The Power of Recognizing and Treating Chronic Stress

Recognizing the link between chronic stress and chronic pain was a game changer for me (and the whole reason this site came to be!). I knew I had it bad with both, but what I did not realize is that they had my body deadlocked in vicious, self-feeding cycle.

Looking back (you know with those perfect hindsight 20/20 goggles) I can clearly see that the periods of time in my life where I was the most stressed were also the periods of time when my pain (and overall health) were the worst.

One day, when I was at my wits end dealing with all the BS that was going on in my body, I decided to make a list.

A scary list of every symptom I was having in hopes that by handing it off to a doctor, they would read it, lift a finger in the air over their head and say, “By gum, I’ve got it! I know just what the problem is.” (Apparently I’m seeing a doctor circa 1860, but whatevs). Then the doctor would write me a script for a magic pill, and I would skip (slowly, carefully) out of the office with glee.

Okay so here’s the big, bad list:

MUSCULOSKELETAL/PAIN

  • Headaches – periods where they are continuous for weeks, usually only moderate
  • Constant neck pain – with intermittent hypersensitivity and radiating pain into left shoulder and down into the right shoulder blade
  • Constant low back pain – worse on left side- QL spasm, h/o direct trauma/injury during soccer game being pushed into goal post 10 years ago
  • Constant left sided coccyx pain – treated by PT for spasm in pelvic floor, pain began in 2010 and was extremely severe – went away after PRP and cortisone injections for 3 years, now has started again but is moderate, All imaging of pelvis negative
  • Constant Sacroiliac joint pain on right side
  • Left hand numbness – and 4th-5th digit weakness, intermittent left wrist pain
  • Intermittent pain – in R anterior shoulder, R hip, B knee, L ankle, R foot

CIRCULATORY

  • White fingertips/toes – when cold, especially when walking – worse in feet than hands

CARDIAC/PULMONARY

  • Chest pain – sharp, worsens with exercises, recent EKG and chest XRAY negative
  • Flutter in chest – typically 1x day, usually after laying down to go to sleep
  • Asthma – usually only exacerbated by exercise, allergens

GASTROINTESTINAL/UROLOGIC

  • Chronic bloating – after every meal, no matter what I eat
  • Intermittent abdominal cramping and GI distress
  • Bladder urgency/frequency

DERMATOLOGIC

  • Eczema
  • Sensitive and reactive skin
  • Spider veins

Ear, Nose & Throat

  • Dry eyes – h/o multiple infections
  • Constant right ear pain and pressure – h/o multiple infections
  • Right jaw pain – including intermittent hypersensitivity to touch
  • Dry mouth
  • Mild difficulty swallowing – feels like there is resistance

OTHER

  • Seasonal allergies
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Increased anxiety
  • Intermittent insomnia – when stressed or in too much pain to sleep

MEDICAL HISTORY

h/o prediabetes – A1C of 6

h/o idiopathic anaphylaxis – on multiple occasions between 2008-2012

h/o left ovarian cyst – severe pain, n/v, multiple occasions

h/o acute gastritis – three months ago, constant pain x 1 week with eating/drinking

h/o septoplasty – previous to this procedure had nearly constant sinus headaches

h/o knee surgeries x 4

I mean. Geeze. It was eye opening to see it all laid out there in front of me.

But I hesitated to share it with my doctor. What would they think of me? Probably that I was dramatic or a hypochondriac, or something similar, right? I wrote this list about a year ago and hadn’t shared it with anyone until now. But luckily, the list really isn’t that relevant for me anymore.

And here’s why.

After finishing and looking over my list, my awareness and understanding of the effect of stress on my body was becoming too strong to ignore. The list was glaringly full of inflammation, nervous system dysregulation, and stress hormones. Well, glaringly obvious to me…but only after years of research, thousands of podcast episodes, dozens of books, and my own doctorate degree in a health field.

I knew I had to do something, anything, to start getting a handle on my stress if I had any hope of tackling some of these symptoms. But no doctor had ever talked to me about how to do this.

No doctor had ever even suggested that this might be a problem!

