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Please Stop Saying My Chronic Illness is Caused by ‘Stress’

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Do you ever find yourself wondering if your illness could be imaginary? I’ve certainly spent time imagining I didn’t have it!

Recently, I have found myself questioning the “authenticity” of my illness. But, I know the physical aspects have been tested and measured and definitely shown to be real. So why do I find this question hovering around in the background?

Well, the answer is really quite simple. A specialist stated he believed I was ill due to “stress.” I equated that with meaning it was in my head!

I have heard many health professionals tell me “stress” is a factor in my chronic illness. Well it might be, but it sure is not the cause!

I know high levels of stress can change immune responses, but I have come to the conclusion that those who tell me it is “stress” are really just copping out. I believe they cannot comprehend what is happening. Labeling me as “being stressed” is a convenient cop-out. It also puts the onus back onto the sick person. It puts blame back on the sick person, too.

I am sometimes stressed, which is a “normal” feature of life. What I want to yell back at some medical professionals, but am too polite to do so, is: “No, I am not stressed! But I am distressed.”

I have lost count of the number of times I have been told, “There is nothing more we can do for you.” Hearing this phrase is stressful and distressing, too.

There is a huge difference between stress and distress. Stress is an adaptive, helpful response to something, such as a change of jobs. It is usually short-term, and perhaps motivating and energizing, thereby increasing performance. Stress also feels like it is within our capabilities.

Distress is very different. It feels rather unpleasant. It may be short-term or long-term. It depletes your energy; it can remove motivation; it feels like you cannot possible deal with the situation; you feel helpless; it produces anxiety and can lead to physical or mental illness. Examples of what can cause distress include the loss of a loved one, being hospitalized and having a chronic illness.

So the next time I get told to “de-stress”, I am going to correct the person. Yes I have stresses, but stresses do not make me ill. But I do experience “distress.” This distress is a direct result of my chronic illness, asthma.

The distress occurs:

  • because I cannot change my illness,
  • because my illness is relentless,
  • because I have days when I feel overwhelmed by it,
  • because it is unpleasant and not a nice place to be,
  • because it saps my energy and gobbles up my motivation,
  • because I sometimes feel that it is impossible to cope with it
  • and because I get anxious!

Guess what? Being distressed is a “normal” response to chronic illness. Stress is a “normal” part of life.

Neither stress nor distress have caused my illness. But distress has definitely come into my life as a result of chronic illness.

So, Doctor, stress is not causing me difficulties, nor is it making me ill. My illness is not in my head, nor is it caused by my head. Having you cause me to question myself in this way has been harmful. Dealing with the physical side of my illness is enough without you adding another layer of creating so much doubt!

I actually find myself distressed, at times, by the “chronicness” of my illness. Maybe, you could help by understanding the difference! It is actually rather lazy (and harmful) to attribute physical illness/disease solely to stress.

Getty image via Ponomariova_Maria. 

Originally published: October 28, 2019
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