Stress, Health, and Self-Monitoring

Being a writer is somewhat stressful. Whether it’s word count, editing, contracts, publicity, sales numbers, or reviews, we have so many ways to stress ourselves out. And this is often in addition to the other stressors we have in our lives, such as family, day jobs, and whatever day-to-day maintenance we have to do to keep our lives in order, like feeding the cat and keeping tea in stock.

Considering we all typically have very busy lives, sometimes it’s hard to recognize when we’re stressed, or what stress looks like. We easily fall in the trap of “Once [thing] is done, then I can relax,” often ignoring that once [thing] is done, [another thing] is just going to drop right into our laps, demanding our immediate attention. And so we go from project to project, never taking a breath and checking in with ourselves.

It may seem like a no-brainer to some, but stress has a huge impact on your health. But even those of us who are aware of this fact may not know what the symptoms are, or how to identify them. Difficulty sleeping is obvious, but what else? There are many common symptoms of chronic stress (and elevated cortisol levels, a result of chronic stress) such as lowered immune function and wounds becoming slow to heal.

In my case last year, it was “gastric distress,” which resulted in my eating a primarily-vegan diet. At first I thought it might be H Pylori, or some genetic issue, or age, or any other myriad of reasons for a strange and sudden illness. It wasn’t until recently, when my fourth doctor suggested I examine the stress in my life, that I am even able to eat meat/dairy without sudden and disruptive illness. (Note the use of “sudden” and “disruptive” — I still can’t eat meat or dairy, but at least I won’t lose half a day to migraines if someone sauteed my onions in butter instead of olive oil.) Looking back now, symptoms had been piling up, but I was too distracted to notice.

Stress triggers an adrenal response, that famous “fight or flight mode” we talk about. When you are stressed, your body slows or stops anything it considers non-essential. The problem is, the things we deem essential are not what our body considers essential, not when its overall survival is felt to be at risk. Proper digestion stops, healing stops, various maintenance functions stop, fighting off disease stops. And sure, if we’re being chased by a bear, fighting off a virus seems like small potatoes. But unfortunately your body can’t tell the difference between the stress of a bear chasing you and the stress of being called into your boss’s office to discuss your performance.

We as writers live in our heads a lot, and I suspect many of us also have day jobs that require us to live in our heads as well. As a result of this, we may not notice the signs of building stress until it impacts our health so much that it gets in the way of our daily tasks. So I would encourage all of you to look at the stress in your life, and to research the ill-effects of chronic stress. Stressors, stress symptoms, and stress management vary from person to person, so I don’t really feel comfortable suggesting resources other than “research” and “a trusted physician.”

However, you should periodically step back and do a self-evaluation. Think about your body, your nutrition, your sleep patterns. Are you having difficulty focusing? Do you drop things more than you used to? Are you sore a lot? Mysterious weight gain even though your diet has remained the same? You might be dealing with chronic stress. Your mental and physical health should be a priority. Making this deadline matters, but what matters more is being healthy enough to make the next one as well.

One thought on “Stress, Health, and Self-Monitoring

  1. While cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it’s important that the body’s relaxation response to be activated so the body’s functions can return to normal following a stressful event. Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is activated so often that the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal, resulting in a state of chronic stress .

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