The impact stress and emotions have on our health
20 years ago, I developed a painful neurological movement disorder called dystonia. I was 30 years old at the time. It totally turned my life upside down where I went from being fully functional and very active, to almost 100% debilitated with pain where I literally rolled around on my floor all day trying to find relief. This is no exaggeration. Sitting or standing for just minutes caused unbearable pain, not to mention also having severe, involuntary muscle contractions in my neck that forcefully pulled my head to the side and towards my right shoulder.
Needless to say, I was filled with great sadness, anger, and bitterness for years, grieving the life I lost and trying to face the new one; one that I wouldn’t call much of a life. I was merely existing. Hearing criticism from people who didn’t understand the nature of persistent pain or something chronic, and questioned why I didn’t “just get over it”, further fueled these emotions and made it more difficult for me to cope. During those years, nothing, and I mean nothing at all, that I was doing treatment wise helped me.
My intense stress and negative emotions (anger, shame, fear, frustration, sadness, bitterness, resentment, jealousy, etc.) kept me in the fight/flight/freeze stress mode almost 24/7. This created an environment in the mind/body where any kind of healing was near impossible; a common problem for many people. It was only when I chose to learn how to come to terms with the reality of my new life and that I needed to reinvent myself, that I saw changes.
This shift in thinking helped calm my mind, and by reducing this mental tension, it gave my body some relief. It was minor, but enough for me to better respond to treatments and feel motivated to involve myself in more self-care activities. This improved my health, which improved my attitude, which began to open new doors where my life had meaning again. This did not happen overnight. It was a process that took time, each day built on the previous day. The less I mentally resisted the reality of my life, the better I felt, a practice I still work on every day because I still have health issues that need to be addressed, as well as other challenges that are part and parcel of any life.
Please don’t take any of this as me saying, if you simply change your attitude and accept your condition, you will heal. It takes a lot more than that, but acceptance is an important piece of the puzzle. We all know this, but it is hard to get there. Maybe this will help. Instead of “acceptance,” I prefer to say, “coming to terms with.” I think it means the same thing, but for me this is more practical sounding and attainable, as it is more of a working definition/description that we can apply on a daily basis that helps the process unfold naturally, which is how it should unfold.
When I think of “coming to terms” with anything, I think of a discussion, then an agreement, and then conditions set forth for actions and behavior to create change. I think this is the rational way to approach any problem. With this in mind, as crazy as it sounds, I talk to my pain. I ask it what it needs and then I take the necessary steps to try to improve it (that day) by changing my habits and behavior. I work with it. I don’t fight it. When I fight it, my stress goes through the roof and life goes to the pits in a heartbeat.
“How do I make the best of a difficult situation” is my working phrase when things get tough. This keeps emotions from running out of control which keeps symptoms from running out of control, or further out of control. The latter being most important, as our emotional reaction is usually the tipping point. We may not be able to control the pain, but we can control our emotional response to our pain. If we react to it in an angry way, it makes the pain worse. This is why our emotions are critical for keeping pain lower than it has to be. You can read more about all of this in my new book, Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges, as well as my first book, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey.
When we are highly stressed, angry, bitter, etc., the mind pours out inflammatory chemicals to such a degree that healing of any kind is near impossible, as mentioned above. All of these emotions are fine to have and we need to vent, but it is important to keep it temporary. Chronic high stress, anger, bitterness, etc., is not healthy. It keeps us locked in fight or flight mode, often without even realizing it.
I believe fighting against, or avoiding, a problem is the wrong approach. Avoiding prolongs the problem and fighting against any adverse condition increases its power over us by ramping up the stress factory in the body. Instead of fighting against problems, we must learn to work through them. This is a very important distinction because the emotions attached to each approach are different, impacting the body in different ways.
I fought against my situation for nearly a decade, which only made me more miserable. Accepting (or coming to terms with) the condition, and the new dynamics of our lives because of the condition, being proactive in finding answers/solutions, rather than reactive, and then fighting the DESIRE TO GIVE UP ON OURSELVES during tough times, is the real fight and the one we will always win, because this is how we rationally and successfully work through problems.
Too often we only look for how to treat the physical symptoms and neglect the power of the mind and the role our emotions play on our health. Both need to be addressed. If you are struggling with any challenge in life, be it health or something else, I encourage you to examine your relationship with this challenge, with yourself and the people around you, and how you judge/perceive your challenge; and then notice how much your approach might be fueling your symptoms.
We should be asking ourselves, “what can I do on a daily basis that puts me in a position to make a difference about my situation?” To find peace, we must honestly deal with our reality (please see my article, If you’re in pain, don’t “be Positive.” Be honest). Everyone is flawed and those who can be vulnerable become strong, powerful, and inspirational. As the famous quote goes, “The most beautiful stones have been tossed by the wind and washed by the waters and polished to brilliance by life’s strongest storms.”
I am not in any way saying that our health condition is in our heads. Quite the contrary. What I am saying is that our emotional reaction to our health condition and other life events can have a positive or negative impact on our existing problem and how we feel overall, physically and mentally. In other words, how we think is a choice and what we think creates our perspective. Our perspective then determines our behavior which determines our feelings; ultimately determining the level of joy or sorrow we experience in life, regardless of the challenge at hand. As someone once said, “we can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”
Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and the author of 2 books: Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey (2015) and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges (2021). He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, volunteer for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network, The Mighty, Patient Worthy, and The Wellness Universe. To learn more about Tom, get a copy of his books (also on Amazon), or schedule a free life coaching consult, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.