Ever since I was a teenager, I have known that my body reacts negatively towards stress, though it only ever affected my periods. If I had a presentation at school, or exams coming up, or, as I got older, had interviews for jobs, I would get nervous. Those nerves would guarantee I would miss a period - or rather, it would be a few weeks late. If, for example, my period was due in the second half of the month, and any of the above was happening, I wouldn't have my period until the first half of the next month. It would be late by two or three weeks. And, really, even silly things like working up the courage to talk to that guy would make my period late. It just became normal for me; my body didn't like being even a tiny bit nervous, and so my periods were irregular as a result. But over the past two years I've noticed my body is even more affected by stress.
As I've talked about before, my Nan died of cancer last year. In 2014, when we found out her cancer was terminal, I was distraught - completely devastated. For a while - until I decided I just couldn't think about it. It was inevitable, there was nothing I could do, so why spend the whole time worrying, fearing, and being upset by it. Of course, I was still upset, but I just decided to concentrate on other things, and enjoy the time I had left with Nan. But, despite not to dwelling on it - and actually genuinely not worrying - subconciously, it was affecting me, and my body paid for it.
For about three or four months, I would have several migraines a month. I was having such a hard time sleeping - not because things were playing on my mind, but simply because I couldn't go off, and even once I did, I would wake up numerous times in the night. More than once I'd go to bed at a reasonable time, and still find myself awake at 5am. I started experiencing numbness in my arms, which was a result, my doctor told me, of me taking quicker, shallower breaths I didn't even notice. And I started having panic attacks.
I got on the bus one morning to go to work, and two stops in, something just wasn't right. I started having difficulty breathing, and I was overly hot. The bus wasn't very busy, but I felt there were too many people on the bus, it was too crowded, I need to get off; something wasn't right with me, and I couldn't breathe! I got off at the second stop, sat at the bus stop for a bit, thinking maybe I was hot and needed to cool down. But no change. I had no idea what was wrong, but something wasn't right, something was happening, and I was so, so scared. Partly because I didn't know what was happening, but also because it was another symptom. I managed to make my way home, sobbing, running to my Mum, freaking out, and her telling me I was having a panic attack. Slowly, she managed to calm me down. Over the next few days, she had to travel in to work with me, because I couldn't stay calm - even though there were no problems at work that were worrying me, as soon as I started to get ready to leave, I could feel the panic rising.
I went to my doctor with all these various problems, and she told me it was very likely down to my Nan's terminal diagnosis. She referred me to a counsellor, but because of clerical issues (i.e. people not picking up the phone) nothing ever came of it. And I didn't really worry about, because by this time, all my symptoms of stress had gone. Migraines were under control, no more panic attacks or numbness or sleeplessness. I was fine.
The migraines crept up again, though, at the end of last year, the beginning of this. Last year was such a terrible year, and all the death and illness had really taken it's toll. And so migraines. Again I saw my doctor, and my medication was increased, and instead of having it when needed, I was to take it every day. And I'm pretty glad to say that on the whole, those pills are miracle workers.
More recently, there have been issues at home. Financial difficulties due to my Dad being ill. My brother and I were covering most of the bills, but I was worrying we wouldn't be able to pay for everything. Would we actually be able to eat? Can you imagine asking yourself that question? That being a genuine worry? The stress caused patches of eczema to form all over my legs for the first time in my life, and - surprise, surprise - another migraine. But that question would fly through my head while walking down the street, and I would feel a panic attack brewing. I'd have to try and slow my breathing and talk myself down; "Joanne, you're ok. You're fine. Of course you'll eat, even if it's not what you're used to, you'll eat. Everyone will eat. You'll all be ok. You're fine, Joanne, breathe." This happened maybe two or three times. Not full blown panic attacks, but still.
I've been talking about these recent events in much more detail with my friend and penpal Caoimhe in our letters. About these almost-panic attacks, about my problems at social events, and even some issues I have talking on the telephone. She has some experience of mental illness, and talking with her, I think I might have some form Anxiety. Possibly. And I think I might need to see my doctor to discuss it. But I don't know; when I'm not stressed, I'm fine? (Except when faced with social situations. Or certain phone calls.)
I don't know if they all tie in together - are migraines a symptom of Anxiety? Or are they both just caused by stress? - but what I do know is that my body is hugely affected by stress, and I really need to pay attention to it. I don't know what the answer is; there are a lot of things that are out of my control - I can't do anything about other people's health, and the stress that can cause. But I do know I can listen to my body, and know when things have to change. I can't stop the symptoms of stress when I can't control what's stressing me out, but I can look after myself a little more when my body is telling me things are just not ok.
Kathy Brown is a writer I really admire who writes such incredibly beautiful, insightful posts. In one of her recent posts, A Little List of Life Savers, she says:
"...I've learnt that there are things you can do: simple, tangible things that you can do to stop yourself from drowning: to take a small level of control over your life when the dark cloud creeps in: to distance yourself from that inherent, daily hum of fear, or the desire to run away screaming, nude and wreckless, because 'OMG, LIFE.' To do something, anything, with the day, because sometimes, that's all it takes."Kathy reiterates this in her latest post, How to Love Yourself:
"On the days you feel like you're drowning, because there will be many of those, do at least one thing, one small, tangible thing that gives you a sense of control, a sense of something. Brush the knots out of your hair, do the crossword, wander to your favourite cafe and order yourself a slice of that cake you love: the one with the berries the same colour as your favourite lipstick and the fresh cream that lingers, like an unexpected kiss, on the corners of your mouth. It's there, somewhere, that little beacon of light, even when darkness blinds you."I need to listen to my body, and go to the park by my house and sit by the lake, and watch the water droplets from the fountain dance in the breeze. I need to have a soak in the bath. I need to read a book and get lost in someone else's story. And I need to allow myself to feel, to cry, and to ask for the cuddle. Because maybe being scared and upset is just what my body needs me to feel, even if I think I'm wasting time. Maybe I need to voice my concerns about our finances, and get that reassurance, that actually, we will eat, we will get by, things aren't quite that dire just yet (which I did, eventually).
I don't know where this will lead for me. Maybe I'll discover I have a mild form of Anxiety. Maybe I'll need to learn techniques to cope with stress so I don't end up getting ill. Maybe this is just how my body works, and I'll just have to live with it. But I know when my head isn't in a great place, my body pays the price, so I need to start being gentle with myself, allow myself to feel, and get elbow-deep into self-care.
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