How Do You Handle Acute Stress? Me, I Break Out In Boils. [Plus: 5 weird ways stress affects your body]
Posted Apr 10 2013 9:02am
“Wanna see my rash?” is definitely on the top ten list of things you should probably never say at the gym. Not that that stopped me. “Don’t worry, it’s not contagious,” I assured the Gym Buddies as I pushed my sock down and stuck my (post-workout) foot in their faces. It’s a testament to our friendship that nobody pushed me over and ran for safety. They ooh’ed and aah’ed and eew’ed over the shiny red blisters on my hands and feet and even offered me the appropriate sympathy as whined about how much they hurt and itched. Finally one of them asked me what it was and how I got it.
And here’s the sad part: Like many painful things in my life, I totally brought this one on myself.
After consulting with Dr. Google and her trusty nurse Image Search, I decided that I have pompholyx - a type of eczema where the skin on your hands and feet bubbles up with itchy, painful bumps. Possible causes include allergies to something either in your food or your environment and while I don’t rule those out, the number one potential impetus for my plague is… stress.
Not going to lie: the past couple of weeks are going to go down in history as some of the most stressful of my life and frankly I’m surprised that so far the only way my body has mutinied is to give me boils. Don’t worry, nothing bad per se is happening, just stressful stuff. My husband and I decided to sell our house due to a number of factors including a rebounding housing market, winter cabin fever and the fact that all three of our growing boys are crammed into one tiny bedroom. This seemed like a good idea at the time (famous last words). Until our Realtor gave us a 4-page list of things that needed to be fixed/cleaned/painted, my husband suddenly had to go out of town and all my kids ended up home on spring break.
With house showings looming, I painted the entire house from top to bottom (during which I decided that my kids apparently took Harold and the Purple Crayon as an instructional manual rather than a whimsical children’s story), cleaned, fixed, packed up 75% of our things, got the carpets shampooed and a myriad of other time-consuming things. The kids were as good as they could be in such a situation (true story: The first day of spring break I gave them an entire bag of Dum Dum suckers, turned on the TV, stuck them on the couch and told them to pretend it was an island surrounded by sharks. I painted like a madwoman for 10 straight hours with nothing to eat or drink, stopping only to ferry the kids to the kitchen or bathroom (while shrieking DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING!). By the time I finally collapsed into bed I was shaking and sobbing into my pillow. Now repeat that (minus the couch – I did actually take my kids out to do stuff) for the next week.
First, I consider myself decently fit but doing that much physical labor every day wore me out. I have a whole new respect for construction workers are the like. (Also, I have a whole new respect for electricians – I tried to install a new light fixture and before I knew it I was standing in a shower of sparks and my heart was beating funny. Oops.) Second, the strain of of uncertainty was taking a mental toll on both me and the kids. (Where are we moving? Who knows! Not this girl.) The boys responded by turning into caged ferrets, fighting over something as small as a toe wiggle. Jelly Bean coped by deciding the umbilical cord was severed far too early and the place she really belonged was back in my skin. And I dealt by… pushing myself harder.
Which gets me to last Saturday and the eruption of the boils. I’d stayed up all night the night before, finishing house repairs (I would personally like to kill whichever sadist installed non-standard bi-fold doors in our house*) because we had a House Showing (dun, dun, dun) the next day. By dawn I was shaking like a horse run hard and put away wet (I’ve actually never seen a horse in that condition – it just paints such a vivid picture, no?). And I still had all day playing single mom to kids who were going to go back to school on Monday and tell their teachers that all they did for spring break was eat sugar and watch all four seasons of the most inane tween show ever. All without the benefit of a house to be in since the only way to keep the house in showing condition is to keep the kids (and the ticked-off cat) completely out of it.
I won’t detail all the fun that happened next (except to add that before we left, Jelly Bean projectile vomited all over the floor I’d just cleaned and the wall I’d just painted). Suffice it to say, I ended up sitting in a random parking garage and sobbing on the phone to my sister while all my kids panicked. This is the worst day ever!!! And thankfully, it was. Which is to say that things got better from there. My husband came home (although he’s leaving again in a couple of days). The house showing finished (official feedback from buyers: your house sucks). All the painting is done (complete with one Jelly Bean sized hand print on the wall which I still can’t believe I missed). I finally got some sleep.
