When you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness, life can feel really uncertain for a while. Sometimes you can’t do things you used to be able to do, and it can feel like your entire world has turned upside down. You have to slow down; realize that life is a little different.
It’s frustrating. It sucks.
I was recently diagnosed with a condition called Inappropriate Sinus Tachycardia (IST for short). Essentially, it means that my heart beats faster than most people. This doesn’t sound too bad until you start to realize that even standing can be uncomfortable and difficult sometimes. Intense cardiovascular exercise? Forget it.
And when you’re a business owner whose business is all about promoting health, being sick almost feels like an identity crisis.
Then we found out our apartment had mold. This makes sense, since problems with the autonomic nervous system (the system that controls things that happen automatically like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, etc) seem to be connected to mold exposure. We’ve been in our apartment for 5 years, so I’ve likely had five years of mold exposure unbeknownst to me.
So now not only am I dealing with a chronic illness, but I’m also dealing with finding a new apartment in NYC (no easy task, I might add!). Couple that with running a business full-time, planning a wedding (fun, but also a lot of work!) and you’ve got a stressful disaster. Yikes!
The HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) is our stress “control center”. When you’re dealing with a situation like I’m dealing with, this axis is constantly being activated by stressful stimuli, whether that be inflammation from my chronic illness, the stress involved with moving, or the dips in blood sugar that happen if I’m not good about eating regularly due to my busy schedule.
When I’m not paying attention to my stressors (both physiological and emotional), my symptoms are way worse.
Once I realized that being really careful about what stressors I let creep into my life helped my symptoms, I finally felt like I had some degree of control over how I felt. That’s huge to me, and has made me feel so much more confident about the situation.
There are a few techniques I use that really seem to help me personally. Everyone will have different things that cause them the most stress — these are just mine. But I imagine they will resonate with a lot of you!
The Stressor: Low Blood Sugar
The Antidote: Eat regular meals (and get enough protein)
I do not feel well when I skip meals. Period.
This is very common for those with HPA axis issues as well as many other health conditions. I have to make sure to get a breakfast that gives me a lot of protein every single day. I often eat high quality sliced turkey breast + high quality mayo + mustard — easy, quick, and lots of protein! I’ll add a carb to this too, like a piece of fruit. This keeps my blood sugar stable, which helps reduce the amount of stress my body is under.
Lunch is usually the trickiest for me. I’m often caught up in work and can easily “forget” or not have time to eat. I have to remind myself that there’s always time to eat — I just have to make it.
When I eat regular meals, I feel so much better. I can tell when my blood sugar dips — I’ll get woozy, feel stressed out and have too much adrenaline. It’s not a fun way to feel, and there’s no reason to feel it! I simply need to be very vigilant about getting meals when I need them.
This is still a struggle for me sometimes (trust me, the things that will help you the most are often the things that are the most difficult for you to change!), but I do my best to make sure it happens every day.
The Stressor: Mental anxiety
The Antidote: Stress management techniques
The anxiety that has come along with having a chronic illness is new to me. I’ve never been someone with anxiety. But I get it now. Anxiety makes you feel out of control and, for me, it’s like my adrenaline is through the roof.
But I had never found a stress management technique that really worked for me. I hated techniques where I just had to sit there and focus on what my body is doing. Meditation isn’t my thing.
When I gave myself the opportunity to try other techniques, though, I finally found things that I really enjoyed. For one, yoga is awesome. It gives me some movement to do, so I don’t just feel like I’m sitting there watching time pass by. However, it lets me focus on my breath and get into a really relaxed state.
I also absolutely adore acupuncture. There’s something really different about acupuncture to me — it works better than any other techniques that I’ve tried. To me, it almost feels like it “turns off” the stress response and lowers my adrenaline. It’s truly amazing. I found a local community acupuncture clinic that provides somewhat low-cost treatment, and I go as much as I can.
Finally, I learned to notice when I’m really stressed out and do some deep-breathing and visualization in the moment. If I feel myself getting freaked out or anxious about something, I imagine an orange light in my gut that expands with every deep breath I take. My fiancé actually taught me this technique, and I use it a lot now!
Doing these things on a regular basis makes me feel like a more balanced person. I’m not as easily upset, I feel better about myself, and my symptoms are a lot better. But if I let them slip, I can feel very poorly! It’s all about making them a habit.
The Stressor: Excessive exercise
The Antidote: Exercise to tolerance
One of the things that is recommended to those trying to tame their IST symptoms is cardiovascular exercise. More importantly, it has to be gradedcardio exercise — meaning that you start at a very low target heart rate and work your way up over time.
Silly me, I thought that I didn’t need to pay much attention to this, so I overdid cardio when I first started and I would literally feel like I was going to pass out afterwards. It felt absolutely awful.
These experiences taught me that you really need to listen to your body — if it’s telling you’re doing too much, you’re doing to much! It doesn’t matter what other people can do, it matters what you can do.
I still feel embarrassed about this sometimes because I used to do things that were really active. Now I’m working my way up to those things again and I often find myself wishing I could do what “so-and-so” does. I wouldn’t tell people that I had a heart condition and that I needed to take it easy, so trainers would treat me as though there was nothing different about my body. But there is. And that’s okay. While I hope I’ll be able to recover from it or at least not be affected by the symptoms as much as some point, right now I am affected, and I accept that and let people know.
I’m so much happier for it, and my symptoms are much better. I pay attention to my body, I tell people what’s going on with me, and I really try to not be ashamed about what’s happening. Again, it’s the things that are the most difficult to do that make the biggest difference, and this definitely falls into that category. It’s a big struggle for me, but when I listen to my body and admit that sometimes it’s not functioning like everyone else’s I can feel the difference.
The Stressor: Emotional frustration
The Antidote: Be grateful
Finally, I practice gratefulness. I say thank you to the universe for the things and people that I have, and realize that there are others who are not as fortunate as I am. I know “thanking the universe” sounds a little woo-woo, but I’m not a religious person and this is simply my way of praying and speaking to something bigger than myself.
I don’t try to make everything a positive, though. I realize that having a chronic illness really sucks, and I’m not about to tell myself (or someone else) that they shouldn’t think that. Sometimes I let myself wallow a little bit in that feeling, and that’s okay.
Honestly, it’s when I’m feeling my worst that I realize I have so much to be thankful for. I have a wonderful fiancé who supports me in absolutely everything I do and comforts me when I don’t feel well. He leaves me post-it love notes around the apartment, so I always have something to smile about. My family is incredible — I am close with all of them and we have great relationships. I’m marrying into an equally amazing family. I have great friends who I can count on when I need them. I have a roof over my head, and food to eat. I have a thriving business, and awesome clients who get great results.
Being sick has made me realize how lucky I am. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. This alone has reduced the stress of chronic illness by so much.
Dealing with stress helps me cope with an illness
By addressing these physical and emotional stressors, I feel so much better than when my stress was crazy high. And I don’t think it was until I started doing these things that I realized how high my stress really was.
Now it’s something I focus on with each and every client I work with because I know from first-hand experience what a difference it makes.
And it’s why I’m so passionate about dealing with stress-related disease.