A Day That Changed Everything
By Laura Hull, LMFT
I remember life before “the diagnosis.” It’s been over 15 years now, but I remember the cold chill that ran down my spine when the doctor told me that I had an autoimmune disease that would challenge my life going forward. Life changed that day. It was day one of a journey in the re-defining of “me.” Priorities changed, perspective changed, and I found out quickly that the volume of stress, much of it self inflicted, that I had allowed in my life up to that point had contributed, as least in part, to the situation I found myself in….it cost me something in terms of my health. I hope what I will share challenge you to consider the risk and potential consequences of unrecognized/unmanaged stress.
I counsel people to consider the consequences of stress on both their physical health and emotional health. While no one can avoid stress completely, I think most of us, at times, blindly sign on for things that introduce more stress into our lives than is absolutely necessary. In trying to be “everything to everyone” we allow our time and energy (physical and mental) to be drained. That’s not to say that as we are experiencing it, that it feels negative. There are plenty of places we invest our time/efforts that are very enjoyable, yet drain our energies, putting great amounts of stress on us, usually physically. I would challenge everyone reading this to consider his or her own situation. Are you being pulled in fifty different directions while trying to attend to all your obligations? Are you feeling run down, physically? Are you chronically tired? Do you sleep well at night? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the volume of the commitments you have or the amount of work required of you? It is wise to consider these things often and honestly.
“But I am young, I have always been healthy.” Those were the thoughts that ran through my mind as I struggled to grasp the reality that my health picture had shifted dramatically in what felt like a matter of moments. But truthfully, I had been burning the candle at both ends for a very long time. It all felt like “good stress,” so I never felt the need to pull back. I was (and am) very happy in my marriage. I loved (love) being a mother. I was involved at my children’s schools. I was involved with church activities. I was (am) blessed with wonderful friends and family, with whom I was very invested in giving my time to. I was being pulled in many directions, and I loved it. I was oblivious to the fact that I was working harder than was reasonable, trying to be the best at everything. I didn’t rest as much as I should have. I took care of everyone in my life except me. I made sure my family had enough sleep. I made sure my family ate healthy meals. I made sure my family had their check ups. But I allowed my obligations, my “stress,” to impact me physically. “I can sleep when I’m old and the kids are grown and gone.” That would be a fair representation of where my mindset was at before “the diagnosis.” If I could hop in a time machine and go back to the younger me, I would warn her…“if you don’t slow down and be smarter about how you are managing the stressors in your life, it will cost you…be smarter.”
Of course, that is not possible. But I can share my experience with others in an effort to challenge people to consider whether or not they are managing stress well and to recognize the potential dangers that lie in not being aware. While I viewed, and still view, my stress as being “good stress” (defined as “I was happy in my life and enjoying the things I was doing”) there was still a price to pay for not choosing to have balance in my life. Many people, however, experience “negative stress” in life. They are not happy with the direction of life. Sometimes their relationships are unfulfilling. Sometimes they hate their jobs/careers. Some people become flustered when physically/mentally fatigued, but don’t feel they have the right to say no to things and pull back. They are flat-out miserable; yet continue the same stress-filled routine indefinitely. The misery is consuming and inevitably contagious to those around them. Eventually, they become shells of their former selves…running on autopilot, struggling just to get through every day. Friends, that is no way to live. It really isn’t.
The much younger version of me was highly ambitious. I was a committed wife, a “supermother,” world traveler, writer, a wanna-be superhero, and your basic type A nightmare. I had plans, I had dreams, and buddy, you were not going to stop my runaway train. I could do it all, I was going to have it all, and if I ruled the world in the process, that was just fine by me. J Please understand that last sentence was offered with tongue firmly planted in cheek. But I will concede that I had no off switch at that point in my life. I have often wondered if God allowed my health issue to come into my life to teach me lessons that I needed, and in turn try to teach to others in an effort to help them avoid similar mistakes. Did God in essence say “Sit down, Laura. I’m about to teach you a lesson about who is in control and what really matters in life.” If He did, I am more than okay with that.
Stress can have a negative impact on health. This is a fact. Stress is often a contributing factor in the development of heart disease and cancer. Stress on the body can be a factor in the development of autoimmune disease. While stress is certainly not the only factor in these serious health issues and others, it does play a role to some degree in some people. It is so easy for us to get caught up in the demands of our daily lives that we forget how to manage our stress in healthy ways. We cannot always assume that “because I are young” or “because I have good genes,” that we are immune to the negative impact of stress on our health. People are developing serious health challenges at younger and younger ages. We must start early in our lives to develop good habits, achieving and maintaining balance in our lives in order to preserve both our physical and emotional health. There is always a price to pay when life is out of balance. Don’t fool yourself into believing there isn’t. Some pay in their relationships. Some pay in terms of their happiness levels and their emotional health, sometimes people pay with their physical wellbeing, and some pay in other ways. But make no mistake, there is always a cost associated with a life lived out of balance.
My challenge to you is to consider where your life is at now. Are you managing the stress in your life well? Would others around you say that you manage stress well? Do the stressors in your life change you in ways that are negative? Are you as happy as you could be? Do you feel well most of the time, or are you dragging, physically or mentally? These are just some of the questions you may need to be asking yourself and answering truthfully. If you need help achieving balance, have the courage to take the steps required to make the changes necessary in order to live the kind of life, and experience the kind of happiness, that God wants for you. Life is short. Live it well.