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The Unique Relationship Between Stress and Chronic Illness

Updated: Jun 7, 2022

The transcript can be found under the video.

In this week's video, I will be talking about stress, the specific stressors a chronic illness might bring, as well as the effects it has on the body, and most importantly, what we can do about stress.

When I speak with clients, I frequently ask them about their symptom triggers. I ask them what helps, the most common response is how much stress triggers a flare-up or worsening of symptoms. This is true for many conditions; even a cold can be made worse and extended by stress, so it's clearly an important topic to discuss.

At the same time, people are sometimes advised that all they need to do is reduce the stress in their lives as if it's really simple. This sounds like a really tall order and broad one. So, how do we put that into practice?

The Effects of Stress

I believe we often get told about how stress is bad for us but not necessarily the why behind it. When there's a stressor such as a dog barking at you. Your body releases a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. And you may be familiar with adrenaline since, in POTS, the body responds with surges of adrenaline, and that causes a racing heart, jitteriness, and other symptoms.

Then with stress, the body also will release cortisol. Cortisol increases the glucose in the bloodstream and alters the immune system response. It suppresses the digestive system and reproductive system because when the body is under stress or perceived to be in danger, it doesn't really think that we need to focus on feeding or breeding or anything like that. So it's quite smart about conserving its resources.

In general, stress is a normal part of day-to-day life, and the body is relatively good at regulating itself. When stress is always present, the fight or flight stays on, and long-term activation means that your body is overexposed to cortisol and other stress hormones. This makes a lot of sense at lower quantities, but not in continual doses.

Studies show that chronic stress also disturbs the gut microbiota, and then that triggers an immune system response. Chronic stress and inflammation go hand in hand, and it's also associated with the risk of depression, autoimmune diseases, poor wound healing, and many others.

Illness and Stress

Stress does cause quite the damage to the body. When it comes to stress, it's important to identify what is causing it. It helps to identify the stressors so you can work with them and also manage the negative effects of stress on the body. This is one of the first topics we often touch on with clients. We look at where this is coming from. Jobs, relationships, beliefs, standards, or even trauma can all contribute.

It is also important to discuss that having a chronic condition is stressful. It's crucial to look at specifically how that affects life. It's not just about dealing with the physical symptoms and managing the condition; it's also about coordinating care between various doctors and specialists, keeping track of doctor appointments, taking various medications, and figuring out how everything fits together.

There are also physical effects such as insomnia, chronic pain, and other symptoms that cause us more stress. There's also the great unknown. It often feels as if your body is acting on its own and you can't control it. Of course, many people find this quite difficult. Your employment, friends, family, and relationships may all be affected by illness. So these are all unique factors to having an illness.

Although the physical symptoms are distressing, these unseen indications and the kind of invisible things that lie behind the invisible are almost as important to discuss.

Through talking about these factors, it's important to bring everything else to light and that will also help with starting to focus on this. Try to reduce these sources and dig down and deeper into these sources.

Eliminating Stress

We know that if stress is left unchecked for a long time, it is destructive to the body, but as a society, we have a tendency to view stress as just another obstacle to conquer. I have to move through this. I need to get rid of it. And this kind of thinking around stress that I just need to eliminate can also foster some unhealthy coping mechanisms. Procrastination can get born out of this, and drink or eat for stress relief or catastrophizing.

But oftentimes, you often need to also look at the fact that stress does send us important signals. Perhaps if you're stressed about your job, or your school, or your relationship, what can you take from that and learn? What will work best in your life? What's the lesson there? What obligations or standards have you set up for yourself? How can you let that go? Who can you reach out to? Who can you ask for help?

If the symptoms are causing stress, how can you be kinder to yourself and to your body? What can you offer your body in that moment while it's suffering while it's sending out these stress signals? Perhaps a meditation, breath work, walk through nature or a warm bubble bath? How can you cultivate acts of kindness towards your body as it's dealing with this?

Nervousness vs Excitement

It's also interesting to note and reflect on the feeling of stress itself. So let's say that you have a doctor's appointment and your heart is pounding because you're just really nervous about it. Maybe, could it be perhaps that your body is trying to give you the energy needed to meet that challenge? This might sound very interesting when I first say it, but if you think about it, what's that difference about the feeling of stress or nervousness in the the body and excitement from a physiological point of view? What's the, how does the feeling differ?

I remember when I went to school to get the health coaching, I used to be. We used to have a lot of practice rounds to learn. And I used to be so nervous before every single call. I just felt I was going to pass out. My hands were so cold and I couldn't breathe. My heart was just racing. And at one point when I started learning about this, I tried reframing it. So I would say, I'm excited for this call. I'm excited, and that helped a lot over time. And this worked great for the kind of these smaller one-time stressors that do come up.

Now it's not realistic to avoid all stress in life and trying to avoid it can cause us to be even more stressed. It puts even more pressure on us. So what I'm asking is how can we dance with stress, instead of wrestling against it? And what I've talked about in this video applies a lot to kind of the general day-to-day stresses of life, but I will offer one disclaimer.

Autonomic Dysfunction

From my own experience in working with those with autonomic dysfunction as well, people often say to me "It's not that I want to feel stressed, but I constantly feel wired and on." So the parasympathetic system, which is the one that calms us, may also not be functioning normally or correctly in people with POTS. I have another video that goes a lot more into the details on the sympathetic and the parasympathetic system, and how you can work with it and work with the body which also is an important part and has to be included in this process.

A mix of things is usually what's needed right? If the nervous system is out of balance, we must work with it to bring it back into balance. At the same time, we do need to identify the various stressors in our lives the specific ones also that relate to the illness. That is an important aspect to consider, not only in terms of everyday stressors but also specific ones related to chronic illness. How do we think about stress and how do we work with it?

How do you "dance" with stress? I'd love to hear your biggest takeaway down in the comments below.

If you’re looking for more tips about stress management and POTS, make sure to watch my 3-day video masterclass on POTS.


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