What to do when stress is making you sick
I returned home for winter break after my first college semester completely triumphant. I had completed 19 credits with top grades, a feat my freshman advisor had warned would be tough to pull off. I had made lots of new friends. And I had learned that white jeans could not be washed with regular denim. Aside from a week of track camp, this was the longest I had been away from home, and I felt proud, a little cocky, and generally more worldly.
I also felt sick.
At first, we chalked it up to the flu or a holiday stomach bug that was making the rounds. But when days turned into weeks where I could barely look at food, let alone eat it, I started seeing doctors. Lots of them. I had blood drawn. I was chilled time and again by the touch of a cold stethoscope. Weighed. Asked a million questions. The employers at my part-time job were ridiculously understanding considering some days I could barely make it three hours before having to go home. My regular physician kept calling with test results that said nothing was wrong with me. I was referred to a gastroenterologist who said the same thing.
With the end of my winter break looming and another four-month semester ahead of me, I started to panic. I knew I couldn’t go back to school like this. It felt like some phantom demon had moved in to my body, and I was tiptoeing around, supplicating it with ginger ale and stale crackers. What was wrong with me? I broke down crying one day, begging my mom to help me figure it out.
A few days later my doctor called. “It’s stress,” he said. “That’s the only explanation.” I was skeptical. “But I don’t feel stressed,” I argued. He went on to explain how powerful anxiety is, and that mentally and physically my body had been through a whirlwind of change in the past six months, which was just catching up to me now that I had a few moments to relax.
I wish I could say solving the mystery made me feel better overnight, but this wasn’t the case. Still, having finally identified what it was that was making me sick to my stomach did give me the confidence to add some peanut butter to my toast that day. Within four weeks, I was back to eating regularly and determined not to allow stress or anxiety to rule my body ever again. I returned to school a little nervous, because after all, how does one avoid stress at college? Even thinking about it made me stressed!
I decided I needed a game plan. I did some online research and spoke with my doctor, a nurse, and a friend who was in recovery from a stress-induced eating disorder and compiled their advice. It led to creating some guidelines for myself that I have done my best to follow for the past 13 years so that I don’t get so overwhelmed and so that nothing will prevent me from enjoying Ben & Jerry’s ice cream ever again.
Ask for help
I didn’t necessarily realize I was bottling anything up inside, or that I was finding college to be more of a struggle than I might have admitted, but if I’m being honest, I can remember many a night staying up in a feverish rush to finish a mediocre paper that I worried would have been better had I set aside an appropriate amount of time to work on it. And then there was the massive crush I had on a guy in my dorm who had no idea I even existed. Then there was midterms, and finals, and figuring out how to maintain friendships with high school friends while nurturing new ones in college. If I had let myself recognize all these life changes, I could have opened up to a friend, a counselor, or my mother, and perhaps my stress wouldn’t have exploded on me the way that it had. Seeing a therapist during a transition, or any time at all, can be amazingly helpful. They offer the catharsis of unburdening yourself and also objective advice. I didn’t end up exploring therapy until a few years later, but I wish I had done so sooner. Regardless of who you choose to talk to, it’s important to divorce yourself from the notion that no one else feels like you do. Plenty of people struggle with anxiety and stress, we just have different ways of dealing with it.
I started my first diary at the age of six (super-exciting stuff about sharing crayons), but by college, it had been some time since I had put my emotions down on paper. My month-long illness was enough of a reason to get back to it. At first I made a point to write in it every day just to get in the habit, but over time I pared down to once a week or so as I felt the need to suss things out. Sometimes I didn’t even realize what was going on in my head until I began to write it all down, and it became very therapeutic. Also, it’s great to be able to go back and see how far I’ve come in terms of sorting through my anxiety and handling issues.
I learned how to meditate in high school from my beloved track coach. He was a prostate cancer survivor and he attributed part of his speedy recovery to meditation and channeling his fears and anxieties into a calm place. Although I was used to lying on a sweaty gymnasium floor after practice with the rest of my track team while his soothing voice guided us through a meditation session, I figured it could help me when I returned to college to finish freshman year, and it did. Immensely. On days when I could feel the onslaught of everything that I needed to get done — a group project with people who could seemingly never meet, finding a campus job, a geometry exam, calling the cute guy from geometry class — but before it hit me like a tidal wave, I’d simply go to my dorm and lie down to meditate. If you haven’t done it before, meditation definitely takes practice, which is why I recommend trying it out, today, and that way, should a time come when you feel like you need it, you have a method. My favorite technique involves imagining your entire body filled with mud and then tapping yourself lightly on the head so that cool, clear water washes through your whole body, cleaning out all the mud through your feet. Here are some very basic but helpful tips for starting out.
College wasn’t the last time I tested my boundaries in terms of what I could handle, but I did get better about taking note of the warning signs. The most important thing is to make sure decompression is part of your routine — to treat it as a priority as much as anything else on your to-do list. (And, unfortunately, blowing off steam at the bar doesn’t count!) Whether it’s taking a walk or venting to friends, give yourself permission to relax, which will make it much easier to get back to work.