by Caroline Q on June 2, 2010

Stress is a part of life

Chronic illness can make normal stress overwhelming

Stress is part of life

Stress is part of everyday life. In fact, stress is essential to get us up and moving each morning.

Unfortunately, for those of us struggling with chronic illness, normal stress can be overwhelming, leading to a spiral of ever-increasing inability to function.

What is stress?

The word stress has become a kind of catch-all phrase used to mean any kind of discomfort. We say we’re “stressed out” when we’re unhappy with the way our life is unfolding. This use of stress is inaccurate and shows our lack of understanding. Stress is simply the response your body makes to a demand (a stressor.) It is a chemical reaction within your body. It is a natural and normal part of each and every day.

There are two defined types of stress: distress and eustress. Distress is when a physical or emotional response to a stressor doesn’t help us. Eustress is a response that helps us function better.

How can stress help you function better? In a survival situation, the increased heart rate and additional oxygen available for your muscles to use to fight or flee could save your life. In sports competitions, public speaking, or a theater production, these physical responses to the stressor can help improve your focus and your performance.

Of course, the same chemical reactions that help one person feel good and strong, can make another feel uncomfortable and “stressed out.” One person gets stimulated by performing, another becomes incapacitated by stage fright.

Why are we distressed?

The key to “handling stress” is whether we can calm our bodies, returning to a more relaxed state after a stress response. Chronic stress is an inability to return to this relaxed state, so that the body becomes exhausted from remaining in emergency mode.

Because of the links between stress responses and chronic illness, those of us struggling to be well are often be told that if we eliminate stress from our life, our illness will go away. In my experience, this is not possible. At one time, on the recommendation of a doctor, I spent 6 weeks lying on the couch doing crossword puzzles. This temporarily improved how I felt and reduced some of my symptoms. However, as soon as I began a normal, everyday life, my illness returned.

I’m just sensitive

Rather than stressors being the cause of chronic illness, or at least my chronic illness, I believe that the same difficulty my body has dealing with the toxins produced by breathing, exercise and other normal functions (called oxidative stress), causes my body to have trouble recovering from the side effects of a stress response. Because of the way my body functions (whether because of the illness or as a side effect of my health problems), every day stressors make physical discomfort and symptoms worse. I am more sensitive to stress reactions, can be more irritable, and can take more time to return to a calm state than others.

Stressors are a part of life. For the family and friends of a person struggling with chronic illness, it is difficult to understand why their loved one has trouble dealing with each day’s small stressors. Hopefully, more complete understanding of the mechanism of stress will help. Kindness and compassion for the irritability and discomfort of a person with chronic illness can help reduce at least one major stressors.



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