Today I took a much needed mental health day. It is the first time in ages I have done that. I have taken sick days rarely in my working life and only when I am on my death bed. I think it is the old belief that I am not worthy to treat myself well. In healing from trauma, this is one things you have to get past; feeling worthy. It is all of part of the package of feeling safe. There was an underlying reason for taking the time off and that was related to stress.
I have been working very hard…actually since I was eleven. I have had only brief sessions of time when I was unemployed. The last time was when I was divorced, and lost my job, had to sell my home and move. I ended up with a bit of a cushion and so I spent some time getting used to being single for the first time in 27 years. Actually, I reflect on it now as one of the best times of my life. But that was thirteen years ago. I have been working non-stop, going to school and other activities since then. This past month is the first time I have had no commitments what so ever other than a very full time job. My job is actually very fulfilling. But…. There are a lot of other issues that make it incredibly stressful.
So tonight I am going to talk about how stress can affect us and we do not even know it. Today was a bit of an experiment that unfortunately worked. So let me explain as un-graphically and as delicately as I can. But first a bit of science:
Now let me start this with I am still learning about this. There is a lot going on in the body we have no control over. Things like breathing, our heart beating and so forth work all on their own and that is due to the nervous system. There are two major branches of the nervous system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems which make up the autonomic nervous system or in other words: our autopilot to feeling and the reaction to stimulus. It is the sympathetic system that reacts with fight or flight. Either you get all pumped up and adrenaline courses through you and you rage or you run. The parasympathetic system sort of works in a completely different way: “stimulation of the parasympathetic system causes constriction of the pupil of the eye and contraction of the ciliary muscle; increase of the glandular secretion of enzymes, as in the case of the pancreas; increased peristalsis; and a slowed heart rate.” http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/parasympathetic (2014). Sooooooo what is peristalsis? It is the movement of “stuff” through your guts such as food and enzymes and fluid. This is the system of that makes you crap. (Sorry).
For me, digestion has never been something I do well. I am very heavy and have been my whole life. I was born chubby and just managed to get bigger and bigger. Of course there is the period of self- medicating with alcohol, which I will share later, that did not help my weight. But my nearest and dearest friends will tell you I have the loudest gut they have ever heard. My friend has wanted to record me and sell the sounds for either Halloween or as whale sounds. NO pun intended. And there is no way to be delicate about this; but I can fart the Star Spangle Banner in three parts. LOL! I have learned after 60 years that this is one of my reactions to stress. It is a family trait too. The joke was always when my brother went anywhere; he had to hit the pot first thing when he got home. We always said my petite mother propelled herself around in the morning by her own exhaust. Farting was not only allowed in our home, it was revered. It was one of the few things that was funny. To this day, if you want to make me laugh, tell me a fart joke. If you want to make me laugh hysterically, fart!
But because of my studies, I have discovered that actually this was a reaction to the stress level in the house. I have also become acutely aware that this peristalsis is a big indicator for me when I am stressed. If I am extremely stressed, I do not digest. My gut is very quiet. If you have been in the hospital for anything, one of the things they listen to is bowel sounds. Without noise, there is no movement. People who are on pain medication tend to get blocked up very easily, which can be very dangerous. Passing gas is actually often a required act before they will release you. (sing- a- long) Release me and set me free. HA! I do not fight nor do I flee or do flight. I freeze. And the first indicator is my gut.
But recently I have noticed a new “thing” and it is not much fun either. When I am weary and I am experiencing everyday tension and stress I have a reaction that builds. Think of this in terms of a scared animal. When my beloved Bishop had his aneurysm, his reaction was to stand next to me and first he peed and then two minutes later he shit. Just stood there and crapped. It was nothing he had ever done before. (I had to take a break from writing as this is the year anniversary of his death this weekend. He was 14 and we helped him cross quickly and painlessly as we could. But my heart will be broken forever.He was one of those once in a lifetime dogs and I loved him more dearly than anyone ever in my life.)
But his reaction was a parasympathetic response to what was going on with him. For me, it is chronic. I was suffering from this plague before for several months this spring and summer. I noticed I did not suffer from the “gallop to the throne syndrome” at all when I was on vacation. I thought it was the water I drank at work, which it was in part. But then I began to notice this week it was back and getting worse. My idea was to take a day off and see what happens. And what happened was I was fine all day. No problem. That in itself was very telling.
This little experiment told me that although I think I am handling the stress at work, I am not. Our body is the best indicator when something has triggered you. I could not articulate what is setting me off, and it is probably a slew of stuff. It builds until I become unable to handle it. Mentally, I think I “got it covered”. The only way to tell if this is a reaction to stress or a trigger is to remove the trigger. And when you do not know what exactly the trigger is, it is almost impossible to stop the reaction. And around we go on this PTSD merry-go-round. Totally unfair, but there it is.
The up side of this was I had a glorious day. I sat in my garden chair and felt the sun on my face and the soft wind in my long hair. I closed my eyes and imprinted the feeling of safety and comfort. I opened my eyes and looked at the splendid colors of the golden leaves against the cerulean blue sky. My little dogs romped in the abundant leaves enjoying the crackle and snap as they buried themselves in the piles. These are images that I purposefully paid attention to so I could draw on them when I needed. I have to teach myself safe and so while sitting there, I repeated out loud so I would hear it, “I am safe.” My world was whole, complete and safe. I was surrounded by the plants and flowers that still lingered. I love my garden and it is my sacred space. I felt love. That is the ultimate feeling of safe. This was the medicine I needed. If I could bottle it I would be a millionaire. I am the only one who can “teach” myself what safe feels like. If I do it enough times, it will help with changing my physiological reaction to triggers. I can recall the feeling when things get tough. I depleted the feeling of safe in my past and I will explain in another blog how triggers can cause reactions exponentially. For now, I am safe.
All phot0s @ JDeMeis 2014