Let's Talk About Stress, Baby
“Have you ever thought about doing yoga? That mind body stuff isn’t all mumbo jumbo, you know. Maybe you should sign up for a class or something.”
These well-meaning, but unconvincing words were the last thing I wanted to hear from the doctor as he squinted his eyes and stuck an obnoxiously bright light down my throat. By doctor’s appointment number five, I was hoping someone would have given me a solid answer by now: a pill I could take, a potion I could swallow, something, anything that would fix me right up and make me A-Okay again.
But there I sat, in the office of a throat specialist, and even he couldn’t do anything for me.
Because the pain in the back of my throat wasn’t some identifiable disease with a cure that comes in a shiny bottle; it was my body’s reaction to stress, anxiety, pressure…you know, the works.
Due to my increasing anxiety during the previous few months, my body had begun to revolt in the form of ulcers in the back of my throat. (I know, I know. Not a pretty picture.)
So there was literally nothing for me to do, except to relax and stop stressing. Which is way easier said than done and, considering the circumstances, is why I laughed in disagreement at the suggestion that a yoga class would fix my problems.
So I left the doctor’s office and though I was secretly hoping to be diagnosed with something that comes with its own antibiotic, the fact that I was the one causing my body so much discomfort was a much needed wake-up call.
I had known before that the ulcers and canker sores in my mouth were a result of stress, but they occurred so frequently that I had begun to pay no attention to them. Every doctor and dentist I had ever mentioned the problem to offered the same advice of avoiding sugar, using a warm saltwater mouth rinse, and applying numbing solutions. But none of these tricks ever offered long term relief and I sort of began to accept the inconvenient presence of the ulcers.
It wasn’t until last year, when my stress increased immensely, that the ulcers also began appearing in my throat. It hurt to talk and to swallow and to eat any foods that weren’t bordering the lines of being liquid. For three months, I could barely swallow anything more than yogurt, applesauce, non-acidic smoothies, and ice-cream. Obviously, not a very well balanced diet.
I finally realized that I couldn’t ignore my body’s signs any longer. My doctor was right: this mind body stuff isn’t all “mumbo jumbo”. The state of my mental health was having a severe impact on my physical health and it took this physical state of pain for me to realize how important mental health truly is.
So here I am a year later, and though I don’t have any magic answers yet, I have picked up on a few things that helped me through the process of accepting and acknowledging my anxiety and the state of my health.
1. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to go to therapy. And it’s okay to admit that you can’t do this on your own:
This was the hardest lesson to learn, but perhaps the most important.
It took me weeks (weeks!!) to work up the courage to make a phone call and schedule myself a therapy appointment. I was afraid to ask for professional help because I knew it meant admitting that I couldn’t handle this by myself. But I didn’t think twice about going to a doctor for the pain in my throat, so I needed to stop doubting whether or not I should go to a therapist for the anxious thoughts in my head.
And this was one of the best decisions I could have made for myself. During the first appointment I sat in the chair, opened my mouth, and sobbed incoherently for an hour. And it felt so good to let everything out. I almost hadn’t realized how upset I was until I couldn’t hold it in anymore.
So please, please, please, if you are struggling do not be afraid to ask for help. And if you’re also attending a university, then your school probably has a free counseling service as well.
Take advantage of it.
2. Take a deep breath:
This is a reminder that I frequently need to hear from my mom, dad, roommates, friends, and literally anyone who spends time around me.
Sometimes we need to stop during the day, slow down, and simply be.
Close your eyes. Focus on nothing more than making sure you are letting air in and letting air out. In through your nose and out through your mouth. You are breathing. You are alive. You are doing just fine.
(P.S. I’ve recently been using the app Headspace to make an attempt at mediation and to
work more on breathing exercises, and it is so so nice.)
3. In the words of my doctor, “maybe sign up for a yoga class or something”:
This is one that I’m still working on, but am slowly getting better at.
