freakin' stress

Freakin’ Stress

Chronic stress is bad for you, as you already know

The nervous system class series I’ve been putting together is less than a month away from start, so I’ve been immersed in the world of (de)stress. I hardly have to remind you that unrelenting stress is not good for you. Chronic stress impacts cardiac health, cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, metabolic syndrome (okay, so chronic stress is really hard on the heart), immune function, diabetes, fertility, reproduction, and the brain (specifically memory). For more data and a deeper explanation of this depressing news, please pick up a copy of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky.  

Pain, and the stress that comes along with it

Personally, I’ve been watching the way the stress of pain has a domino effect of building tension in the body. This past week my partner Adam has been suffering from debilitating dental pain of ambiguous origin. I’m happy to report a root canal is on the way, but in the meantime we’ve been trying to figure out any possible way to lessen his experience of pain and the stress that comes along with it.  

One thing that has helped him is softening the buildup of tension in his jaw and head. Physically relaxing, as best he can, the muscles around the pain. Another thing that has helped him is mental distraction. After days of pain, it’s easy to fall into the thought pattern that it will never go away, and start to imagine a future void of relief. These thoughts create further tension and discomfort, and distracting the mind with another focus has helped to dissipate this dystopian forecast. Shifting his physical awareness away from his jaw to somewhere in his body that isn’t in pain has helped him fall asleep. We found a place as far away from his head as possible, his feet, to explore in meditation.  

“Relaxing” isn’t a panacea…

None of these destress techniques have made the pain go away. It’s not mind-over-matter to final solution, but used as a way to minimize an increase in suffering due to stress, they’ve been helpful. As Sapolsky says in his Zebras book (which has nothing to do with Zebras really), “Once we are actually sick with the illness, the fantasy of which keeps us anxiously awake at two in the morning, the things that will save us have little to do with the content of this book…We have entered the realm where someone else—a highly trained physician—must use the most high-tech of appropriate medical interventions.” So thank goodness for that upcoming root canal.  

Image by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels