The Body Keeps Score.
So, there I was, thinking I’d nailed it. Winning at life. Ha!
Wednesday was Lara’s one-year post treatment party. One year of being chemo free. Yay!
It was also my week of health reckoning.
No matter how hard we try, as it turns out, we can’t actually run from stress and anxiety.
I worked SO hard during Lara’s treatment for Leukaemia on my emotional regulation, on staying connected, on understanding what was happening; to my family, my relationships and friendships, on fostering gratitude. I thought I’d done a pretty good job.
I genuinely believed I understood what is happening when I’m stressed and how my best-self responds to that. As it turns out, the body keeps score and when it comes to self-care and stress-management we can’t THINK our way out of it.
Stress can be super helpful
Stress is a really helpful response, it’s a survival response and without it we would be long gone, our ancestors having tried to pat the pretty sabre-toothed tiger instead of legging it out of there.
Quite pleasantly, we no longer need to leg it from animals higher up in the food chain than us, but stress is still a very real presence in our lives and sometimes it can be helpful, and other times it does more harm than good.
Sustained periods of stress
This is what the science geeks would call chronic stress. It messes with your body as well as your mind. Living with the pain, grief and panic associated with caring for an extended illness like cancer (or being the patient, or the grief of loss, or living in fear or ‘insert your life’s lemons here’) can mess with your fight or flight hormone, cortisol.
Adrenaline and Cortisol
When we perceive a threat, our bodies dump a hormone cocktail into our systems – adrenaline and cortisol. They increase our heart rate, elevate our blood pressure and can increase our energy.
Old pal cortisol inhibits the body’s functions that wouldn’t cut the mustard in a fight or flight situation, like running for your life. It alters the immune system and digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes, all hands are on deck to fight or flee. It also has a role to play in mood control, motivation and fear.
Return to normal, in theory
In theory, once the threat has gone, and we’re safe from sabre toothed kitty, hormone levels return to normal and our immune, digestive and reproductive systems can get back to their jobs.
In practice, when ‘insert your life’s lemons here’ is unrelenting and drawn out the cortisol tap doesn’t turn itself off. We do not return to normal. This throws a serious spanner into our health works.
My body’s warning shots
My body had been trying to send me some smoke signals that all wasn’t well. I’d been to the dentist who noted that I’d started grinding my teeth (what the? when did that start?).
I was having trouble sleeping, and my gut health was… well no one wants those finer details, but it was sending me some pretty unequivocal signals that all wasn’t well in my body.
I cannot go on like this
I had a moment of reckoning, a moment when I thought ‘I cannot go on like this’.
I presented to the Acupuncturist who had been looking after me for various ailments since my 20s. He very nearly cried reading my pulse, looked at me and said, ‘you must be SO tired’.
Tired, but so very busy
I am, I’m really tired. I also can’t sit still. Every day I wake up feeling as though my body has run a marathon, when it’s done no such thing.
I can no longer sit in the quiet.
I can’t even watch television anymore because my brain is too active.
My body is in a relentless tug of war – it’s tired beyond the telling of it and it can’t stop doing.
My abnormal normal
During Lara’s treatment plot twists like emergency hospital admissions, new drug side effects and the dangers of an immune suppressed daughter, fed my cortisol. For three years cortisol served me well. I was a gun at last minute plot twists, urgency management was my new normal. Watching my family manage an emergency was a thing of synchronised beauty.
Now, one year later, the immediate threat has left, but my poor body has forgotten what baseline is. It continues to produce cortisol and adrenaline when I don’t need it anymore.
When you know better, you DO better
As Oprah’s pal Maya Angelou says, ‘when you know better, you DO better.’
So, this is what I now know-
• My body is flooded with a panic hormone it doesn’t need anymore
• My response to everyday stresses is disparate – my body responds with too much cortisol to normal stuff like deadlines and finding the kids’ school shoes in the morning
• I use these elevated stress levels to keep really busy and while it’s highly functioning, it’s not sustainable
• My cortisol levels are responsible for my too-busy mind, for my ‘I’m not telling you details’ gut health and for my sleeplessness
• My body aches all over, everything wound so tight, ready to spring into action
• I cannot continue like this; I have to learn to turn it off
So, now I know better, I’m planning to do better.
I have committed this year to observing my body and giving it the rest, space and quiet it needs to find baseline normal. I’m going to turn off this cortisol tap.