Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Wisdom of Stress + The Antidote to Exhaustion

I've been a firm believer that stress = impending sickness. For most of my life, whenever I've been "burning the candle at both ends," sickness awaits me at end of the wick.

So when all you-know-what broke loose a few weeks ago, I kept bracing for the oogies. My best friend decided to move to Europe, I needed to find a new apartment, my college semester was ending, and I lost my kitty, Dante, to a chest infection right after getting Diddy's asthma stabilized. I was stretched thin, and rest was nowhere in sight.

Apartment hunting, something I usually enjoy, felt like a drag. I dreaded appointments to see new places and felt discouraged even looking online. I attributed my lack of enthusiasm to stress, but I knew something else was up when I found the perfect place and felt panic, not relief, every time I started the application.

See, I'm the poster child of easygoing, all the way down my "happy feet," so I was intrigued by this panic. Then I woke up with unwelcome tightness in my throat announcing enemy takeover. I felt I was being slowly strangled from the inside and braced for the sickness I'd learned to associated with stress.

Before I went home, tail between my legs, I started exploring with a friend what might be going on with the apartment application panic. Practically dictated I just fill out the application and get on with it. I didn't want to keep looking and this was a golden opportunity. However, something I had not confessed, even to myself, was that I didn't want to stay in Utah. When I started talking, words came like "Seattle" and "I just can't see staying here, even if it seems rash." The more I talked, the more I realized I was being strangled -- not just by germs, but by my unwillingness to acknowledge my feelings.

Interestingly, I had just been reading Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer, who writes that often the most significant moments are those we can't explain and may make no sense whatsoever to anyone, even us. Perhaps that passage gave me a little more courage to explore what was actually going on and not just chalk it up to general stress. It was stress all right, but most of the stress was caused by my not wanting to acknowledge what was actually inside clammoring to get out.

The more I talked about what I saw for myself in Seattle (community, holistic learning, a culture that supports integrative health strongly, the ocean, etc.), the easier I could breathe. The tightness that had gripped my entire day was nearly gone, and a big smile had crept onto my face. I never did end up getting sick, and my energy surged back in a way that shocked me. Here I was actually taking on more, and feeling energized, not depleted.

One of my favorite poets, David Whyte, writes, "The antidote to exhaustion is not rest, but wholeheartedness." When I look back at the times stress actually did take me down, not only do I see an overall weaker immune system, I see how I felt there was no way out. I didn't know how to listen to myself, and I would push myself until my body forced my hand. Poor bodies, so easy to ignore sometimes. Not this time, thankfully!

So I'm off to Seattle in less than three weeks with a full heart. I couldn't wait to get apartment hunting, and I found myself an apartment overlooking Puget Sound. I'll be spending time with the naturopaths at Bastyr University, the integrative medicine students at the University of Washington, and our integrative pharmacist friend, Mike Ciell, who travels to Seattle regularly. Note to self to keep exploring the wisdom of stress.


  1. Thank you for this insightful article, Tess. As I read it, I was seeing some incidents of illness and anxiety in my own life in a new life. I'm Fibromyalgic and stress can completely debilitate me. I use multi B vitamins constantly to protect myself from ... well, life. It works.

  2. Modern life is indeed so stressful. I was considering that as I was reflecting how little down time I've had in the last while. I think most of us are doing our best to cope with the pace and toxins, but our immune systems haven't totally caught up with technology yet, so I'm glad you're using extra nutrition to support yours. Thanks for writing and I hope you enjoy some warm, relaxing time this summer!

  3. Wow Tess, I can totally relate to the sense of being strangled due to denying your true emotions. I went through that related to my marriage, or ultimately my divorce. I have two kids and thought it would be best to swallow my concerns, emotions, inner turmoil, etc., and push through until they were both 18. My feelings had been telling me all along that it was time to end the marriage, but I was denying them, and was succumbing to the stress and near constant sore throats. I look back and say to myself, "No Duh! You were swallowing all my problems!" But the sense of being slowly strangled became greater and greater until one night I simply laid it out for the ex-husband. The immediate relief was something like I had never experienced. Good for you for listening to your emotions and figuring out what the true stress was all about and then for taking that required leap of faith to act on it! Jamie

  4. That move was truely a game change!