CONTROL: Why it's a Killer, and How it's Keeping You SICK.
If you're reading this, it's likely that you are or have in your recent past been dealing with health issues of some sort(unless you just really enjoy reading my blog...either way, WELCOME and THANK YOU!). It's also very likely that you have felt the horrendous, dreaded anxiety that generally comes along with health problems, particularly chronic illnesses like cystic fibrosis. I have struggled with severe anxiety and fear my entire life...not necessarily panic attacks (unless you put me near a dentist's office...), just what we psych people (and the DSM V) would refer to as "generalized anxiety disorder." But don't let the "generalized" part fool you--regular old anxiety can be even more crippling than panic disorders...and even more harmful both physically and emotionally according to multiple new research studies. Now for the questions: why is it harmful, and particularly MORE harmful than a panic disorder? Why do we feel this anxiety in the first place? And what can we do to escape/relieve it, if anything? In this post, I will answer all 3 of these questions: 1) Why anxiety and chronic stress are harming us (emotionally and physically), 2) Where this anxiety comes from in relation to chronic illness or other health problems, and 3) What we can do about it. Let's jump right in, shall we?
1) Why Anxiety and Chronic Stress are Harming Us (Emotionally AND Physically)
None of this will make much sense unless we backtrack a little bit and I explain that amazing thing in our bodies called the stress response.
As Harvard Health so perfectly describes it: "The stress response begins in the brain. When someone confronts an oncoming car or other danger, the eyes or ears (or both) send the information to the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. The amygdala interprets the images and sounds. When it perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.The hypothalamus is a bit like a command center. This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls such involuntary body functions as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and small airways in the lungs called bronchioles. The autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes the "rest and digest" response that calms the body down after the danger has passed. After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As epinephrine circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes. The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body. All of these changes happen so quickly that people aren't aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain's visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That's why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.As the initial surge of epinephrine subsides, the hypothalamus activates the second component of the stress response system — known as the HPA axis. This network consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.The HPA axis relies on a series of hormonal signals to keep the sympathetic nervous system — the "gas pedal" — pressed down. If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which travels to the pituitary gland, triggering the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone travels to the adrenal glands, prompting them to release cortisol. The body thus stays revved up and on high alert. When the threat passes, cortisol levels fall. The parasympathetic nervous system — the "brake" — then dampens the stress response."
Now, the stress response is an amazing thing--and a lifesaving thing: it's there for a reason. If God didn't design our bodies in this way, to "kick in" and flood our bloodstream with energizing hormones and steroids that help us escape danger, we wouldn't be nearly the strong, resilient human beings that we are (we also wouldn't live very long). This acute reaction is lifesaving...however, it's the inability to escape this "fight-or-flight" state that leads to problems. Even low levels of chronic stress keep us in this "fight-or-flight" state, therefore continually flooding our system with epinephrine and keeping the HPA axis activated and adrenal glands working 24/7, ultimately leading to adrenal fatigue and burnout. (1) Repeated epinephrine surges can damage the blood vessels and artery, increasing the risk of heart problems, while chronic elevated cortisol can lead to widespread endocrine problems, anxiety, weight gain and trouble losing weight, and an excess of belly fat (the body stores belly fat in order to "protect" the tired, hurting adrenal glands...your body is ALWAYS on your side, trying to heal!). (1)
2) Where This Anxiety Comes From (in Relation to Chronic Illness and other Health Problems)
Chronic illness is extremely stressful: waking up every morning wondering if your stomach will allow you to go grocery shopping as planned, those lingering feelings of anxiety over your upcoming CT scan and lab results, and let's not even begin talking about medical bills...it's stressful being sick. But stress isn't always emotional--the stress response is activated through PHYSICAL stress (and by physical stressors), too...physical stressors like, say, chronic illness. Things like chronic pain, digestive problems, hypoactive/poorly functioning organs and glands, all of these things are just as stressful on the body as running from a bear, and can keep us in that "fight-or-flight" sympathetic state, whether we feel it or not. This is where managing stress when dealing with chronic illness is difficult and tricky--because we really can't control it (I'll get to that in point 3!).
3) What We Can Do About Chronic Stress in Chronic Illness (Hint: It's Not What You Think)
So we've established that 1) chronic stress is bad, and 2) it's unavoidable to some extent with chronic illness...or is it?
I heard a quote last week that really hit home with me: "Health isn't as much what you're eating as it is what's eating you." Wow. How true this is! We can eat all the organic kale in the world, but be chronic worriers and be as sick as dogs and never heal. We can also potentially eat McDonald's on the regular, but have a joy-filled, worry-free life and die peacefully in our sleep at 95 years of age (this isn't actually just talk, see this fascinating article for more). But what does all of this have to do with CONTROL?! Here's where the good news comes in.
