This past week I have (ironically) been extremely stressed out over something I have always known and am constantly reminded of but always try to push out of my mind. My stress is making it impossible for me to fully heal my stomach and take care of my health.
When my mysterious stomach illness left me in horrible health last year, I realized that lowering my stress levels needed to be a major component of my recovery. I took time off from school. I distanced myself from anyone who stressed me out. I did yoga and meditated. I focused a lot on self-care. I slept a lot. I took everything much more slowly than I ever had before. This was pivotal as I took test after test and tried numerous different treatments to get my digestive system working again so that I could put on weight and start actually absorbing nutrients in my body.
As I started getting healthier, I slipped back into my old routine. I went back to school, spent more time on social media, went out more often, spent more time blogging, and did everything else that I had pulled back on when I was sick. I was busy again, and being busy brings more stress. I could feel it creeping back, but I felt like that was just a part of life. This world is fast-paced. I have a million things to do everyday, and I feel a lot of pressure to do them as well as I can. I felt like I had no excuse now that I was pretty much healthy again.
I have been extremely frustrated the past few months because my health issues have slowly been returning. Lately I’ve been in a lot of physical pain and discomfort, and I’m frustrated because I’m doing everything “right.” I eat the way I am supposed to eat in order to keep my SIBO and other bacterial overgrowths away, I exercise, I take the right supplements, blah blah blah. By the textbook, these issues should not be returning. But they are.
I have a team of health professionals in my corner, and they are working together to help me figure out what’s going on and how to fix it. While on the phone with one of them at the end of last week, I pretty much lost it. I was so frustrated. I asked her why it came back. What am I doing wrong? I must be missing something. Going over everything, she told me she was just as stumped as I was because “I’m doing everything right.”
Then she brought up the elephant in the room.
Stress is one of the main causes of SIBO. Stress is also one of the main causes of a lot of illnesses, but it’s the one most people just gloss over. If it’s not the direct cause, it’s very related. Other GI problems, heart disease, diabetes, asthma…the list goes on. It’s the factor that most of us try to push out of our brains, though, because it seems impossible to avoid stress. It’s too hard.
I can’t tell you how many times doctors have told me, “You need to stress less.” When I hear that, I get so irritated. Like, thanks. Let me just flip a switch and not stress! It’s not that easy. It feels impossible and unrealistic. When they tell me to be less stressed, all I can think is, I cannot live in America without being stressed, so that’s just the way it is. Tell me something I can actually change. Telling me to stress out less just makes me more stressed! Because I feel like it’s just too large a mountain to climb, I take the easy route. I want to just do everything else as perfectly as I can and hope that’s enough. I will happily change what I can physically change – pills, diet, exercise – but to get rid of stress? I literally have no idea how. No idea.
I hate the stress conversation because it leaves me feeling powerless. Is it even possible to not stress? My nutritional therapy practitioner asked me what relaxes me, and I told her. The problem is, though, I already do all of those things. It’s still not enough. Then she said what I’m always thinking but am too afraid to say out loud. I don’t remember word for word, obviously, but this was the gist.
This world is not going to stop. Everyone’s always going to be busy and stressed out. So you have to fight it and do things that will relax you and calm you down, even though that might not be what everyone else is doing. You have to make the world slow down when you need it to. You can eat a completely clean diet, you can take all the right pills, and you can do all the right things, but your gut problems will continue to return if the stress element isn’t addressed.
And that’s the problem. I want to avoid the stress element because it’s so damn hard to change. I’m afraid I can’t. My health problems stress me out. That stress worsens my health problems. It’s the most irritating cycle, but I have to cut in somewhere.
That conversation gave me the kick in the butt that I needed. I finally realized it. I have to prioritize lowering my stress levels. I have to figure out things that noticeably calm me down. I can’t just say I’m going to de-stress and wait around for test results and new supplements without actually making any changes. Otherwise, even if I fix my gut again, it’s going to return.
I know I’m not the only one with a similar problem. When people complain to me about health issues but are eating a Standard American Diet, I really have nothing to say. CHANGE YOUR DIET. Now the roles are reversed. I’m not doing the thing that I know I need to do to heal myself, because it’s hard. Well, time to buck up. The same way I tell everyone eating a SAD to buck up, take control, and eat clean foods if they want to start feeling better. I have to slow down.
How do I really slow down? That’s the big question for a lot of us, isn’t it? Part of me wonders if I’m scared to. I think I’m afraid that I won’t be able to. I think that truly lowering stress levels longterm requires a huge mindset shift, which is daunting. It requires really understanding what is important in life and being very immune to outside influences and pressures. I was lucky enough to experience that total mindset shift when my health was in clear danger, but I lost a lot of it when I started to feel better. I need to get it back.
Things I am going to do to address the stress:
I am going to make a list of the things that make me happy and do them as often as I can.
I am going to try a different type of meditation. My meditation practice before was stressing me out, but there are other forms of meditation I can try.
I’m going to do some yoga movements/stretching when I physically feel the stress in my body.
I’m going to journal when my mind starts racing instead of waiting for the right time.
I’m going to be more mindful and focus on what I’m feeling in the present moment.
I’m going to stop being a work hermit all the time and try new things with people who make me happy.
I’m going to time block myself during my final quarter at UCLA because I cannot spend ridiculous amounts of time on all of these pointless assignments like I usually do.
I’m going to make sure I get at least 7 hours of sleep every single night. If that means not finishing something I want to finish before I go to bed, then that’s ok.
I’m going to start becoming more aware of my breath. I hold my breath a lot because I am so anxious. Deep breaths, more often.
I am going to do a social media purge and unfollow accounts that cause me stress.
I’m going to limit social media time and change my notifications so that my phone isn’t always exploding.
I’m going to say no to things, even though I might disappoint some people.
I’m going to limit communication with anybody who doesn’t treat me the way I deserve.
I’m going to write down the things I’m grateful for and look at my list every day. I get stressed out when I get caught up in the little things, and reminding myself of the big picture saves me from that.
So, that’s the plan for now. I’d love to know what you think, though. If you have any tips for lowering stress levels, I would really appreciate your advice! What helps you calm down?