Over the years, as I've made my way in and out of doctor's offices, I've heard a thing or two about stress management for autoimmune disease and chronic illness. Specifically, I've heard a thing or two about reducing said stress and, I don't know about you, but sometimes that call-to-action leaves me wanting to build a panic room and never come out.
Because as experts continue to study stress and its relationship to autoimmune disease and chronic illness, we as patients keep wondering how we're supposed to reduce the ever-growing amount of triggers within our lives.
Sure, stress management for autoimmune disease and chronic illness is cool in theory. And we're totally down for the concept of it all. But how does it become practical? What's REALLY required to help us feel better? How much stress do we actually have to manage?
Let's start with a few basics.
Stress management is often recommended alongside lifestyle changes that can complement the care already taking place within the doctor's office.
Basically, we're encouraged to look at the various stressors in our lives so that we can reduce the amount of time spent in what's called the sympathetic nervous system -- you may have also heard it referred as the flight or fight stress response -- and increase the amount of time spent in the parasympathetic nervous system -- sometimes also called the rest and digest relaxation response.
The good news is... stress management for autoimmune disease or chronic illness is not about saying goodbye to stress forever and ever and ever. (Phew!) It's more so about balancing the amount of time we spend activating the two responses. Even more, it's about giving ourselves enough time in that magical parasympathetic nervous system so that the body can do one of those things it innately knows how to do: heal.
Which means this is one little nugget of wisdom that can help stress management feel less like a to-do and more like a want-to-do. We're not just trying to alleviate illness or prevent more disease or doing what the doctor told us to do for who knows what reason... we're trying to give the body a chance to do something it is innately capable of doing: help us feel WAY better!
Dr. Lissa Rankin, author of the book Mind Over Medicine, explains this as she says, “The body has natural self-repair mechanisms that fight disease, kill bacteria, get rid of toxins and foreign bodies, repair broken proteins, slow aging, and generally keep the body healthy. But…. those natural self-repair mechanisms don’t function when the nervous system is in the midst of a ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response. Only when the nervous system is in a counterbalancing relaxed state – in what Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard named ‘the relaxation response’ – can the body effectively heal itself.”
In very generalized terms, this is the idea behind traditional stress management, self-care, and even many natural healing treatments. We're simply trying to spend time out of the "stress response" so that we can consequently spend time in the "relaxation response".
Traditional techniques -- like yoga, meditation, and breath work -- are all tools for moving the body along that spectrum from stress to rest.
There's one more thing that's important to know about stress... and you can look at this as either a great thing or a not-so-great thing. But here's the deal. Stress is cumulative. Meaning, the amount of stress on the body is the TOTAL sum of stress in our lives.
We need to add the amount of stress placed on the body from autoimmune disease or chronic illness plus the amount of stress placed on the body from daily life (like errands, house chores, and to-dos) plus stress placed on the body at work plus stress place on the body from oppression or trauma plus stress placed on the body from life transitions and difficult seasons plus stressed placed on the body from food choices plus the amount of stress placed on the body from physical activity, etc.
And that can add up to a lot of stress, right?
This becomes a problem as we begin to find ourselves outside of short-term stress -- which by itself can improve the immune system -- and instead find ourselves living in chronic stress. This chronic stress has a significant effect on the immune system and can lead to inflammation in the body and that's noteworthy because inflammation is related to chronic illness.
This could be considered not-so-great because we don't have buckets for different areas of lives and therefore don't have an amount of stress that can safely sit within each bucket without interfering with the body as a whole. On the other hand, this could be consider super duper helpful because it means ANY stress reduction is going to affect and help the system as a whole.
(Glass half full? Glass half empty?)
Here's where things get even more helpful.
While we talk about the concerns of chronic stress on the body, it's not to say that the stress response is bad and the relaxation response is good. The key here is not to eliminate any and all traces of stress in our lives. We actually need and want time in both of these states for a healthy and productive life.
(So, take a deep breath, because you're doing just fine!)
Rather, it's that we want to better balance the scales (so that stress responses can be countered with moments of relaxation) as well as allow the body time to hang out in the parasympathetic nervous system so that it can use its healing magic.
Stress management is not about getting rid of any and all trace of stress in our lives. Instead, we can focus our efforts on balancing moments of stress with two things: (1) Parasympathetic nervous system activation whenever possible and (2) Healthy beliefs about stress.
Things like yoga, meditation, breath work, EFT, dietary changes, exercise, and walks in nature can help elicit that parasympathetic nervous system. So can Dr. Benson's relaxation response, which requires an active clearing of the mind with repetition.
However, it's not always enough to be given these kinds of techniques and then end the conversation, right? Because three things can happen as we're given these suggestions and turn to implement them into daily life.
That #3 is a real peach. Because what we're not often told is that... Not every tool is going to elicit rest in every person every single time.
In other words, there are situations in which dietary changes might actually stress us out more. There are conditions within the body where exercise (including Yoga) might lead to more stress and not less.
I'm talking about hidden stressors and making sure we consider the efficacy of our tools BEFORE we decide the tool doesn't work (and subsequently feel even more frustrated than when we started).
In addition, it can be helpful to tap into what we believe is required to swing the body from stress to rest and make sure what we believe is required is as close to what we want to be required as possible. Because it's really easy to decide you don't have time for something you're not actually sure will work. It's much more unnerving to admit you're not prioritizing a tool that will get you where you want to go. (Because then you'd have to realize that maybe what you want isn't a priority at all. And ps, that's okay. We do need to take the moral obligation piece out of the healthcare conversation.)
As we actively try to incorporate techniques that help swing the body into the parasympathetic nervous system whenever possible, it can also be helpful to look towards our beliefs for whenever not-so-possible. After all, this is maybe the most accessible stress management tool of all!
Mindset / beliefs / thoughts... these can help us feel better and get us closer to what we want OR they can stress us out even more.
For example, if stress is ALWAYS bad, then any time we feel even remotely stressed, we're more likely to panic, right? Instead of solely experiencing something unpleasant in the moment, we begin to worry about the unpleasantries we'll have to experience in the future because of this one unpleasant moment, right?
Traffic isn't just an annoyance on your way home from work. We can turn it into the reason we'll never be able to have what we want (or make time for what we need, etc.). Eating something that causes a physical reaction in the body isn't just an unpleasant physical experience for a few moments. We can turn it into a reminder that "we never get it right" or "we will always be sick"... creating beliefs around a potential stressor that only stresses us out more.
What if the belief isn't that stress is bad but rather that stress is on our side? What if we remember that the stress response is the flight or fight response with one job, to keep us alive, and that's pretty dang helpful sometimes?
Rewriting our beliefs around stress is helpful because our beliefs influence our reality. It's also helpful because it means that the next time we experience stress, we don't ALSO have to make a whole bunch of (stressful) meanings about that stress.
I know, I know, I'm using a lot of the word "stress", but do you see the power in reclaiming it? We can literally reduce the amount of stress in our lives by simply deciding that stress isn't all that bad. Add on top of that a few relaxation-inducing tools we like, believe will work, and that leave us feeling good? Well, hot dog, we are well on our way!
There are a lot of tools that you can explore as stress management for autoimmune disease and chronic illness. From EFT to dietary changes to prayer and meditation to conscious muscle relaxation to time in nature to restorative yoga... simply start with the tools that most interest you and give yourself the grace and compassion to test, tweak, and redirect along the way!
If you would like to learn more about the hidden stressors, I invite you to take the hidden stressors quiz and find out which sneaky little stressor could be messin' with your efforts to get well. And, if you'd like more content like this but in video-let's-chat-and-hang-out-live form, please join my free Facebook Group here!