Yesterday, I shared with you about a tool that helped me understand the stress load I was carrying...and the damage that stress was doing to my well-being. Today, I’m here to talk to you about why taking stress seriously is important.
What does”self-care” mean anyway?
The term “self-care” seems to be a hot topic right now. Everywhere I look, there are articles about how busy moms, wives, or career women should put themselves first for a change. Metaphoric phrases like, “You can’t take care of other people if your tank is empty” or “Put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping others” seem to instruct us to be selfish for even just a little while. I regularly see the hashtag “#self-care” attached to social media posts of women enjoying a glass of wine, taking a hot bath, or reading a book. I’ve heard and seen the term “self-care” more times than I can count, but it never really resonated with me until I started feeling the impact of stress on my own well-being. And frankly, I’m here to tell you today that “self-care” can and should go a whole lot deeper than just reading or book, or getting a manicure. Sometimes, self-care means a total change in your method of operation.
Stop telling yourself you should be able to handle it all…
Last fall, after months of not feeling well, I finally went to the doctor with the vague complaint, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I hurt everywhere.” The very fact that I waited so long before going is part of the behavior trend I’m working on changing these days. First, I’m one of those people who doesn’t go to the doctor for “minor” things. I have to be feeling pretty awful before I think it’s worth it to squeeze a doctor appointment into my already hectic schedule. Especially if I think they’re probably just going to say, “It’s just a virus. Rest and it will go away” or something of that sort.
Also, when I look back now, I realize the pain I was feeling had been creeping up on me for quite some time, but I was deep in the middle of that year where so many other things were going on in my life, so 1) I just didn’t have time to deal with it, and 2) I attributed a lot of it as being the side-effects of grief, stress, and change, so I thought it would just go away on its own when I learned to get a grip on everything.
Do you see what I just did there? I was reverting to “robot mode”. I was telling myself that I should be able to just power through it, and if I could just dig deeper, and be stronger, I could get past it and it would resolve itself.
Except it didn’t. It got worse. Until eventually, the pain was something I couldn’t ignore anymore because it was dominating my day.
Finally, when I was totally exhausted from chronic pain, I went to the doctor.
Generally, when you visit the doctor and they ask you what’s wrong, you can answer definitively with, “My throat hurts”, or “I have a terrible cough”, but I really couldn’t identify where the problem was stemming from, it was so all-encompassing. I just knew that everything hurt. All the time. The doctor threw the whole gamut of tests and blood work at me to rule things out. Lyme Disease? No. Thyroid? No. Hormone deficiency? No. Infection? No. And so many more tests.
Finally, on a subsequent visit, after a comprehensive exam, the doctor said, “I think there is something with your neck. Let’s try physical therapy.” At that point, I was willing to try anything to feel better. So last fall, I began PT 2-3 times a week. I still didn’t have a specific diagnosis, but after several sessions I at least had a new understanding of the problem– all the pain I was feeling was referred pain from neck muscles so tight they were restricting motion. The pain that was in my shoulders, head, neck, back and arms all stemmed from my neck. Physical therapy gave me some coping strategies; heat, exercises, stretches, anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxers.
Old Habits Die Hard…
Now, here is where I fell into my old habits again. Was the pain gone? No. But I again started telling myself that at least I now knew that the issue was with my neck, and had learned some work-arounds and ways to compensate. My life was still busy, and the 2-3 PT appointments a week were actually becoming additional sources of stress, as I tried to work them into an already relentless schedule. They were expensive, and weren’t really having any long-term impact, so I stopped going. And for several months, I soldiered on like this. Still in pain, but telling myself that I had done what could be done, and this was as good as it was going to get. I’d just have to learn how to be stronger and deal with it.
Fast forward to this fall. I had begun having pain down my right arm, all the way to my finger tips. Intense pain, along with tingling and numbness.
One night, I was cooking dinner, and started to lift a heavy, hot pot off the stove with my right arm, when I realized that arm didn’t have the strength to safely lift something so hot.
And then, school started, and at one of our back-to-school meetings, I was shocked to realize that I couldn’t hold a pencil in my right hand to write. It kept slipping out, and my hand had a slight tremor.
