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The Scariest Thing About Stress

It’s October, so Halloween is right around the corner. Now some people love to be scared, and if that’s you this is the perfect season. But even when you choose to put yourself in scary situations, on some level you know it’s not real or is only temporary. Today, I want to talk about something scary that isn’t temporary for most of us and it’s something that can cause considerable damage both in the short and long term, so keep reading.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably been wondering where the bleep I’ve been for the past two months. On July 31st, I was doing some self-care by swimming laps at the rec center. Nice, right? Well, it sure was, right until I got distracted while doing the back stroke and swam headfirst into the side of the very hard, concrete wall. When I realized what I did, I stopped and assessed myself and I seemed fine. In fact, it didn’t even really hurt. So, I just finished swimming and went home. I found it a bit harder to focus on finishing the Stress Management webinar we did for August, but I just attributed that to allergies.

It wasn’t until two days later when coincidentally I was driving to my chiropractor’s office that I started to feel terrible. Now in classic Halloween style, that’s the best kind of scary right? Nothing seems out of place, then suddenly BAM – what is happening?!? I told the doctor and she said I probably had a mild concussion. She put my skull, neck, and everything else back where it belonged and said it typically takes 6 – 8 weeks to fully recover from a concussion, so I’d probably feel tired and find it more difficult to focus. Okee dokee.

I had to prep for two trainings for the Division of Student Development at Saint Louis University the next week, plus get my syllabi ready for teaching at Maryville, so I just focused on doing those things with lots of time to rest in between. On the days of the training, I basically rested, went to present, then came home and rested. But the second day, I had to have my dad drop me off and my sister pick me up because presenting plus driving was too much. When my doctor said mild concussion, I thought, “Oh like Mild Sauce at Taco Bell. Noticeable, but nothing that’s going to really get in my way.”

Well turns out I was way wrong. What started out as feeling not too great, but still able to do things slowly got worse and worse. I had to hand write my syllabi and pay a friend to put it all into the fancy, new syllabus program we had to use. Initially I’d rested by watching TV in bed. Sometimes I’d close my eyes and just listen, but I watched quite a bit. I could use the computer and my phone, just not for long periods of time. But at it’s very worst, I would have to lay in bed in a completely dark room doing absolutely nothing. I couldn’t even listen to the TV because it was all too much for my brain. And believe me, you can only sleep so much, so I’d just have to lay there and think – but not think too hard because that was too exhausting. I had to stop wearing my glasses for about a month, because it just was too stressful on my brain. When classes started, all I did was rest enough to go to class, teach, then come home and rest.

At one point, my doctor reassessed me and said upgraded my diagnosis to a moderate concussion, which I guess that’s more like Fire Sauce. It took nine, rough weeks to get back to my old self. It was only last week that my glasses went back on and I could do a full day of work. Long story short [too late], that’s why I absolutely couldn’t do any podcast’s until now.

I wanted to talk about my concussion for two reasons. First, to explain my absence. But secondly, because I think it’s a fantastic case study of many of the things we’ve been talking about on the podcast. I’ve actually been taking notes over the past few weeks for this episode. And since it’s the scariest month of the year, it’s an extra perfect example of what can go wrong when there’s too much stress.

We’ve talked about stress on many episodes, but I’m not sure I’ve specifically mentioned that there are three types of stress – physical, chemical, and emotional. Physical stress is caused by an injury or trauma to the physical body. That’s what happened to me when I hit my head. Chemical stress is caused by toxins and viruses. Finally, emotional stress is caused by our thoughts and stories. But here’s the thing, no matter which type of stress you’ve encountered, it’s using massive amounts of energy to deal with it. My body needed most of my energy to heal my brain, which left little energy left to do the things I normally would.

And to make things even more fun, one type of stress can turn into other types of stress. For example, yes, I hit my head which is absolutely physical, but that resulted in toxins in my brain which make me feel terrible all over. Not to mention the emotional stress that resulted from suddenly being unable to do the things I wanted and needed to do both to teach and for Strengths University. Why is this important? Because most of you are dealing with emotional stress, and it’s really easy to think of it as being less important to address than a physical injury or say, having COVID. I mean, it’s just all in your head, right? You just need to push through it. It’s not like you’re sick or injured, right?

Wrong. No matter which type of stress you start with, it’s throwing you into a stress response. Your brain and body go into high alert to deal with what’s going on. And again, that takes a ton of your energy. Plus, that seemingly less severe emotional stress can absolutely turn into chemical and physical stress, as well. Current medical studies found that as much as 90 percent of illnesses and diseases are stress-related. That means you feeling “stressed out” could absolutely turn into a physical problem. I’ve read about and talked with many a higher ed professional who is dealing with a chronic illness. When I’ve suggested that their job did that to them, I’ve even had a few folks say something along the lines of, “well sure, work didn’t help, but _____ runs in my family.” Well, here’s the thing about genetic illnesses, your DNA doesn’t give you a disease. It’s your environment that determines how that gene will express itself. The environment turns on disease state. You’re not destined to have the thing your mom and/or grandma has. Google epigenetics for more information about how that works.

Even if you don’t think you currently have a chronic illness, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. I bumped my head and “seemed fine” for two days. I looked fine on the outside and even mostly felt to fine, but inside my brain was breaking down from the injury it received. Eventually, that injury spread throughout my body and impacted everything I did. I’m self-employed. That means I don’t get paid, unless I do something to get a new customer or book a training. There was definitely the emotional stress of “you can’t afford to do nothing for 6 – 8 weeks, Anne.” But I also knew that if I didn’t prioritize my self-care and give my body and mind what it needed, it was possible I’d either take way longer to recover or suffer permanent damage. And just to clarify that didn’t mean fit in some self-care when I had time. It meant prioritizing self-care based on what my brain and body needed, and if there was any time and energy left, I could fit in the other things I felt like I needed to do. In order to make this work, I had to do many of the things we’ve talked about in this podcast to an extreme degree to decrease stress, let my brain and body heal, get through the first month of classes, and get folks registered for the fall Supervisor Strengths Institute.