I decided that whatever I did it needed to fit into the following criteria. It needed to be:

  • Affordable
  • Expending minimal energy
  • Time efficient

Basically, whatever I did needed to NOT add to my stress.

So, I started with the easiest, cheapest thing I could think of. I committed to drinking the (minimum) recommended amount of water I needed each day. I bought a 32 oz water bottle and made sure that I drank at least two of those per day. This made a huge impact for me, because I was barely drinking any water at all at that point due to bladder urgency issues and being “too busy” at work.

Here are the first positive changes I noticed:

  • My skin was less dry and my nails were less brittle
  • My bladder symptoms improved (yes, you heard right)
  • I wasn’t so cold all the time
  • My energy levels seemed to improve a little bit

My next step was to start meditating.

I didn’t know how. And honestly, I didn’t think I’d like it. But I had read and heard enough cold, hard research to know I had to give it a shot. I started doing guided meditations, which were about 15 minutes long, a couple of times per week. Turns, out… I freaking love it!

After each meditation, I gained clarity on something, big or small. Solutions to problems seemed to just present themselves to me as if they were the most obvious thing. It helped me to focus. It helped me to relax. I wasn’t always in the mood for it, but whenever I did it, it was a positive experience.

My newfound love for meditation allowed me to gain clarity on something that had been plaguing me my whole adult life: eating right.

I was stuck in a rut of frustration and confusion about what would be the best diet for me. At this point I had given up on the idea of “trying” to eat healthy altogether. But I knew that had to change. I knew I needed to create within me the best possible healing environment in order to wrangle my chronic pain.

So I decided I needed to tackle the biggest demon in my day-to-day diet: highly processed and sugary foods.

I knew that this would be a huge feat, so I decided the only reasonable way to do this would be to allow myself some other…luxuries. To me this meant following the typical keto diet. Cheese sticks, jerky, hard-boiled eggs, and bacon replaced the likes of crackers, candy, and chips. The food I was eating was still processed, yes. But less so. And I made sure to only buy items without added sugar. I also started eating more fat. I had no grains whatsoever. I wasn’t eating great, but I was eating less gluten, less added sugar, and less processed chemicals. 

Going “keto” allowed me a few other key transitions in the way I ate:

  • I no longer could rely on take out like fast food or pizza
  • My palate became adjusted so that anything with added sugar tasted nasty
  • Increased fat intake + stabilized blood sugar = decreased hunger/hanger and far less cravings
  • I cooked more and got used to the added workload of meal prep, cooking and clean-up
  • I was far less likely to feel like bloated troll after meals—woohoo!

I did things I never ever ever imagined that I could have done (like not eat a single dessert throughout the month of December) and more astounding—I didn’t even feel like I was missing out.

The cool thing about changes like this that feel more manageable, while not perfect, is that they breed more positive change.

After focusing my energy on cutting out processed food, I worked on cleaning up my diet even more. I started eating more veggies, reducing my meat intake, and cutting back on dairy.

After researching many diets, I believe the best takeaways are to step away from packaged foods and eat fresh, whole foods whenever possible. Whatever you like. Whatever feels good. Whatever fuels you. That’s what I do now. After being fairly “strict” for about three months, I now enjoy a great deal more flexibility in the foods I consume. I believe strongly in eating well most of the time, and not worrying about the rest!

My next big choice was to get off my hormonal birth control pill.

This choice is highly personal, but it just seemed right as I was fueling my body better and paying attention to the chemicals I put on or in it. It seemed counter productive to then regulate a natural process in my body in an unnatural way. I was nervous, because the reason I went on birth control was to stop my ovarian cysts from bursting on a monthly basis (or this is at least what they thought was happening), which had been causing me excruciating abdominal pain every few months when I was a teenager. But I followed my instincts and went for it.

Here are some positive changes I noticed after going off hormonal birth control:

  • At first my hair became super greasy, but now is healthier looking and more manageable than ever!
  • My mood improved and I felt far more in control- I felt more like…me

To ensure that my hormones (and overall health) were better supported I also began taking various supplements.

Here is a list of the supplements I currently take:

  • Vitamin D3
  • B-Complex
  • Vitamin C
  • Magnesium
  • Women’s Multivitamin
  • Fish Oil
  • Collagen powder
  • Adaptogen powder

After these changes, I finally felt motivated (and energized enough) to start addressing my pain through bodywork.

