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Stress Is Like A Tsunami

StressedSo I’ve been thinking a lot about stress lately.

Obviously, it’s because I’m in one of those work/personal periods where the word comes in all capital letters and my dreams seem to be caught on a continual loop of taking-an-exam-in-a-class-I-forgot-to-attend-all-semester (and yes, I’ve been out of school for 26 years now)/realizing-I-just-bought-a-new-house-and-have-to-move/or, finding-that-I-have-10-stories-due-tomorrow (for the newspaper at which I haven’t worked in years).

This latter dream comes closest to my own situation at the moment given that I find myself with just a wee bit too much work for the time allotted (ok, maybe a lot too much work). I’m coping — going to bed later, getting up earlier, reaching out to a couple of writer friends for help) but it nonetheless has my cortisol and norepinephrine hormone production on overtime.

Which brings me to the point of this blog. Your health on stress.

I can’t begin to count the number of articles I’ve written over the past 25 years about the effects of stress on health. It’s one thing to write them, however, it’s another to actually see them. For instance, my 17-year-old son is in the midst of one of the most stressful times in an adolescent’s life: the end of his junior year in high school.

Between the end-of-year projects, AP tests, SAT scores, colleges to think about, girlfriend to manage (or, more precisely, be managed by) on top of the daily soccer games, fewer than 6 hours of sleep  he gets a night (thanks to ridiculously early starting times for high school in our area) and a mother who keeps pestering him about other things like a summer job and an honors project, it shouldn’t have surprised me to come upon him vomiting his dinner the other night. And no, he didn’t have a fever.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Everything,” he said between heaves.

And therein lies the rub.

When they were little, I could fix anything for my kids. Scraped knees were cured with Barnie band-aids, kisses and a Popsicle; bad dreams banished with a night of snuggling; that mean boy in first grade? Let me have a word with his mother.

But when it comes to the amorphous stresses of real life, of growing up, of imminent adulthood. . . .well, quite frankly, I’m stymied.

Oh, I can do the motherly things. Clean up the vomit, make an appointment with our family practitioner and with a therapist to check the status of his physical and mental health, make a list of everything that’s got him tied up in knots so he can see that it’s not quite as bad as he thinks it is. But I can’t make the stress go away. And only he can learn how to manage the stress.

It’s a lesson I’m hoping he can learn, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that stress is like a tsunami — building slowly, but capable of drowning you if you don’t stay ahead of it.

During this stressful period in my own life, for instance, I’m trying to keep ahead of the wave by picking up a rotisserie chicken for dinner instead of cooking something from scratch; making it a point to hit the gym even on days when I’m so swamped I’m ready to crawl into a fetal ball under my desk; and even taking an afternoon off when I should have been working to go fishing with my husband and son. Sleeping with a warm puppy snuggled against my side doesn’t hurt either (did I mention my husband is traveling for about a month, adding to the stress?)

I know that both my son and I are actually quite lucky; our stress is all related to good things: too much work, too many possibilities. It’s not tied to foreclosure, family problems, a lost job, a child off to war. But you know what? Our adrenal glands don’t know that. They don’t care what’s behind your stress, only that it exists. So they keep churning out those health-damaging stress hormones. Our challenge, then, is to find more constructive things for those chemicals to do than tear up our insides.

How do you manage stress these days? Has stress ever affected your health?

*This blog post was originally published at A Medical Writer's Musings on Medicine, Health Care, and the Writing Life*

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