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What Celiac Disease and COVID-19 Have Taught Me About 'Adaptive Stress'

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I once read an article that said the average person with celiac disease is taking their condition too seriously. I remember he proudly admitted to plucking breadcrumbs off of his salad and said that doing this is “totally fine” if you have celiac disease. He also wrote that although gluten may not be killing us, stress most certainly is.

In response, other commenters said that misinformation like this harms our community — and in my opinion, they’re not wrong.

Reading his words also reminded me of the people who expressed similar sentiments toward COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. My own housemates accused me of overreacting when I protested their coming home knowingly infected with the then-poorly-understood virus.

As a person with celiac disease, I’ve seen many controversial blanket statements about my condition, like “It’s OK to eat salad that has touched gluteny croutons” without anyone specifying that it was just their individual experience. Some people believe that if they experience no obvious symptoms after eating a certain way, then all other Celiacs would be fine to do it too!

Words like “hysteria” and “shrieking” were used to describe the commenters who became rightfully upset in response to this.

A commenter — who claimed to revere logic and the scientific method — suggested that severe stress could create symptoms similar to celiac disease.

“So maybe you weren’t cross-contaminated — maybe stress was the cause of your symptoms, not gluten!” he condescendingly proposed.

This opens the door to a conversation about the difference between adaptive and maladaptive stress.

We need some level of adaptive stress in order to survive. Our ancestors heeded stress as a signal to evade getting eaten by predators. By alerting them to nearby threats, that stress kept them alive. Stress over a threat that is real and proven — and where there are actual steps you can take in response to it — is always adaptive to me.

Stress about things over which you have no control, on the other hand, is generally considered less constructive. If this stress is preventing you from functioning and focusing on the tasks of daily life, or if it’s interfering with your sleep, then you might be able to call this “maladaptive.”

Take the example of COVID-19. It’s a real threat. Millions have died from the illness. Millions more have experienced lasting damage from infection. Eight times more people passed away due to COVID-19 last year than from the flu.

Gluten is a real threat to those with celiac disease. Ingestion of as little as 1/1,000th of a crumb can trigger organ damage and an autoimmune response. This is backed by science.

Stress over COVID-19 led people to take steps to avoid the threat. These steps included social distancing, wearing masks, and avoiding large gatherings.

Many who caught COVID-19 in the early stages were people who did not take these steps — either because they couldn’t (due to income inequality and the need to keep their jobs as essential workers to support their families) or because they chose to disregard social distancing and quarantine measures. The people in this second group perhaps believed that the threat was not real — or that people were blowing it out of proportion.

Stress over gluten can lead people to avoid dining out in unsafe environments. It leads them to wash their dishes thoroughly, read labels carefully, and communicate with eating establishments in advance. People who do not take these steps are much likelier to ingest gluten and have small intestinal damage.

Of course, I would like to believe people who say I should “not worry” about my gluten intake. Of course, I want my life to be easier. Of course, I wish I didn’t have to stress about minuscule amounts of gluten.

It’s just that I don’t believe what these people are peddling. Life as a person with a chronic illness — or life as a person — will never be easy or completely free from stress.

And you know what? I’m OK with that. I don’t see my worries as unhealthy — but instead as adaptive stress. The stress I feel doesn’t degrade or detract from my quality of life — in fact, I know it’s improving my life by protecting me from harm.

Sure, I would gladly spend those extra minutes I spend Googling, reading labels, and calling restaurants on something else. I can’t tell you how many cumulative hours I’ve spent on researching whether a given food is safe for me to eat.

But this is my reality now, and even though I spend more time on these things than I did before, I also spend plenty of time on things I enjoy.

My stress about gluten does not disrupt my sleep (unless you count the occasional bad dreams I have where I’m enjoying pizza and saying “fuck it” to my celiac). It does not consume my life. I still exercise every day, read nightly, write prodigiously, and plan fun activities with friends. My days are balanced. Celiac disease might take a significant portion of my brain space, but it by no means takes over entirely.

Whether your adaptive stress is over celiac disease, COVID-19, or avoiding people or environments that spark discomfort in you — the amount of stress you face is key. You get to decide what amount of stress is healthy — not anyone else.

Getty image by nensuria.

Originally published: July 16, 2022
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