Friday, October 28, 2011

Stress Post #1

Stress has plagued me my entire life. Most friends are surprised to hear it, because I generally keep up a sunny attitude (exception: my especially grumpy post Thursday), but I have struggled with stress-related issues since I was young.

As a little girl, I had terrible anxiety at night. Very early in the evening, I would start to dread bedtime. I hated being alone in my room at night and would often stay up reading until my parents went to bed. Then I would try to fall asleep while they were in their room (which is closer to my room than the family room) but before they actually fell asleep. If I heard them turn their TV off, I would absolutely panic. Now everyone in the house was asleep, and I was not. I'm not sure what I was afraid of. At first, it was that someone would break into the house or try to kidnap me. But in later years, I started to worry that something was actually wrong with me, which, inevitably, kept me up even later. Usually I would sneak into my parents' room and sleep there. But even then I struggled to fall asleep. I had horrible visions of their ceiling (which, by the way, is a huge vaulted ceiling) caving in on me. Not exactly normal for a young child, I'm sure. Sometimes I would sleep on the bottom bunk of my brother's awesome bunk bed, but if he fell asleep I would stand up, wake him up, then hurry back into my bed to try to fall asleep before he did. I am convinced that my midnight attacks are why my brother is now such a sound sleeper (you can't wake that guy up for anything).

Some family history: My parents have both experienced stress-related concerns in their lives; my mom gets dizzy spells during high-stress, and my dad's blood pressure acts up. My brother is the least stressed person I know. He takes everything in stride and has absolutely no trouble relaxing. And, with the exception of road rage and expressing his opinion about Paris Hilton, is generally very calm.

In high school I finally grew out of my sleep anxiety/insomnia issues, but that's more likely because I was forced to be awake by myself. I usually had dance practice until 9:30 or 10, so I would have to stay up late to do homework. By the time I finished, I was so tired that falling asleep was a breeze.

In college, the anxiety returned in weird ways. My insomnia returned whenever my roommates were out of town, but that felt like small beans compared to my daily stress. I was anxious about everything: midterms, finals, finances (even though my parents paid for my tuition, I stressed about spending money), choosing a major, etc. In my sophomore year, I started getting weird stomachaches. It was always the same: a sharp pain in my upper abdomen that would last for about an hour, usually after a meal. The pain was so bad that I would generally just come home and watch Friends and try to sleep it off.

Eventually, I went to a gastrointestinal specialist at UCLA (can you imagine the anxiety I felt before that appointment?) to learn that I had non-ulcer dyspepsia. Huh? Well, the good news was I didn't have an ulcer. The bad news? I was well on my way to developing one. The doctor prescribed me an acid-reducing pill that made my stomach even more upset and put me on a 4-week diet to confirm his suspicions. During that month, I had to avoid acidic foods, including citrus fruits, chocolate (I almost cried), broccoli and some other green vegetables, bread, milk, beans, cauliflower, soda, caffeine, pasta, alcohol, anything spicy, etc. I lost about 10 pounds. Dinners usually consisted of plain grilled chicken, brown rice, and salad. It was horrible! But my stomach hurt only about two times in those four weeks instead of up to three times a day.

The doctor explained that my stomach issues were related to stress, and I needed to find ways to relieve that stress. I found a few great stress-relieving techniques that helped calm me down when I started to feel stressed, like deep breathing, exercising, yoga, finding time to do something I truly enjoy (like watching television, reading, or going for a walk). I also became very friendly with Pepto-Bismol and Tums. Of course, the issues still flared up once in awhile. Two times, I got so stressed about a test that I actually threw up the morning of.

Now, I still get stomachaches when I'm stressed and eat the wrong foods, but it only happens if I'm lacking sleep or seriously not taking care of myself. When I eat natural foods (unprocessed, whole foods), I never get stomachaches. Goes to show you - you really feel what you eat! At night, I look forward to going to sleep (though, much to my husband's chagrin, I like to fall asleep with the TV on). I enjoy spending time alone and rarely feel my old anxiety acting up.

Soon, I hope to outline some more detailed ways to reduce stress, both for the short term (if you're having a panic attack or need to calm down in a high-stress situation like a job interview) and long term (if you notice you're having health issues like I was). I look forward to sharing some stress-reducers that have helped me combat my anxiety.


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