May 19, 2006

Stress: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

A chronicle of the evolution of my response to stress.

It started when I was about 10 years old with an itchy nose and sneezing. I would rub that poor nose until it was raw if I was in a stressful situation. If I was around one particular relative - only my mom knows who, since she pointed it out - I would sneeze like crazy.

In college it became a rash on my face, which then moved to my neck - less obvious. From there it became jaw clenching and teeth grinding. Result: terrible TMJ and surgery. But stress hadn't concurred me yet. Next it became vertigo. I felt like I was on a swaying ship. Got really bad a few days before my first marriage - a little hint of things to come?

Tests and more tests and it became clear - the vertigo was in my mind. Oh yes, that powerful noodle inside my noggin. It works over time. Migraines - every six months like clockwork. Then about four years ago it evolved into headaches that lasted 3-5 days. Excruciating pain and nothing could make it stop. Again, Doctors sending me off for various tests and prescribing medications that didn't work.

This year I decided enough is enough - no more tests and medications. If I am going to concur the stress and chronic pain I will have to change my behavior. The headaches stopped this month as I willed the pain away each time it crept up. I'm now six weeks headache free - two weeks past my normal monthly episode.

But a new beast is battling the stress inside me - my stomach. For the past week I've been doubled over in pain. I try to be Zenned out but clearly it isn't working. Stephen will be the first to admit that I am certainly much better than when he first met me four years ago. But I still have this extreme reaction to stress. Or maybe I'm not reacting and holding it all in which is eating me up inside.

In last week's New York Times Magazine there was an interesting article that has me hopeful about living without pain. My Pain, My Brain By MELANIE THERNSTROM, Published: May 14, 2006. The author, who lives with chronic pain, explores and experiences research that pushes the pain threshold and asks if perhaps we each can control our response.

It is important for me to reduce my stress because as I get older I can see how it eats away at my health. In Thernstrom's article she talks about how researchers have discovered that your brain actually shrinks when you are in pain - and the shrinking lasts. Not only is it hard to think when you are in pain - you actually are decreasing your mental capacity - permanently.

Moving house twice in one year - first across the country and then across the pond - is very stressful. Even if it is fun, exciting and filled with adventure I am clearly not as relaxed about it as I would like to think. But I'm warming up to the British life. Stephen and I went out for pints of Guiness this evening - practicing for our life in London. If only I enjoyed beer ;-)

Illustration by Marcos Chin from the NYT article.