It’s a word very much part of our everyday language and constantly bandied about: I’m so stressed, I’m stressed-out, I can’t take this stress anymore, he’s under too much stress, don’t stress….But what does ‘stress’ actually mean?
A quick search on Oxford Dictionaries gives me the following definition:
‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’.
Apparently our modern word ‘stress’ has its origins in the Latin word strictus meaning ‘drawn tight’ – just a little tit bit for my sister the Latin scholar and any other Classics loving readers out there.
Stress plays a big role in ME / CFS and by applying the above definition we begin to see why. So ‘stress’ means any mental or emotional strain and tension (anxiety, panic, worry, fear etc) caused by adverse or demanding (negative, worrying, unknown, hopeless, busy etc) circumstances. For example, in ME / CFS the chronic nature of your illness (an adverse circumstance) may cause you to feel anxiety (emotional strain). There are literally hundreds of examples. One pertinent to me at the moment is flying to Philadelphia soon to visit my sister (a demanding circumstance in terms of the flight, time difference, change of routine etc) is causing me worry about how my body will cope (emotional strain).
We can take this a step further too. If I meet a friend (potentially demanding situation) thinking (be it consciously or subconsciously) the activity will make me more fatigued (adverse circumstance) then this results in me worrying (emotional strain) about the activity, not to mention feeling physically fatigued (physical strain) as well. Here the ‘stress’ exacerbates, or even causes, the physical symptom.
photo source: testtubeswebsite.com
To make this all a bit clearer, take yourself back to your school days and remember your lessons in the chemistry lab (don’t worry I haven’t lost it, bear with me and all will become clear!). Imagine a small glass test-tube. Fill it half full with liquid. This liquid represents life. Now think of an activity you want to do – going to the shops, chatting with a friend, cooking dinner, going for a walk, reading a book, emailing, whatever, for the purpose of this exercise it doesn’t matter. Now imagine that activity as a liquid and add it into your virtual test-tube. What happens? Science tells us that as we add more liquid in to our already half full test-tube the overall level of liquid will rise up the sides. But provided the activity liquid isn’t too great then the test-tube will not overflow. But if you add in the ‘stress’ (subconscious or otherwise) in addition to the activity itself, the test-tube will overflow. There will be too much liquid for the test-tube to contain and cope with.
This is what happens to our bodies with ME / CFS. Our body is the test-tube. Add in an activity and we can cope okay (provided of course the activity isn’t ridiculously out of our range of ability, this is where pacing has a part to play too) but add in the stress that ME / CFS sufferers experience (both subconsciously and consciously) then our test-tube overflows. Our bodies cannot cope and we experience adverse effects, be it an increase in fatigue, aching muscles, headaches etc etc. So it’s not the activity itself that causes the problem, but the stress associated with it. Thus if we can remove the stress associated with the activity, we can begin to heal.
So the crucial question is: how do we remove the stress? For a long time this question has sadly not had a simple answer, perhaps it still doesn’t but increasingly it does have an answer. With the science of neuro-plasticity and subsequently with the advent of neuro-linguistic programming we can learn to ‘rewire’ our brains so that the stress response is dampened down. This in turn will improve our ME / CFS symptoms and allow us to heal. This is one of the treatment paths that I’m currently pursuing and in my next post I’ll explain more about the techniques and the neurology and biology behind why they work (don’t worry I’m no neuroscientist, the science will be explained in baby steps, not least so I continue to understand it)! Until then, keep thinking about that test tube and try not to end up in an adverse or demanding circumstance that will cause you mental or emotional strain!