All of which leads me to this point: I do not handle stress well. I remember when Shape asked me to write an article “ This is Your Brain on Stress ” showing all the deleterious effects to the body from too much stress. I replied to my editor and asked if I could just put a picture of my face under the headline and call it done. When I wrote it, I discovered some interesting things about the effects of stress:
1. Adrenal fatigue. While adrenal fatigue as a disorder is still under dispute in the medical community, most medical professionals will tell you that constantly stressing your adrenals—tiny little glands that sit atop your kidneys and produce cortisol, the stress hormone—leads to an imbalance that, left unchecked, can cause all kinds of problems from inflammation to depression.
2. Memory problems. Studies examining memory have found one major constant that affects what and how well we can remember things: stress. The more stressed out we are, the more our short-term and long-term memories are affected. Chronic stress has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in the elderly.
3. Increased drug sensitivity. The blood to brain barrier—the thing that decides what passes from your blood into your brain—is remarkably fine tuned. It normally does a great job of letting the good stuff in and keeping the bad stuff out, but something about stress increases the permeability of this barrier, which means that drugs that normally would only affect you in one way may become a lot more potent when they cross into your brain.
4. Aging faster. Look at someone’s brain scan and you can’t tell their chronological age, but you can tell what age their body thinks it is. The more stress you are under, the “older” your brain looks and acts. All the wrinkle cream in the world can’t help you if you are a die-hard stress case.
5. Gender-specific response. Women react differently to stress than men. We veer towards a “tend and be-friend” response rather than the standard “fight-or-flight” reaction. This makes us slightly less vulnerable to stress (go ladies!), but it also means that we can’t blindly accept stress-reduction tips based on research done on men.
It’s been three days since my break down and so if all I have to show for it are some blisters I probably got off pretty easy. But it taught me some valuable lessons. First, I need to be better about asking for help. I generally feel like if I tell people enough about how stressed out I am and how much I need help then they will jump in and help me. It doesn’t work this way. (True story: My mom called my sister to ask, “Charlotte sounds so stressed out. Why isn’t she asking us to help?” I called my sister an hour later to complain, “Mom and Dad know how stressed out I am. Why aren’t they helping me?!”) Second, the type of stress I experienced is really normal life stress stuff. It wasn’t anything extraordinary and it will certainly happen again so I need to find a better way to deal than by making a martyr out of myself (and, by proxy, my kids). Third, if I don’t listen to my body, it has ways of making me listen. I’m guessing that boils are just the warning shot over the bow. Two weeks of negligence get me pain and itching. Who knows what more will bring? Shingles?
So what to do? All my life I’ve been this way. My response to difficult things has always been to clench my teeth and just work harder. But there are some things that this head-down-barrel-through mentality doesn’t help. And yet, it’s who I am. I’m not sure what else to do. Things like meditating and getting 8 hours of sleep and taking relaxing walks through nature feel like non-options when I’m in the middle of something like last week. Sure I could meditate for 20 minutes. But that ceiling that needs to be painted will still be there and now I’ll be up 20 minutes later doing it.
I know what it’s like to not feel stressed. Well, I should say that I’ve known exactly once what it feels like. Back in college I had to get a colonoscopy (part of that whole IBS drill) and they gave me a shot of Demerol, a narcotic. It gave me amnesia that lasted for a solid 24 hours after the procedure. And that was the best day of my life. Hands down. I’ve never felt so good. I could feel my brain trying to worry but it just couldn’t. I couldn’t find anything to worry about! And so I didn’t. It was bliss. Obviously narcotics are not a long-term strategy. (In truth I’ve never taken any since, not even for childbirth, because the effect – and how much I liked it – terrified me. I’ve already got an addictive personality . Last thing I need is an actual addiction.)
So what is? I need to know, STAT. Because Son #3 just emerged from the basement holding a black Sharpie. (WHERE DO THEY KEEP FINDING THESE?!)
So now I’m asking you: What do you do when you’re in the midst of something really stressful**? How does your body manifest the stress – have you ever gotten a rash or lost your hair or whatever? Any tips for me on selling our house? And: Are you the type of person, who if I asked “Wanna see my rash?”, would say “Heck yes!” or would you run the other way?
*Huge thanks to Gym Buddies Daria and Allison for wrangling my kids while I installed the doors from Hades. There were some serious curse words and not of the “little green apples” variety.
**And yeah, I get that mine are totally First World Problems. I know that there are plenty of people with way worse things to deal with. I am grateful for what I have. Even if I forget it sometimes:)