Friday, December 07, 2007

’Tis the Season...?

I’m spending the day in the hospital, waiting for someone I love to get out of a long surgery. I came prepared—laptop, headphones, research I should be doing, and of course, several glossy magazines. (What can I say? Distraction is the best antidote for worry). I noticed a definite theme running through all of the magazines—this is the season for stress. There were tips on stress-free shopping, stress-free entertaining, stress-free family functions, and stress-free travel.

It made me think of a recent post I wrote about stress and illness and the tenuous relationship between the two.

Just in case I haven’t already hit you over the head with it (let’s be serious, if you’ve read the other post, you know my position), I believe in the distinction between stress causing illness and stress exacerbating illness. As in, stress did not cause the genetic respiratory condition responsible for so many hospitalizations—my suspect genes did. As in, stress did not make me cough for 17 hours straight and go into respiratory failure, but 20+ years of the wrong treatment for the wrong disease certainly contributed.

Did stress play a role in making the infections and recovery worse? Sure it did. Stress takes energy away from recovery. I’ve seen stress make diabetic blood sugars skyrocket, I’ve seen stress make arthritic joints ache with more severity, I know this relationship is a strong one.

As firmly entrenched in my position as I am, my husband said something the other night that gave me pause. In speaking with someone else about my health, he mentioned that I was much more stable the past few years because of the lifestyle changes I’ve made. “Your schedule in college would have made the healthiest person run down and sick,” he said.

He had a point. In college I worked anywhere between 30-40 hours a week on the campus newspaper (usually from 5pm till the middle of the night), got up early to fit in five courses a semester, interned another 15-20 hours a week, and did lots of other random stuff. I was either running around on 3 hrs of sleep and heavily over-committed, or I was an inpatient.

For three years now, I’ve proudly asserted that the reason I am in the hospital less often and for shorter periods of time is because I finally have the right diagnoses for several of my health problems. I’m getting the right kind of preventative treatment (daily chest PT), I’m on the right medicines, I’m seeing a doctor who specializes in what I have. I’ve stopped the vicious cycle, and better understand how to cater to my persnickety lungs and deficient immune system. I firmly believe if I hadn’t gotten this diagnosis and wasn’t doing all these things, I’d still be making trips to the ICU. It surprised me that my husband hadn’t factored this into his conversation. To me, it is all the difference in the world.

And yet, I have made a lot of lifestyle changes. I don’t survive on three hours of sleep per night (adrenal failure makes that one pretty impossible). I am not so desperate to prove I am not sick by taking on too much. I’ve made sacrifices and compromises both financially and professionally to ensure I am not in that vicious cycle again. I’m trying to set myself up now for a future that while promising, is not as certain as the present.

So there is some truth to what he said, certainly. I’m not sure I would have made those changes, would have matured in the same way, if I hadn’t had the diagnostic breakthroughs. But I also believe 100 percent that if I were still living my life the way I used to, I would be sicker. I’d be more run down so infections would hit me even harder. This is not wisdom or enlightenment so much as it is common sense, and I think it applies to anyone, regardless of health status.

(And yet if I were to run into a certain doctor from my past today, the tiniest part of me would want to tell him: It’s the holiday season. My grades are due in two days, and two huge freelance projects were due this week. I just sold one house and bought another (its own unique brand of home inspection-acquired stress) and my life is half-packed, the boxes stacked and ready to move three days before Christmas (good timing, much?). My computer died in the midst of the major deadlines, I’ve had the plague since sometime in July, and someone I love is having invasive surgery as I type. If I were to pick a stressful couple of weeks, it would be these.

And yet I am breathing just fine, thank you. Stress, huh.)

But of course I wouldn’t say it. I would nod a hello and go on my way, my indignance tempered by gratitude that at least I now know what’s wrong, and I know what choices I should make to keep me well.


Terry at Counting Sheep said...

Nothing like knowing yourself, and what works best for you. Nobdoy knows this better than you, and it sounds like you have a real handle on what makes you tick. That is empowering. (maybe your husband should be included on that list of things that have changed for the better for you?)

Best ofluck to your loved one having the surgery today. Did you ever find out if the surgeon has an iPod? ;-)

Rick Frea said...

It's not easy avoiding stress, but it can do wonders for your health. Sometimes we have to learn this the hard way.

Barbara Kivowitz said...

Your husband sounds like a wise man. I often think that my pain condition taught me how to live a fuller life -- to be awake when I'm awake and asleep when I'm sleeping, to be inside my body and take care of it, and to love deeply. Is it stressful - hell yeah! Would I have learned these lessons without illness -- who knows?

j said...

Combinations of everything do affect it so it's good to pinpoint exactly what the problem is, then work on the stuff that contributes to the problem (such as stress or depression).

Never That Easy said...

I always wonder about any doctor who tells me I should "avoid stress" I wonder if he is living in the actual world, with actual people. Because I have found that it's near to impossible to avoid stress, so you just have to learn the best ways to deal with it.

Again, I think you did a great job clarifying your point here, that stress can make things so much worse without being the cause of the illness. And that learning to manage your stress is one of the strongest tools a person with a chronic illness can utilize.

I hope your family member made it through ok, and that things are well in your world.

Anonymous said...

I went through the same path with my daughter as you describe here--her asthma just kept cycling over and over until she was properly diagnosed and on the right meds and I became a little more aware of her body's signals and stress levels.

The correct diagnosis is so, so crucial, and we learned that one the really hard way.

That above comment nailed things, too. I'm trying to teach my kid to manage her inevitable stress and stay on top of her symptoms.

Asthma Mom

Emily said...

i like terry's point; you have to know yourself. for me, the biggest impact i see stress having on my migraines and headaches is that being stressed makes me not deal as well with the pain. stress makes me more tense, and on edge, and is likely to (as you said) exacerbate the situation.

jeisea said...

I'm so glad you finally got some good diagnoses. My son had severe asthma for many years until it was finally discovered that he had reflux. Reflux caused his asthma. The drugs for asthma cause reflux so he was on the roundabout as you described being. The worse he got the worse he got. Finally he had a operation to fix reflux and no more asthma. Unfortunately he'd had reflux so severe for so long that he has Barrtett's Oesophagus which is a precancerous condition. Hope 2008 is a great year for you.

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