I realized that rather than spend hundreds of dollars to seek traditional western medicine and a diagnosis again (which had already led to little success up to this point), I wanted to try to do things that I thought might actually help my pain feel better in the moment.

I decided to invest my money and time into different therapies including:

  • Float Therapy
  • Lymphatic Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Myofascial Release

I picked these therapies specifically because they have the ability to calm stress, quiet the nervous system, relax the connective tissues in the body, improve circulation and reduce stress—all things needed for the treatment of any chronic pain condition because of the changes it has on your body over time.

With my improved nutrition, hydration, blood sugar stabilization and hormonal health, these therapies all made a greater positive impact than they ever had before.

The last phase of my wellness crusade was to re-integrate exercise into my routine.

This surprises some people because I am a physical therapist and often prescribed exercise as the first line of treatment. But my relationship with exercise was complicated. After years of mistreating my body for the sake of sports (learn more on that story here) my nervous system was primed and ready to send panic pain signals at the slightest stressor when I’d exercise.

I also struggled to reign in my competitiveness, frequently pushing my body well past its limits. Other times I’d get frustrated by how weak and out of shape I was and quit. Most times, something would mysteriously start hurting the day after a pretty chill work out and again I’d give up on it.

The roadblocks were more tremendous than any other aspect of wellness I was trying to address.

So I did a few things. First I worked on adjusting my attitudes around exercise. I avoided assuming that I would be sore or hurt after. I worked through my self-limiting beliefs that told me that if I wasn’t exhausted that the workout wasn’t good enough. I got to know my physical (and mental boundaries) around exercise better. All very hard fought reprogramming exercises, but vital ones.

I focused on what I enjoyed doing. Running? Sometimes. Walking? Always. Hiking? Definitely. Mountain biking? Why not. I rolled with whatever mood suited me, and whatever seemed like it would feel good to my body that day. I avoided doing things because they are good for you/because you should/because they will get you ripped/etc.

I made sure to focus on why I wanted to exercise.

Previously, I would have said: to be the best athlete I can be. Later I would have said: to be thin and attractive. Now I say: to benefit my physical and mental health and to be able to go through my day with less pain and fatigue. It’s much easier to exercise at the right intensity for your body when your “why” is in alignment with what you are doing.

Recovering my relationship with my body and exercise is an ongoing and ever-evolving process. But that’s wellness right? You are never quite done.

So there you have it. That’s a decades worth of self-discovery and hard fought battles toward better health, tucked into one little blog post.

So here’s my personal (current) wellness routine:

+ Hydration

+ Meditation

+ Cutting down on processed foods

+ Focusing on therapies, not diagnosis

+ Mobility/gentle exercises

= A happier, healthier me

In case you are wondering, here is my adjusted list of symptoms after doing the work described above:

MUSCULOSKELETAL/PAIN

  • Headaches
  • Constant neck pain
  • Constant low back pain
  • Constant left sided coccyx pain
  • Constant Sacroiliac joint pain
  • Left hand numbness and 4th-5th digit weakness
  • Intermittent painin R shoulder

CIRCULATORY

White fingertips/toes

CARDIAC/PULMONARY

  • Chest pain
  • Flutter in chest
  • Asthma

GASTROINTESTINAL/UROLOGIC

  • Chronic bloating
  • Intermittent abdominal cramping and GI distress
  • Bladder urgency/frequency

DERMATOLOGIC

  • Eczema
  • Sensitive and reactive skin
  • Spider veins

EAR, NOSE & THROAT

  • Dry eyes
  • Constant right ear pain and pressure
  • Right jaw pain
  • Dry mouth
  • Mild difficulty swallowing

OTHER

  • Seasonal allergies
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Increased anxiety
  • Intermittent insomnia

Pretty cool, right?

The Weekly Well

Subscribe to receive weekly updates on all things PT & wellness

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © 2020 The Well PT · Theme by 17th Avenue

Copyright © 2020 · Ivy & Lane on Genesis Framework · WordPress · Log in