What you are
is where you have been
and what you will be
is what you do now.
Stress plays an important role in physical health, and that has been shown time and time again in research. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 36% of patients with autoimmune diseases were diagnosed soon after a traumatic experience. Further, recently published research by Dr. Martin Picard, a psychobiologist at Columbia, stress causes our mitochondria (these little critters that live in most of our cells) to become damaged and actually leak into our bloodstream – which in turn causes inflammation, as the immune system sees the mitochondria as a foreign invader.
Hence, stress can be a cause of disease... and having a disease causes stress.
*Important note: these notes pertain to the effect that trauma and stress have on health, but this does not incorporate chronic pain. Pain is a result of inflammation; treat the inflammation, and you treat the pain.
It isn’t reasonable to tell patients or caregivers to eliminate stress: stress is a part of our daily lives, and it’s how we are biologically wired to navigate situations. As a patient, I know from personal experience that there is quite literally nothing more annoying than having some Lululemon Philosopher tell me that I just need to be more positive.
Pffft. Ok, all better now, thanks.
(see below: Snapchat video from 2016, while hospitalized at St. Clare's, clearly having had enough of everyone's nonsense.)
This was especially annoying because I already was a positive person -- nauseatingly so -- to the point where more positivity might actually just mean that I was going down the rabbit hole to blatant insanity.
The key, instead, is to manage stress. I believe that starts with constructing a framework of resilience.
Suggesting that someone should be more positive doesn’t take into account the complexity of existing. Being alive, regardless of having a disease or not, is hard – the human condition is painful. Instead of slapping a ‘positive bandaid’ on it, instead, we should come to grips with living with the hand we were dealt, growing from our traumas, and finding a way to exist with as much joy as individually possible.
I’d rather be sold resilience than positivity any day of the week.
Resilience doesn't mean we don't have stress, or that our stress doesn't cause us to have meltdowns from time to time.
Instead, it means that we have the grit to keep going. (See the 'Grit Directory' to refill the tank as needed.)
There are different techniques to manage stress and build resilience, and I'd like to highlight two of my favorites: mindfulness and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
Mindfulness is defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”
The thoughts we have create the reality we live in and the identity we prescribe to.
Taking time to check in with what we’re feeling and train ourselves to pay attention to our thoughts takes time, but is worth every penny in the return we get from doing so.
The trick is finding those opportunities to allow ourselves time to check in. For some, it’s a morning meditation. Others, it’s prayer.
For me, it's always been getting lost in the woods for a while.
Visiting my old stomping grounds in the fall of 2018.
Mindfulness is heavily based in Buddhist practice, and I won’t pretend to know much about that. I’ve read some stuff, I’ve practiced an asana or two, but I’m no guru.
What I do know, though, is that mindfulness isn’t about rejecting anything that isn’t positive, as self-help coaches today would have you believe. I despise the premise of rejecting anything that doesn’t make you happy, avoiding conflict, or dismissing constructive criticism — that’s not being mindful, that’s being a narcissistic asshole unwilling to look inward and grow.
Instead, mindfulness is about recognizing exactly what you are feeling at this moment, and not desiring a different feeling at that moment -- just breathing through this one. When the mind is uncomfortable, it craves to be anything else — but the key to mindfulness is to accept the feeling for what it is. As Yuval Noah Harari says — “to accept sadness as sadness, joy as joy, pain as pain. […] These practices train the mind to focus all its attention on the question, ‘what am I experiencing now?’ Rather than on ‘what would I rather be experiencing?’”
Meanwhile, Billy Murray on enlightenment...
Similar but more individualized, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is defined as “a type of psychotherapy in which negative patterns of thought about the self and the world are challenged in order to alter unwanted behavior patterns or treat mood disorders such as depression.”
Whereas traditional Freudian therapy focuses on exposing childhood wounds to find the causes of conflict, CBT is focused on developing solutions by guiding patients to challenge cognitive distortions as well as examine how their reaction to a situation influences their perception of that situation. When we can recognize our own cognitive distortions, we can rebuild our thought-process to one that is aware of when they occur, and what we can replace them with, to better suit our emotional and physical well-being.
(To read more about CBT, I recommend the book 'The Coddling of the American Mind' by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Don't get deterred by the title -- it's an excellent resource.)
When combining CBT with the practice of mindfulness, and sorting out the nonsense, we then can check in with ourselves and adjust accordingly. We can determine when we are mind-reading or fortune-telling or negative filtering or over-generalizing or emotional reasoning or comparing — whereas if we allow those actions to run wild, we become imprisoned by our greatest sorrows and anxieties. Our thoughts become attached to our experiences — and if we are conscious of those thoughts, we can go forward with action rather than despair.
As we get older and our responsibilities get more complicated, it’s harder to find those moments to check in… but what I do know is that life is finite, and your responsibilities are still going to be present tomorrow.
The hope is that you can find presence in your todays… and to be able to get lost in the woods even when there aren't woods to be found for miles.
Claire Wineland's note to the next occupant of her hospital room.