This was enough to shock me into going back to see the doctor. That visit led to me being sent for an MRI, and when those results came back, I was immediately referred to a neurosurgeon. Within short order, words like “surgery”, “permanent nerve damage”, “six weeks off work”, and “neck brace” were being tossed around.
Although the serious nature of these conversations did have me paying attention, I was still in some form of denial.
“I can’t take six-weeks of work,” I said. “I just started a new position at work.”
“I can’t be stuck at home in a neck brace, unable to drive. My daughter’s getting married in a few weeks!”
“I’m taking 200 kids to D.C. in the spring! There’s no way I can be recovering from surgery and still do that!”
And to myself, I was thinking, “OMG, this sounds like my worst nightmare! What would I do with myself at home. Alone. All day. For weeks. Nope. Not doing it.”
When I look back at this now, I can see how all of these comments and this way of thinking was in fact me still refusing to prioritize my own needs, even when the consequences to my own health were severe.
My husband and other people close to me said, “What’s the alternative? Permanent damage to your arm? If surgery is necessary, you don’t really have a choice. We’ll just have to work around all those other things.”
But if I’m honest, I have to admit that in my head, I was still saying “Nope. I just can’t. Everything will fall apart without me. Everyone needs me.”
A chance to process…and adjust my way of thinking
Thankfully, when I expressed reluctance to have surgery, the doctor offered some temporary options to delay it. He was pretty clear that eventually, it will need to happen. But, the good thing that came about from this, is that it bought me some time to get my mind on board. To let the facts settle in. And to start accepting it.
How long can I delay the surgery? The jury is still out on that. BUT, it comes down to this… Part of the problem is related to the unfortunate and unstoppable effects of aging. I have two osteophytes, or bone spurs as they are commonly called, between my C4-C5, and my C5-C6 vertebrae. They are reducing the normal amount of space there and pressing on my nerves, thus causing me to have reduced function in my right arm. And pain. The only way to resolve those is surgery.
BUT, the second complication is the tightness of all the muscles in my neck, shoulders and back that is further causing that space to be reduced and press on the nerves. So the neurosurgeon prescribed two things: 1) a visit to the pain management clinic to get an injection of anti-inflammatory medication into the affected spaces in my spinal column. The hope is that it would reduce the inflammation from the aggravated nerves, thus causing less pressure on them by the osteophytes. And 2) physical therapy, this time with traction, to hopefully stretch that space and reduce the pressure on the nerves.
Learning what is in my control, and what isn’t
The first part of the problem, the osteophytes, I have no control over. The doctor said they’ve likely been forming for the last 20 years. But the second part, the tight muscles… only part of that is related to the osteophytes. The physical therapist explained that our bodies naturally tighten up and respond to pain by using different muscles in an order to avoid the pain.
But tight muscles are also caused by stress. When you’re stressed, you have a tendency to pull your shoulders up, to tighten your body. The physical therapist said this is the common cause of tension headaches. For most of us, we have a hard day, we tighten up, we may get a headache, This is where typical types of self-care can help. You take a hot bath, sip some some wine, relax with a book…whatever helps you relax, and the result is that you loosen up, and the next day is better.
But, if you hold that tight posture day after day, or month after month, because life is hard for an extended amount of time, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
There’s more to self-care…
And that, friends, brings us back to the idea of self-care. Sometimes, taking a hot bath or sipping a glass of wine (or both) just isn’t enough. If we’re talking about typical daily stressors like a rough day at work, a sleepless night, or a long week with an overly full calendar, then sure, those things can offer some much-needed comfort. But if you find yourself dealing with long-term stress, like grief or loss, or several major stressors coming at you in a short amount of time, then typical types of self-care aren’t enough. And if you don’t take that seriously, you most likely will feel the impact on your health, whether it be physical, mental or both.
Okay, so now what?
You Have Permission to Rest
For me personally, this meant changing the way I think. It meant changing the way I look at things and adopting a new perspective on “what really matters”. In my next post, I will tell you about the self-care journey I’m on right now, and my new personal mantra, “You Have Permission to Rest”.