Dear Dr. Andrea,
Over the past few months, even as my life has gotten a little more stable, I have been experiencing a lot of health issues. I’ve gotten headaches more than usual, and had nausea and indigestion a lot. Also, I’ve been very tired and had some rashes and even some hair loss. My doctor, whom I’ve seen for a long time, said it was “just” stress, which I guess I could accept if I knew how to truly make a change about it. Or if I understood why these things would show up after things started to feel a little more in control in my life. But I don’t even know where to start.
My doctor seemed more concerned with reassuring me it was normal, than actually helping me do anything about it. I also worry it’s more than just stress. There are countless people with serious conditions whose symptoms are just dismissed. I now find myself wondering if I am one of them, Googling my symptoms and looking for every last thing, thinking maybe my doctor is wrong. I feel stuck between the possibility that I am turning into a hypochondriac and the possibility that I have some awful illness — and either way I don’t know how to make these symptoms go away.
— Worrying more and more
I am sorry to hear about your struggle. It’s one that I too have been hearing a lot (at the risk of sounding like your doctor). Most people think that the second sustained stress lets up, it’s a linear trajectory to feeling better. What they don’t realize is that it’s often in the time when your body is supposed to be getting back to “normal” that the effects of stress show up the most. That’s because the stress response is deceptive in temporarily propping us up; it gets us amped and focused on the immediate threats at hand, ready to fight that mammoth or sit for our annual review. But once the surge of stress hormones abates, our bodies finally get the chance to crash.
Think of how you may not feel sore during physical exertion, but rather after. Or how you get a hangover not when the substance is still coursing through your veins, but instead once it has left — making you feel even worse than when it was in your system. People often have panic attacks not in the throes of the worst of their lives’ crises but at a seemingly random time a little while later. This is all very, very normal.
But even though I deal with this topic for a living, I would never want to dismiss anyone’s physical symptoms. It’s true that too many people — especially women and people of color — are not taken seriously enough at medical appointments when trying to explain that things don’t feel right. So don’t automatically take one doctor’s word for it, especially if you felt like that person was dismissive. Even basic bloodwork could identify some potential nutritional deficiencies that are making your symptoms worse, so I wish your doctor had done more. But I also must confirm that every single thing you listed is indeed a common stress symptom.
Where your doctor most clearly let you down, though, is in the failure to illuminate an actual path to feeling better. This frustrates me most of all; too often there seems to be no middle ground between jumping to a limiting and premature solution (“Take these meds!”) vs. acting like no help is needed at all (“Yup, totally normal. Anything else?”) You were made even more powerless this way, which only adds to the stress response.
Thankfully, this is where therapists come in. You make no mention of the specifics of what you’ve been going through, but given the baseline disruption of the past year, I’m sure it wasn’t easy. And if it was particularly traumatic, you may need more help than basic self-help stress relief. Please don’t deny yourself the opportunity to meet with someone who will do exactly what your doctor didn’t.
But as for the basics of stress management, give them a preliminary try. Prioritize your sleep — I mean seriously. Move your body purposefully every day, increase your sunlight and nature exposure, build in social time and laughter. Start labeling your anxious thoughts as thoughts, and notice in your body where you feel them — gently and nonjudgmentally — while you slow and deepen your breath. Seek out art, music, film or photography that connects you with something greater and a potential sense of purpose. Be kind to your body with nourishing food, especially foods high in magnesium, omega-3s and B-complex vitamins, and go heavy on the senses, perhaps with soft textures, hot showers and relaxing smells.
And finally, be kind to yourself — including pursuing more help in whatever form that takes.