What happens when there is a perceived threat to our body – physical or emotional? Our fight or flight response is initiated and prepares our body for battle. Powerful hormones are released, and immediately our brain orchestrates a plan to return our body to its normal state. This is good.
However, chronic stress has the opposite effect. Negative input that sustains the stress response interferes with our ability to let down, to relax. This damages our body’s communication systems and makes it difficult to restore balance and stability.
So what can we do?
Tip 1: Know your symptoms
When stress interferes with homeostasis (balance), we experience cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms. And because those of us with fibromyalgia already have a heightened stress response, we should know the symptoms of stress. You might recognize some of them.
- increased pain
- muscle tension, spasm, or dysfunction
- anxiety, depression or irritability
- feeling overwhelmed and unable to make decisions
- gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, difficulty swallowing, or appetite changes
- inability to focus
- impulsive behavior
- disordered sleep, such as insomnia, waking up in the night, or non-refreshing sleep
- immune problems like poor healing
- teeth clenching or grinding
- skin changes, such as sweating, flushing, color changes, or rash
- dry mouth
- rapid heartbeat
- breathing difficulty
- changes in speech
- others specific to you.
*Caution, if you have chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea, or radiating pain, seek emergency help. These may be warning signs of a heart attack. Stress symptoms can also mimic other health disorders, so talk to your doctor.
Tip 2: Know your stress triggers
Stressors differ among each of us. And, what isn’t stressful today could be tomorrow. We can’t always control our triggers, but we can control our response. The more practiced we become, the quicker balance is restored. What plan we use may depend on what the stressor is, so we must first understand what those are.
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- physical or emotional trauma
- life changes, loss, trauma, grief, new physician, etc.
- chronic illness
- bad habits
- poor sleeping habits
- poor interpersonal relationships
- lack of trust
- lack of control
- our environment, such as loud or repetitive noises, physical irritants (i.e. chemicals or allergens), etc.
It’s easy to respond emotionally to stress, especially when our defenses are down. That’s even more reason to have a plan. For instance, I know I will be temporarily emotionally involved, brainlessly absent, under certain circumstances. This allows me time to acknowledge the stressful event and move beyond the emotion of it. I can let go by getting physical. I organize closets, grab my camera and start taking pictures, or write about something totally unrelated. It amazes me how this works; a stressful event in the end helps me eliminate other stressors, like being sedentary or being disorganized.
Tip 3: Maximize your arsenal
Because we live with fibromyalgia, we understand the consequences of stress. In some ways, we are ahead of the curve on this one because the coping strategies we use to help promote focus, minimize pain, improve sleep, and reduce depression or anxiety are already in our arsenal. But, we can always use more. We can:
- Keep a journal to identify recurring stressors.
- Make a stress response plan with measurable action-oriented goals.
- Know our symptoms.
- Build constructive relationships.
- Accept what can’t be changed.
- Be involved in our healthcare.
- Ask for help.
- Manage environmental triggers.
- Practice progressive muscle relaxation.
- Get physical. I always feel better when I practice tai chi and research suggests it may be more beneficial than aerobic exercise for fibromyalgia.
- Set time aside for a hobby.
- Regularly practice mindfulness, creative visualization, and other relaxation techniques.
- Find a therapist who understands chronic pain and can provide useful tools for reducing stress, like guided meditation and biofeedback.
April is stress awareness month, so please share your stress management techniques with others. Our family, friends, and colleagues need help too.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” ~William James, 20th Century American philosopher and psychologist~
Celeste Cooper, RN, is a frequent contributor to ProHealth. She is an advocate, writer and published author, and a person living with chronic pain. Celeste is lead author of Integrative Therapies for Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Myofascial Pain and Broken Body, Wounded Spirit, and Balancing the See Saw of Chronic Pain (a four-book series). She spends her time enjoying her family and the rewards she receives from interacting with nature through her writing and photography. You can learn more about Celeste’s writing, advocacy work, helpful tips, and social network connections at CelesteCooper.com.