For me personally, dealing with lifelong chronic illness has been extremely stressful. Not being diagnosed with cystic fibrosis until age 20 was really damaging to me emotionally and physically--growing up, if I had a bad day or wasn't feeling well, I immediately thought "what did I do wrong" or "what did I forget to take/eat/do." This led to a vicious cycle of self-blame, and the feeling that all of my health problems were my own fault (note: I still struggle with this extensively. Getting a diagnosis at last isn't like switching on a lightbulb...those thoughts and feelings still remain, ingrained in my existence like a carving in hardened cement...but God is good and is always healing our wounds and exposing Satan's lies!). I was constantly anxious and fearful growing up because I felt that at any second my life could just fall apart (as my health often did on a daily basis with no warning). My solution? CONTROL. Feeling as if one is in control of their life and their situation can provide a sense of comfort (however fallacious it may be, but we'll get to that in a sec), especially with chronic illness and living life in a body that is completely out of control all the time. For a little while, control can relieve stress...but only seemingly so. Control can be yet another stressor because, well, hate to break it to you but WE CANNOT CONTROL OUR LIVES OR WHAT HAPPENS TO US (especially with chronic illness). But here's the good news at last: WE AREN'T SUPPOSED TO.
Now before you start thinking, "wait a minute, so I don't have control over my health at all?" hear me out. We definitely do have control over our health: we have control over the food we put in our mouths, food that will either feed disease or fight it. We have control over what we fill our minds with, messages that will either build us up or tear us down. We have control over how we spend our time, money, and energy...all of these things have an effect on our health. But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about wanting to control things that we all know (logically, but maybe not emotionally) are COMPLETELY OUT OF OUR CONTROL: things like whether or not we feel pain one day, whether or not our stomach is cooperating one day, whether or not we are bloated and look 9 months pregnant one day, you get the idea. Wanting to control these things has one result and one alone: anxiety. Because guess what?! No matter how hard you try, you CANNOT control them. Trust me, I've tried (and it's exhausting and unbelievably frustrating: it's the worst feeling when you FINALLY think you've found a combination of foods to eat in a day that won't send your GI system into rollercoaster mode, and then eat the EXACT same things the next day and are sick for the next 12 hours...). Of course we all want relief, and freedom from these symptoms and more, and of course we should do our very best to nourish ourselves with health foods as well as get enough sleep...but the truth is, for some of us, no matter WHAT we do or don't do, we will have symptoms (I'm speaking to you my cysters and fibros). But it's not your fault...and it's not your job to control them. Frustrated? Confused? Hang on I'm not done yet.
Matthew 11:28-29 says "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." The true solution to chronic stress is surrender: giving up control of our lives...a control we're not supposed to have in the first place. Freedom is found when we lay down our life, our need to control, and accept that we just can't do it on our own. We find that Jesus says, "Child, you were never SUPPOSED to do it on your own." The first step is acceptance: acceptance of where we are right now (and yes, that means accepting all those horrible symptoms, even if you think you can't...it's necessary to accept them, with the understanding that nothing lasts forever, this too shall pass...and that God is working all things for your good and His glory! Better is coming! That's His eternal promise! See Romans 8:28), but also acceptance of our inadequacies and inabilities. We CAN'T do it ourselves...and we're not supposed to. The simple act of us trying to control our lives is actually THE RESULT of original sin, going way back to the Garden of Eden! When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and committed that very first sin, the sin wasn't that they ate an apple. The sin was that the DISOBEYED GOD--they thought they knew better what they needed for their own lives...they exerted CONTROL over their own lives...and that is what separated them from God. CONTROL!
Matthew 16:24-25 says "Then Jesus said to His disciples, 'If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.'" What does Jesus mean here? That by striving to save ourselves, we are in essence acting as our own savior...when He died for us AS our savior. When we realize that, by trying to control our own lives we are putting ourselves in the place of God and separating ourselves from the grace which He is desiring to give us--the PEACE of knowing that with Him we are safe...safer than we could possibly imagine. Think of it this way--who would you rather have in control of your life: you, a flawed human being, or the God who created you and the entire universe and everything contained therein? The God who DIED for you before you even existed? He is so much more capable than we are...and loves us more than we will ever be able to comprehend.
Trade your control for peace. We can't control what we are desiring to control anyway! Trade the fear for faith: faith that He is working all things (ALL things) for your good and His glory. Accept your inadequacy and surrender your self-saving...and grab hold of His hand and His peace. Peace = reduction in stress hormones = activation of parasympathetic state/"rest-and-digest" = body is finally able to start self-healing and repairing = emotional healing and physical healing. Let go of that control you're so desperately clinging to for comfort. Cling instead to THE Comforter. In Him alone is true healing.
Happy Sabbath dear friends.