eight. Stress

What is the role of stress in chronic illness?

Life is stressful. Life with chronic illness is even more stressful. Stress makes your heart rate increase and your blood pressure go up so that the brain gets more blood to improve decision making. Stress makes your blood sugar rise to create more fuel for energy. Blood is diverted from digestion to the arms and legs in preparation for fight or flight. Blood clots more easily in case you get cut or bleed internally. Stress also affects the immune system. Chronic stress can cause any and every system in the body to break down. These bodily reactions happen whether the stress is good or bad. Herbert Benson, MD, founding president of the Mind Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and author of The Relaxation Response, puts it this way, "Stress comes from any situation or circumstance that requires behavioral adjustment. Any change, either good or bad, is stressful, and whether it's a positive or negative change, the physiology is the same." Stress can cause disease. Stress can make a disease worse. Stress can add diseases and disorders to what you already have.

How can I reduce stress in my life?

The first step to any change is awareness. Stress is very subjective. For one person, a fast and steep roller coaster is a stress reliever and a pleasure. For another person it is one of the most stressful things on the planet. Become aware of the things that cause stress for you. Write down your stressors over the course of 1 to 2 weeks. Take some quiet time and think about each stressor. What caused the stress? Was it something another person did or said? Was it an event beyond your control? Was it preventable? Did you play a part in creating your own stress? Was the stress a result of your thinking? What other things trigger stress for you?

Review your list again. This time put each stressor into one of two categories: things you can change and things you can't change. Select one of the more common stressors on your list that fall into the category of changeable. Make a list of all the things you could do to change that stressor. Each time you are faced with that stressor or possibility of it, do something from your list to change it.

There are stressors that you can't control. However, you can control your reaction to these stressors. Imagine that you are stuck in a long line at the grocery store. You can't control the length of the line or the speed of the cashiers. If you choose to get agitated, mumble angrily about the wait, and seethe inside, you have chosen a reaction that is stress-full. If you choose to use the time to practice mindful breathing, people watch, or make a mental list of the things for which you are thankful, you have chosen a stress-less reaction. Go back to your list and look at the stressors that you marked as beyond your control. How can you choose a different reaction? Review these notes often so the new choices will become part of you.

Worrying about the future and dwelling in the past both cause stress. Planning for the future and worrying about the future are not the same thing. Worrying about the future will not change it for the better but the stress it creates will probably make you sicker! Reliving the past can be stressful too. If you relive something that you did that you believe to be wrong, you will agonize over it. Agonizing over past mistakes and hurts won't change what happened. If you did something to hurt someone, apologize, and let it go. If someone hurt you, forgive them, and let it go. If you relive times when you believe other people wronged you, you are only creating stress by nurturing anger and resentment. The only person you are hurting then is yourself. Again, awareness is the beginning of change. Notice how often you find your thoughts dwelling in the future or the past. When that happens, gently bring yourself back to the present moment.

In this moment, right this very second, is anything happening to stress you? If nothing stressful is happening to you at this moment, then let go of stressful thoughts. Yesterday is a cancelled check. Tomorrow is a promissory note. Today is cash in hand. Spend it wisely. You will have less stress and better health!

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