I have yet to attend an actual “in real life” class, but I use Yoga with Adriene videos almost on the daily. (Well, the goal is to use them on the daily. We’re getting there.)
They’re free, lighthearted, inspirational, empowering, and all the good adjectives you can think of. I recommend Adriene to literally anyone I talk to about my mildly average yoga skills.
4. Take care of yourself:
Essentially, this entire list is about taking care of yourself, but for this one specifically I mean it in a physical sense.
Take a warm shower, dress in clean and comfy clothes, use a nice smelling lotion, diffuse lavender essential oil, etc. (I basically survived the winter by coating myself in “Sleepy” lotion from Lush. It is definitely sent straight from heaven above.)
Drink a glass of water. Make sure you’ve eaten something substantial during the day. Warm chamomile tea and a bowl of fruit might be the treat your body needs right now.
5. Make your bed:
A simple task that takes two minutes and will leave you feeling accomplished and less cluttered.
6. Minimize screen time:
I deleted my Snapchat and Twitter accounts after realizing they did nothing but make me anxious. The constant stream of information, bad news, random thoughts, and highlight reels brought along more stress than they did entertainment and I realized I needed to cut back on social media majorly.
I still use Instagram and Facebook, but I try to be more mindful of the reasons I’m using them and the thoughts I’m thinking while I’m using them. The second I recognize myself starting to play the comparison game, I know it’s best to close the app, turn off my phone for a bit, and reconnect with myself and the present.
Try resisting the urge to look at your phone first thing in the morning, delete the apps that make you anxious, and use “do not disturb” as often as possible. Minimizing the constant stream of information helped me to reduce the feeling that I was consistently missing out on something.
7. Read a book:
Lately, I’ve been making more time to actually read again and am remembering how lovely it is to step outside of the real world and into another for a bit. I’ve found that familiar stories are the best when your mind is anxious and just needs a place to wander for a while. (Of course, my go to for this is the Harry Potter series.)
8. Talk to a friend:
I get by with a little (okay, A LOT) of help from my friends.
But this one was harder to learn…I sometimes feared letting my friends down by being “too sad too often”. I was afraid that I was being irrational, overwhelming, “too much”, etc.
But of course, everyone reassured me that I wasn’t. They didn’t judge me for crying or for breaking down on multiple occasions. Instead, they gave me hugs, advice, encouragement, and a really fricking good cookie cake.
So reach out to your friends. I promise you’re probably not the only one feeling the way you’re feeling. And sometimes it is too much to feel all these things on your own. Find your support system and again: don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’re not as alone as you think you are.
9. Go for a walk:
Or better yet, go for a walk with a friend (see above for further encouragement).
Sometimes a change of scenery and some sunshine can do wonders.
10. Write it out:
In high school I kept a journal religiously, but stopped once I came to college and became "too busy". However, last year my therapist advised I start one again just to keep track of my feelings. I decided to treat myself to a beautiful green notebook after one of my sessions and have since filled the pages with endless ramblings in rainbow colored markers. It's become a place for me to acknowledge what I'm feeling, face it head on, write it down, and let it go. It's extremely therapeutic and has helped me let go of things immensely.
And hey! I also write here! Posts like this help me to transfer my journal ramblings into something a bit more comprehensible and hopefully, helpful. Full circle!
For the longest time, I felt that my pain didn’t hold validity unless it showed through in the physical sense. I was honestly afraid I wouldn’t be taken seriously if there wasn’t solid “proof” that I could show people I was hurting. But this mindset was isolating and harmful. I wish I had known a year ago (or at least actually believed) that I needed to take care of my mind as much as my body.
So I will say it now and I will say it again (and again and again and again): mental health is just as important as physical health.
If you are hurting (inside, outside, or both) please don’t water down what you’re feeling! Your pains are valid and deserve to be treated as such. Notice that your feelings are important (you are important!) and give yourself the care and attention that your brain and body deserve.
Reach out to others, ask for help, take breaks, take breaths, and take care of yourself.
You're going to be okay, I promise.