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Why Reducing Stress Isn't Easy for People With Chronic Illness

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Reducing stress is one of the most commonly suggested things anyone can do to have a better, healthier and happier life. Family, friends, and even doctors quickly jump to areas of stress as places we can focus on when dealing with a chronic condition.

I think it’s important to highlight something my doctor told me a few years ago: “Between work, and school, and simply managing migraine, you’re bound to be more stressed.” She went on to discuss anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications she thought I should take into consideration. My doctor was on the right track, but the suggestions for managing the stress were where she went wrong.

This holds true for so many of us with chronic illnesses, mental illnesses and disabilities — we are dramatically more stressed simply because of the added responsibility and layers our conditions bring into our lives. The super-easy solution would be to just not be sick anymore, but since that isn’t a realistic option, the common lifestyle cure-all of eliminating stress is suggested.

Over the last year, I’ve discovered that stress reduction is absolutely nothing like what most people suggest.

I was baffled that leaving school, leaving work, moving back in with my parents, and eliminating all these sources of stress and tension in my life didn’t actually provide any relief in my symptoms or migraine pain. It clicked that those stressors may have exacerbated my symptoms, but weren’t causing them. If I wanted to focus on reducing stress in my life, I had to pay attention to where stress occurred.

My largest stress-inducing source came from online. Every day there is a new headline, a new breaking news story, or a new international incident that is broadcast nonstop on all social media. You can’t escape it and it’s almost impossible to avoid being exposed to it — especially for those of us who are housebound and spend a good bit of our day online, interacting with friends we’ve made through social media spaces.

Reducing the stress induced by the news wasn’t easy, and came with a more helpful piece of advice that expands upon the idea of simply “reduce stress and you’ll be healthier.”

Change how you react to a situation by understanding how it impacts you.

At first glance, that’s a hard piece of advice to swallow. We’re immediately caught up in the idea that we can’t be separated from what is happening in the news. The topic of abortion was one I had a particularly horrendous time separating myself from last spring. Since the immediate separation doesn’t just happen, there are some steps we can go through to put the advice into practice. First, we must recognize that it is stressful news, but that doesn’t mean it has to create stress within our bodies.

When we’re sick, our bodies are constantly in a fight or flight mode. We are in a regularly over-excited state, so it’s rather easy for an outside force to have a dramatic impact on our health. An event that causes us to be either very high or very low in our emotional state can put us in flares lasting days or even weeks.

Once we’ve identified a stressful event, we have to register how we feel about it. If possible, we can try to get a well-rounded picture of what’s happening. Did a headline set us off? Was it someone’s response to a headline or an event? Is there a way we can see what’s really happening and if something is actually happening? Did the stress come from a reaction that isn’t practical or is there a real issue here that we can better understand before allowing it to affect us?

Then we have to identify if there’s something we can do that will have a direct impact on it. If a change in our own lives, or a phone call, or even hosting an event can have an impact on what is causing the stress, perhaps we can directly address the stress and overcome it. Oftentimes, we don’t have an impact on what’s happening, and recognizing there isn’t something we can do at the moment to change what has brought on the stress is a key step towards acceptance and moving forward with what we can change.

I’ve been working through this process all year, and will probably work through it for the rest of my life. The process of letting go of emotions and learning to work through stress as it’s happening takes time and a lot of effort, but can be really rewarding. It’s me being extra picky about what I allow to disrupt my emotions, in turn reducing how often my body is responding to stress.

Perhaps the advice we really need to hear from our well-intentioned friends, family and health staff isn’t to reduce the stress in our lives, but to change how we interact with the stress in our lives.

Getty image by Jorm Sangsorm.

Originally published: January 8, 2020
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