It was 3AM as I calmly hopped in the back seat of an Uber. The driver turned around confused and said, “We’re dropping you off at the emergency room?”
It was a first for both of us. I felt foolish, but this was the easiest way to get to the hospital as a young woman living alone in San Francisco. Over the past few weeks I’d experienced a severe cough and trouble breathing. That night, my breath was labored enough that I couldn’t sleep. After calling a nurse line, they urged me to go to the hospital to get it checked out.
So there I sat, completely alone as a twenty-one year old in a city I’d only lived in for two months. I was hooked up to an oxygen mask as I signed forms to run various tests on my lungs. I was taken for an x-ray with the cold, heavy jacket shivering around my chest.
I felt even more foolish when the doctor came back after examining the results and said they couldn’t find anything unusual. They asked, “Has anything significant spiked your stress level recently?”
Until then, I had only thought of it as an odd cold I was having that summer that morphed into something a bit more serious. But in reality, it was my body coping with the immense changes that had arrived in every aspect of my life. I was living in a city bigger than any I’d been in before, and was also adjusting to a new role at a startup in an incredibly fast-paced, hustle-filled environment.
Not taking time to slow down and truly process everything left my body playing catch-up.
My physical symptoms of stress have varied throughout my life. My latest has been clenching my jaw so hard that I’ll have a headache for weeks on end. Even as I tell myself to stop doing it, there I am, with my bones locked in as hard as my focus.
When symptoms first come about, I never associate them with my external world or mental state. For some reason, my body and mind don’t link up in these moments. And so, over the last few months I’ve been trying to recognize physical symptoms for what they are — stress.
We’ve all been there. You’re in the middle of a chaotic week and a mountainous zit pops up your chin. You feel bloated after eating takeout for the fourth time this week. Your neck and shoulders ache from hunching over your laptop for too long. Your stomach, your head, your muscles, your mind, aches for relief.
It’s a snowball effect in the worst way. You’re already on edge and now you have to deal with this? What’s especially frightening is how quickly these symptoms can turn into chronic health problems. It’s no coincidence that high blood pressure and heart disease are some of the most common chronic illnesses in our country. (Source)
Once things become too chaotic, I often stop everything and give myself over to a hellish week. I’ll stay up far too late, eat out for convenience, skip a workout for more sleep, and leave my apartment in an atrocious state. Then that headache starts creeping in. My shoulder and neck muscles get a little sore. The sore throat I thought was gone is back with a new fire.
In this trial and error process of identifying physical stress symptoms, I’ve learned how much of a friend routine can be. In these times where it feels like everything is about to spin out of control, I try to lean harder into my routine. I remind myself to slow down and stay the course.
It’s near impossible to wake up an hour earlier for a quick run before a busy day. But as I hop in the shower sweaty and out of breath, I feel lighter instead of exhausted. Finding an extra ounce of motivation to make a quick dinner before running off to the next event pays off. It gives me a chance to slow down, even if it’s just while I let water boil. I carry a water bottle with me everywhere, and try not to rely solely on coffee to energize me all day.
One of the most helpful tools I’ve learned, though, is separating my stressor from the rest of my life and being present in the moment. My therapist always reminds to stay right here, since I usually let a problem swallow me whole. I’ll pull away from friends, stay awake overthinking, and unravel altogether instead of intervening to help myself.
For me, yoga has been immensely helpful in learning to turn on the brakes in my body and mind. With an instructor in the room, it forces me to stop thinking and following along. I’ve noticed that when I go to a class on my way home from work, it still takes me almost twenty minutes into the class to fully let go of everything that’s been circulating in my brain. As I narrow in on breath and how my body feels though, I notice how my jaw unclenches and my heart rate is much lower.
Yoga may not be your thing, but I recommend getting involved with something that completely takes your mind off your stressors. Another workout, a book club, or following recipes out of a new cookbook are other favorites for me. If you’re able to escape these things that consume you, you’re reducing chronic stress, which minimizes potential chronic health problems in the process.
And one last, crucially important thing — talk to someone! Reaching out to a friend, a therapist, or a doctor is the best thing you can do when you’re feeling out of options. Sometimes, a solid routine and drinking more water just won’t cut it. And that’s okay. Asking for help is one of the best ways you can take care of yourself.