Wednesday, November 14, 2018

After the Stress: The Arc of Relief Takes Time

In wellness circles, we focus a lot on trying to reduce, offset, and avoid stress.  It sometimes seems like feeling anxious or overwhelmed is perceived as a deficiency in our ability to handle life.   I’ve come to believe that certain life chapters and physical conditions are inherently stressful and completely outside the limits of what any well-adjusted, positive and active person can live through without physical consequence.  

I once heard that moving is among the most stressful events in a person’s life. Add changing my job, separating from a long-term marriage and living with a chronic illness to this life chapter, and it was stressful.  Sure, it seemed less stressful than staying married, staying in my old job, maintaining my previous home and living with the same chronic illness, but it was difficult. I think it would have been unreasonable to think that I could breeze through so many changes without my body revolting or at least letting me know it’s not operating at full capacity.

Multiple Sclerosis is among the many health conditions that can drastically worsen with chronic stress.  I saw it firsthand when my fatigue level skyrocketed and my normally manageable symptoms affected my activities and abilities. I hoped these conditions were temporary, and I knew that I was building a better future.  I didn’t know if my health would improve after these life events passed.

It was natural to beat myself up for letting things get to me, but I tried to keep telling myself that I was coping well.  It wasn’t a character flaw to have stress affect me physically.  I can exercise, eat healthy, do yoga, meditate, talk to friends and counselors, journal and combat stress with every tool in the toolbox, and some things are just too much. 

I kept anticipating the completion of events that would eliminate certain things that were stressful. After milestone events occurred, I was asked if I’m feeling great with what felt like an expectation of agreement. Honestly, I wasn’t feeling it yet.  I couldn’t flip the switch from feeling stressed and anxious to feeling ecstatic or joyful.  There was a sense of relief, but it also came with a bit of sadness for having to live through extremely rough patches.  There was grief for things turning out differently than I’d hoped leading me to think, “now what?”

I would’ve thought that once a stressor is over that there would be positive energy, a sense of calm and generally feeling better.  I’m learning it’s usually a rough time for me. My fatigue level can actually go up when life demands lessen and I’m able to slow down. All of the time spent dealing with stressful circumstances is now open. While it was eagerly anticipated, it can leave a void in the routine. Frustration for experiencing residual effects can last a while.  It’s occurred to me that allowing myself time to recover from chronic stress is a necessary step.  

During this recovery time, it’s an arc of relief where the feeling of stress gradually lessens and a sense of empowerment builds slowly.  It takes the time it takes, and I need to not pressure myself to feel any differently than I do.  I can however do things that will set me up to feel better when I’m ready.
  • Mark the occasion.  Making it to milestone events is worth rewarding.
  • Assume it might take time to transition emotionally and physically.  
  • Find something to look forward to that excites and motivates.  It might even be great to refocus if a distraction is needed.  
  • Spend time with people I care about and who care about me to celebrate and move on.
  • Find the humor in my situation. Laughter provides relief at a cellular level. I don’t have scientific proof, but I can feel it. 
  • Be patient with my feelings. I’m not required to feel differently on anyone else’s timeline.
  • Be as compassionate with myself as I would be for someone I love.
Things will get better and worse as long as we keep existing. That’s the cool part of getting to keep living and spending time on the planet.  Every experience is an opportunity to relish for the joy or feel pride for experiencing and getting through.  Rolling with the challenges and joys of life changes is easier when I grant myself the grace I’d grant others.