How Stress Destroyed My Health
I used to be a hardcore devotee of Western medicine with its orange pill bottles and sterile procedures. My devotion came with unwavering faith in anyone with the letters “M” and “D” after their name. When magazine articles would advice you to “ask your doctor” I would do exactly that and follow whatever doctors told me to do with no questions asked.
Every now and then, I would stumble upon a story of someone who had “cured” themselves by changing something about their lifestyle, but I would dismiss those stories as unscientific fairy-tales told by clueless hippies who were not to be trusted. They hadn’t gone to medical school after all.
But it’s funny how your prejudices get destroyed sometimes, because it turns out that now I’m one of those hippies myself. 🙂 It’s not like I’ve completely turned my back on Western medicine – I haven’t. But I’ve come to realize that dismissing the role that lifestyle changes can play in maximizing health and well-being just because an MD never told me to make those changes was a major mistake on my part.
In hindsight, I now see that there were two reasons for my mistake.
- I didn’t know enough about the workings of the human body to understand how lifestyle factors can play a role in the development of chronic illness and how addressing those lifestyle factors can play a role in reversing the damage.
- The impact of most lifestyle factors is not immediate. When you take a pill, you usually notice its effect within hours or days. Lifestyle factors, on the hand, can take weeks, months, or even years to really show their impact. It’s harder to see the connection.
I’m writing this article, because I don’t want you to repeat my mistake and underestimate the impact of one lifestyle factor in particular. And that lifestyle factor is stress. Highly sensitive people (HSPs) have a more reactive stress response system than non-HSPs, which makes us particularly vulnerable to stress-related illness.
Now, I’m not saying that all illness can be cured by simply reducing your stress levels. I’m not recommending that you stop seeing a doctor. As a matter of fact, your medical care is none of my business.
All I want to do with this article is to show you one example of how excessive stress can wreak havoc on an HSP’s body, how that havoc can lead to lots of unnecessary medical interventions, and how reducing stress levels can in turn restore health and well-being.
So here’s what happened to me.
A Quick Summary of My Medical History
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had headaches. How often exactly they would come would vary, but it was often enough to constitute a major nuisance. At one point, my mom took me to see an eye doctor, but my vision was fine, so the issue was dropped. I continued to get headaches, typically at least one day a week, at worst two or three times per week, into my twenties and thirties.
In My Twenties
In addition to the headaches, I had severe menstrual irregularities all throughout my late teens and twenties. Either I wouldn’t get a period for months or I would bleed for weeks at a time. For a while, taking the birth control pill helped, but eventually even those stopped working. I started going through different brands, visiting the doctor every three months to get my prescription changed again and again and again.
Eventually, my doctor decided to order an ultrasound and discovered benign but sizeable tumors in both of my ovaries. I had surgery to get them removed.
The surgery was supposed to be the solution to all the problems I had been experiencing, but it wasn’t. The bleeding and the pill switching continued.
I never got any kind of diagnosis or explanation for my problems other than “bad luck” and “it’s genetic”.
In My Thirties
By my thirtieth birthday, my husband and I were ready to have kids. Given my, by then, more than a decade-long history of “female problems”, it wasn’t terribly surprising when it didn’t happen the old-fashioned way.
At this point, I was finally diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is a hormonal disorder that causes your ovaries (and therefore your menstrual cycle) to not function the way they are meant to.
Before bringing home a healthy baby girl, I went through 12 rounds of fertility treatments, a chemical pregnancy, and a pregnancy that went nearly half-way to term before we lost the baby.
Soon after giving birth to my daughter, I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes and my doctor prescribed an oral diabetes medication. I was very close to being full-on diabetic, and the oral medication was to hold me over until the day when I would inevitably have to start injecting insulin.
After my daughter turned one, we went back to fertility treatments in order to give her a sibling. This time it was easier, because we had frozen embryos left over from our earlier rounds of IVF and it only took two tries before I was pregnant with twins.
Now, as happy as we were about getting two more healthy babies in one shot, carrying a combined 14 pounds of baby doesn’t come without complications. When the twins were 9 months old, I ended up having abdominal reconstruction surgery to basically put things back to where they belonged.
So by my mid-thirties, I had been injected with hundreds of vials of hormones, had three major surgeries (the scars from which make my lower abdomen resemble a street map of New York City), and I had been told that I would be taking increasing quantities of medication for the rest of my life.
And it’s extremely difficult for me to relive all this. Not only because writing about it brings back a lot of painful memories, but because, today, I firmly believe that all these medical interventions were one hundred percent avoidable.
The Root Cause of All of My Health Problems Explained
Today, I understand the root cause of all my health problems.
The interesting thing about my case is that PCOS and type 2 diabetes are typically associated with being overweight and consuming more carbs than your body can handle. But I’ve never been overweight and I was “watching my carbs”. I was watching my carbs, because that was the one piece of lifestyle advice I ever received from the countless MDs I had visited over the years.
Now, “watching the carbs” wasn’t bad advice. But it wasn’t the advice I needed either, because “too many carbs” was not the main problem in my case.
The main problem was my stress response.
Whenever your stress response is activated, your body produces the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol’s job is to keep your body primed and ready for anticipated fight-or-flight. So it signals your body to make more sugar available in your bloodstream and to shut down insulin receptors in non-essential parts of your body.
So my blood sugar readings were high – not because I was eating too much cake – but because – as an HSP with a traumatic childhood – I had been in a stressed out state a majority of the time for pretty much my whole entire life.
And my blood sugars constantly spiking led to problems with insulin. The whacked out insulin, in turn, led to problems with other hormones and the PCOS symptoms.
I’ve read the minute details of how all this happens, but honestly, I can’t retain all of it and neither do I care to.
All I really care about is that I now know what was at the root of my PCOS, diabetes, infertility, and even my headaches. Which means that I was able to fix it.
How I Cured Myself
And I fixed it by accident. Or at least that’s how it started. 🙂
I had been a major stress-case and various degrees of anxious my whole life, but after combining high-risk pregnancies, parenthood, and a high-pressure full-time job for six years, I reached a breaking point.
I was so exhausted and burned out that one day I just said “fuck this shit” and gave up on trying to lead a “normal” life. I went in full-on survival mode. I did the bare minimum at work and I did what I needed to do for the kids. But I dropped everything else. Friends. Extended family. Outings. Keeping my house looking perfect.
I dropped all of it and I spent every possible available second holed up in my bedroom staring at the ceiling.
Until slowly I started to feel better.
Until it was time for my regular blood draw and a major surprise.
Over six years of swallowing diabetes pills and “watching my carbs”, the number had never budged. Every six months, I would get my blood drawn and the result was always the same: borderline diabetic.
But this time – after several months of “fuck this shit” and bare minimum – the number had gone down. By a lot!
This was my first clue that the root cause of all my health problems was stress and I have since figured out how it all worked by reading lots of dense texts about the stress response.
Another thing I’ve done since is learn how to keep my stress levels down for good. And my health problems seem to be gone for good too. I’m no longer pre-diabetic and my PCOS symptoms are gone. I rarely get headaches anymore.
And I no longer need to take the diabetes meds or the birth control pills or any other prescription drugs for that matter. When it’s not constantly pummeled by stress, my body seems to be able to function just fine on its own. I feel healthier at 43 than I ever did at 33, 23, or 13.
All it took was saying “fuck this shit” and learning how to calm down. 🙂