It was a crazy nine weeks for me. Luckily, I recovered completely and am ready to get back to it. Let’s talk about what I did and how you can start doing them now to decrease the stress on your system and hopefully avoid getting sick – maybe even so sick that you physically can’t work.

First let’s talk about emotional stress and how you can reframe your stories. That’s typically the stress we’re dealing with at home and work. It’s those stories and beliefs we have about the world and our place in it, that creates the most stress in our lives. In this case, my brain had already experienced some severe physical stress, so any additional stress was going to make things worse. Doing “nothing” for two months, when the fall semester was starting and we needed to get folks enrolled in the fall Institute definitely could have created many stories that would have made me push myself and my brain. Instead, I quickly reframed some of those stories so I could focus on recovering. I told myself the one thing I absolutely needed to make sure was 100% was my brain, so everything else had to come second even if that meant a less than ideal start to the semester and the Institute.

Whenever a story came up that had me thinking I needed to work harder, I’d stop myself and think about how I could do that think with the least amount of effort possible. In other words, I had to prioritize and do only what was the most necessary and forget about the rest. For example, I had to finish my syllabi for classes, including putting them in a new syllabus program the college was using. It would have taken a ton of copying, pasting, and screen time – all of which would have taken me most of the week because I couldn’t do any of that for long. While doable, I decided to pay a friend to do it for me. When I thought about recruiting for the Institute, I asked myself what the fewest number of emails was I could send to get the message across. I narrowed that down as much as possible, handwrote them, then gave myself strict time limits on the computer to create and send them. Even though I used very little of my time and energy, I got everything done I needed to do.

I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s something called the Parkinson’s Law. Basically, it means we expand our work to fit the time we have available to complete it. So, if we have two hours to do something, we’ll take two hours. If we have two days to do that same thing, we might very well stretch it out to two days. Since you know I don’t really care about time management, what we’re really talking about here is energy management. I normally would have taken way longer to do all of those things, but I couldn’t because my brain needed to rest. Everything got done just as well – if not better, because I didn’t over think or try five different versions of things. That brings us back to the old 80/20 rule, as well. Remember that 20% of what you do makes 80% of the impact. I boiled down possible tasks to the most important 20%, if not less than that and didn’t bother with the other 80%. I told myself, “If I can do these things so quickly and effectively now, I need to remember to stop wasting so much of my time and energy when I’m 100%.” We all waste tons of time and energy on things that could be done just as well with less time and energy, or possibly don’t need to be done at all. You don’t have to wait until you whack your head to start prioritizing and doing things more efficiently. Honestly, my biggest concern right now is that I’ll go back to my old ways, now that I have so much more energy.

Now to some extent, this entire episode has been about self-care. I’ve just been focusing on the things I had to do to make sure I was getting enough of it. So, the last thing I want to talk about is how important it is to pay attention to what your mind and body needs, so you know what kind of self-care and how much of it you need. I had to pay close attention to how my brain and body was feeling to know when I could work and when I needed to stop. We’re used to ignoring our bodies and feelings, and all too often push through our exhaustion or pain so we can get more things done. I didn’t want to do anything to make my brain worse or slow my healing, so I started to pay close attention to how my brain and body was feeling as it did things. A headache meant I’d pushed things too far, so I learned the signs that happened BEFORE my head started to hurt. Whenever my brain started to get an uncomfortably full feeling –it’s difficult to describe, but I knew that sensation meant it was time to stop. I did NOT wait until my head actually hurt. It’s kind of like staying hydrated. When you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated so you need to make sure you’re drinking things throughout the day BEFORE you get thirsty.

Dogs never just bite someone, they send out a warning with their growls and body language. Same thing with our bodies and minds. Headaches, pain in your back or neck, exhaustion, etc., don’t just pop up out of nowhere. It just seems that way because you didn’t pay attention to the signs leading up to that point. Our bodies and minds communicate with us all the time, so get used to listening to what your mind and body needs. If you get a headache, it’s your body telling you that something you’re doing isn’t working. If you pay attention and make adjustments, you can prevent future problems. But if you ignore the signs – or even pop an Advil and keep on going, you’re missing out on important information our bodies are trying to tell you to keep you healthy. Pay attention to what your body and mind is telling you, so you can make sure you get what you need.

Okay, since we’ve been talking about being efficient and managing our energy well, I don’t want this to go too long. Let’s sum this up. The impact of stress doesn’t always show up right away. Just like in those horror movies that are always trending in October, it can be silently lurking in the background before it’s true impact jumps out to get you. And just like in those movies, sometimes that leads to some pretty traumatic results. But if you take the right steps now, you can prevent this from happening. I had to take a break from doing the podcast because I’ve had to give myself the space and time I needed to recover from my concussion. But remember, no matter whether your stress starts out as physical like me, chemical from a virus, or emotional, it can easily shift into one of the other types. In a nutshell, your feeling stressed can quickly turn into being physically unwell – even into a chronic disease. If you want to get a handle on your stress and your wellbeing, you need to put self-care front and center. That means both listening to your body and mind, so you know the signs you need to give yourself the right self-care. It means better managing your energy and prioritizing what you have to do so you the most bang for your buck. It also means when you do the things you’ve prioritized, you’re doing them as effectively and efficiently as possible. When you combine all of these, you can actually be more productive while reducing your stress and prioritizing your health and wellbeing.

So don’t ignore stress. Mange it and focus on your wellbeing. And until next time, stay strong.

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