long term impact of a stress filled life. Knowing stress feeds disease activity and may steal literal years from your life, it is worth the effort to manage it well.

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