By Lora Ward Wilson
The constant tightness, stiffness and pain in my neck, shoulders and jaw would not go away.
I woke exhausted almost every morning, clenching my teeth.
I often jumped if the phone rang or if someone tapped me on the shoulder.
Negative thoughts distorted my perceptions. I dwelt on what was wrong and stockpiled anger because life was not going my way.
Before I could admit it to myself consciously, my body was telling me that I was under severe stress.
It started when my husband Robb, a kidney/pancreas recipient, went on disability. Years of diabetes narrowed the small blood vessels in his brain. This caused communication and cognitive impairments that made it impossible for him to continue working as a project manager for a local university. I was now solely responsible for supporting us both.
Next, my assistant went on maternity leave right before the holidays. As director of a large, multi-office physician practice, I was doing her job and mine along with excessive holiday gift wrapping and decorating. Absence does make the heart grow fonder. While I was overjoyed at her return, my stress was not relieved.
Shortly thereafter, my father suffered a stroke and required surgery. Thankfully, he recovered without any lasting effects. And to top it all off, I injured my wrist. After months of wearing a brace and adapting tasks, I had outpatient surgery, followed by another brace and weeks of painful therapy. My life was more than I could handle!
I had always been good at dealing with trying situations; in fact I prided myself on it. When my husband had his transplant, I went home to sleep in my own bed so I would be well-rested. I juggled a demanding job, numerous volunteer duties and diverse interests. I thrived on multi-tasking and a fast-paced lifestyle.
But now, I was overwhelmed and exhausted. Stress was making me physically ill. I felt like a tube of toothpaste. My strength and patience were being squeezed out until I felt empty. Even finally recognizing the truth did not help. I couldn’t stop hurting myself by myself. I needed help.
According to Medline Plus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, stress is common when people need to adapt to major life changes. Even happy changes like getting married, having a child or moving can make you feel frustrated, angry or nervous. Having an injury or illness or caring for a loved one who is ill can increase anxiety, fear and worry. For transplant recipients, their families and others with chronic illnesses, too much stress is a fact of life.
After two years of battling stress, I finally feel that I’ve found ways to reclaim my peace of mind. This is what my experience has taught me:
- Control your mind, not your circumstances.
Working with a therapist and reading about stress-related illnesses helped me to recognize that my desire to control everything was neither healthy, nor realistic. There are few things in life that we really can control, but we can learn to regulate our responses to stressful circumstances.
The weather is a helpful analogy. Like so many of the circumstances of my life, I am powerless to manipulate the elements. I can respond by seeking shelter, taking an umbrella or wearing warmer clothing. When I compare stressful situations in my life to storms, I am better able to respond in a healthy way and to accept things I just cannot change. I remind myself that even hurricanes eventually end; so too will the stormy situations in my life.
- Be good to yourself.
You are more than what you do. Modern life keeps us all very busy playing roles for different people in our lives. When stress causes physical symptoms, it is important to take care of yourself. Pay special attention to nutrition, exercise and rest.
Give yourself permission to make time everyday just for you, even if it’s just 15 minutes. Discover what helps you to relax. I’ve found that prayer, journaling, running, warm baths and occasional hot stone massages help me to release tension.
- Explore ancient wisdom to become more mindful.
I enrolled in a relaxation seminar series sponsored by my health plan. The program included instruction on mindfulness and meditation adapted from many spiritual traditions, yoga techniques modified for varying fitness levels and abilities, group discussion and tools like guided-meditation CDs and reading to assist participants in adopting a regular practice of mindfulness.
In 2010, the University of Minnesota published findings on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for Solid Organ Transplant Recipients: A Randomized Controlled Trial. The researchers concluded that transplant recipients, particularly those who have sleep and/or anxiety disorders, could benefit from MBSR like the seminar I attended. The report cited a high prevalence of anxiety, depression and insomnia in the transplant population, most likely due to the stressful nature of chronic medical conditions.
Look for an MBSR program through a hospital or university in your community.
- Confide in someone you can trust.
Don’t be embarrassed to seek professional help from your physician, a psychologist or psychiatrist, or to speak with a clergy-person or spiritual advisor. A sympathetic listener helps you to set down your burdens for a while, and to realize that you are not alone.
Consider taking medications for anxiety or depression if your doctor recommends this. According to a report released in 2011 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 10 Americans over the age of 12 are now taking anti-depressants.
I had to try several different medications, monitor side effects and work closely with my doctor over several months to find the right medicine and dose, but it has been worth the struggle. If other techniques fail to give you relief, don’t be too stubborn to give medications a try.
- Laugh every day.
Numerous research studies have proven that laughter is a cost-effective remedy to improve health and quality of life. Taking life too seriously was compounding my stress. Finding humor in my struggles made them easier to bear.
I laughed out loud when I saw a cartoon of a psychiatrist with his patient. The caption read, “I’m optimistic that I can overcome my pessimism. Hey, I’m cured!”
By building on the steps I’ve outlined here, I’m confident that I can weather the stormy situations of life and keep my stress in check.