I haven’t written in a while, because in all honesty I just haven’t felt like doing so. It’s been a fairly tumultuous six weeks where at times I’ve felt like I’ve been flailing. Fighting against the wave instead of riding it, the water crashing over my head, pulling me under. At times I’ve managed to get my head above the water briefly, to take a breath, only for the next wave to engulf me. Finally, though, I stopped fighting, I stopped trying so damn hard to fix it and instead I relaxed and that’s when the wave carried me back to shore.
Now that the wave has gently put me down, I’ve been able to think about what these last few weeks have been about, why I needed to go through them and what I’ve learnt.
Which brings me to the theme of this blog. Labels. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Two of the labels I’ve been given over the last year. Yes, they have in many ways been hugely helpful. Having a name to pin things on means I’ve been able to look into these conditions, learn about them, speak to other people with them. Give those people who ask, a name for what’s going on with me.
But other labels often come alongside these ones – words like ‘suffering from’ and ‘ill’ and needing ‘treatment’. Not exactly inspiring words.
So now I’m going to be a little controversial and I may upset some people reading this who have these labels. I’m all for debate so if you don’t agree (or do!) with what I’m about to say, please do pop your thoughts in the comments below.
First though I want to tell a quick, true story. I can’t remember exactly who it’s about, but I think it’s Einstein. One day, this boy (who we’ll say is Einstein) came home from school with a letter from his teacher for his Mother. When he asked what it said, she replied that the teacher said he was too clever and the teacher couldn’t teach him anymore and suggested his mother teach him herself. She did, and he went on to become, well, Einstein! But he later discovered that’s not what was in the letter at all. It actually said that he was failing so badly and was clearly so stupid that the teacher couldn’t teach him. We now know he was actually dyslexic. What might have been different if Einstein had grown up labelling himself as stupid?
Going back to chronic fatigue and anxiety, I think there comes a time when the labels become unhelpful and can contribute to keeping us stuck in our condition. And I believe there’s enough science out there to back this up.
Because one of the main biochemical issues going on with both these ‘conditions’ is that the brain is stuck in the stress response. I’ve talked about this before so I won’t go into much detail, suffice to say that stress or anxiety releases stress hormones, which are vital to put our body into the very necessary fight or flight mode. If the reason for the stress or anxiety goes away quickly then the brain stops pumping out these chemicals and the body calms back down. But if we’re under continuous stress (either mental or physical), a loop is created whereby the brain keeps releasing these chemicals into the body, so the body believes it’s under attack, which sends signals back to the brain that there’s a threat, which means it creates more stress hormones. And so it goes on, wreaking more and more havoc, until the cycle can be broken by calming down the body and the brain.
Whatever the initial trigger, this continued prescence of stress hormones causes a cascade of problems throughout the body – inflammation, gut issues (which themselves feed into the stress loop as the majority of seratonin – the ‘happy’ hormone – is produced in the gut, more than in the brain), fatigue, pain, brain fog, etc etc. Essentially it puts the whole body out of balance. As an example, at the moment, when I get hungry, I get physical symptoms of anxiety – tightness in my chest and short of breath. My stress response is on such high alert that even hunger is telling my brain I’m under threat (of starvation) and it’s doing it’s thing by warning me physically. I eat and the symptoms reduce.
So, to get back to my original point about labels. When I think of myself as being ‘ill’ and ‘suffering from’ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome what does that thought tell my brain? It tells it there’s a problem. And what if I were to think of myself as perfectly well and healthy, that my body is working exactly as it should be (by sending me stress signals, which are, after all, designed to keep me safe), I just need to work on breaking that stress cycle? I might still have the same symptoms (I’m not suggesting they’ll magically disappear – if only!) but I feel a hell of a lot more relaxed about them. And more in control. Which starts to send the message to my brain that I’m safe and it doesn’t need to do anything. I can relax. And if I’m relaxed what might happen? My whole system will gradually calm down and the stress response cycle will, in time, be broken. Not straight away, but if it keeps getting positive messages instead of negative ones, it will stop reacting so much as it won’t be on such a constant high alert.
And then my body has a chance of healing itself. Exactly as it’s designed to do.
So what if you were to believe that you’re not broken and you don’t need to be fixed? What if you could accept yourself exactly as you are and be ok with it? You may still want to work on improving your health, or how you react to your thoughts, but if you come from a place of not thinking there’s anything ‘wrong’ with you, you’re just a normal, flawed but perfect human being, it’s a more peaceful place to start from.
I’d better add that I’m not suggesting I just pretend there’s nothing wrong so go off and do a 10k run. Clearly that would be disastrous. It’s not that it’s all in my mind. My body’s hugely fatigued and depleted and isn’t going to stop being so just because I decide to stop thinking of myself as ill. I would do it huge damage if I ignored my current limits. I’m absolutely NOT suggesting anyone do that.
I’m still pacing, doing only what’s manageable and resting regularly. I’m eating only (ok, mostly – I’m about 90/10 because over-obsessing about healthy eating is also anxiety-causing) nutritious foods, I’m cutting out as many of the toxins in my life as I can, only increasing activity slowly and listening to my body’s needs. It definitely needs time, and loads of care, to repair itself. It’s not about not accepting where you are at this moment. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s about accepting where you are but not letting it define you.
Because it’s not just that negative or stressful thoughts create chemical changes. They also influence our actions. If we think our current state can’t be changed, then the likelihood is that we won’t take positive actions to try and change it. But if we believe our bodies are set up to self-correct (given the best healing conditions) then we’re far more likely to act accordingly and nourish our bodies and minds to give them the best possible chance of healing.
And if I’m wrong, and breaking the stress loop isn’t the answer, or is only one of the answers, well I’ll deal with that when I’ve given this approach some time. And at least in the meantime I’ll hopefully be a lot more relaxed. Which is pretty nice.