Stress Is A Killer - Literally

Stress. Ugh. Just the word itself causes us to tense up a bit. It’s something that all of us dread and yet we still experience it on a regular basis. It has been proven time and again to affect physical wellbeing, and mental wellbeing, of course, yet we rarely prioritize it when trying to avoid triggers. It’s always present, like rum raisin ice cream at your grandparents’ house – everyone says they hate it, yet it always seems to make an appearance.

It always amazes me how much the mind can affect the body. Before I was diagnosed with lymphoma, I spent years dealing with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic autoimmune illness. It was during those long years that I was first introduced to the concept that mind over matter is a real thing. Initially, I probably said the same thing as you. “Get that woo-woo baloney out of here you hippie! Go back to eating GORP on the Appalachian Trail.” Or something shorter like that. It’s true, I used to think that being able to alter your body simply by changing your mood was crazy talk. In fact, even after years of RA, I wasn’t one-hundred percent sure that it was really a thing. Well, blood cancer cured me of that misconception right quick.

The positive outlook

As anyone who suffers from cancer knows, the doctors and, really everyone, are always talking about that all-important “positive outlook.” “You have to keep a positive outlook.” “Remember, keeping a positive outlook helps.” “Positive outlook is an important part of chemo.” By the time you are halfway through your first cycle, you’ve heard the words “positive” and “outlook” so much that it feels like you work at a Microsoft Office testing facility. I did my best throughout chemo and I was lucky enough to come through the other side with a hopeful result. It’s difficult to deny that my mindset probably played a part in that – I kept telling myself from day one that I would be fine. Now that the worst is behind me, though, I find that old enemy, stress, creeping back through gates that aren’t being watched well, and I, myself, am the biggest culprit, asleep at the post.

What’s the old saying? “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled is convincing people he didn’t exist.” Well, stress might as well be the Devil because that’s exactly how many of us treat it. We play it down, we convince ourselves that we can handle it, and when we have to pick something to sacrifice, stress relief always seems to end up on the bottom of the list. Despite the fact that our doctors, our loved ones, and even that little voice inside of us tells us that stress is a killer, we don’t listen. We go about our business and use the little time we have each day to do work or run errands, and stress relief never even enters the conversation.

Managing stress is especially hard during chemo

Look, I get it, I really do. First, when you are going through chemo you already begin the day in the red. Your energy levels and motivation are at an all-time low, so you need to use the little time you do have to work or take care of the kids. Time for stress relief? Sure, I’ll work in a few minutes for a quick knock-knock joke between my ninth zoom meeting and making dinner.

Second, you tell yourself that even if you did take time to relax, the unfinished business would be eating at you the whole time anyway and it would be even more stressful than not doing your work. I’ve used that excuse to push myself over the limit many times, especially when the chemo side effects were particularly bad. Finally, you convince yourself of that age-old lie, that since it’s all in your head anyway, you can mentally white-knuckle your way through. But, like riding a rollercoaster with the stomach flu, no matter how hard you hold on, in the end, you’re going to be covered in it. Stress, not puke.

The purpose of stress relief is distraction

Think about it – when you have a to-do list sitting on your phone, and the end of the day approaches, do we stop and leave the list unfinished? No, we push ourselves to finish even though we know that it may cost us in the energy department, especially if it’s early in the chemo. (I often wish that the me at the end of chemo could have told the me at the beginning of chemo what was up.)

In reality, though, whether you leave that to-do list undone or finish it all, without stress relief you are causing yourself harm. You may say, like I mentioned above, that you wouldn’t be able to relax if your work was left undone, but I would like to propose an alternate theory – that the point of stress relief is exactly that – to distract you and make you forget about what is left undone. Watching a good movie (or a bad movie), playing a video game, chatting with a friend, heck, it can even be taking a nap – any of these things will distract you if you let them. I mean, if you can simultaneously sleep and stress about the work you haven’t done, then you belong in some kind of stress hall of fame because you’re the GOAT – the Gatherer of all Tension.

“Stress is a killer.” Something you hear from time to time and pay it little mind – until you get cancer. Then you start to hear that word, “killer,” and it takes on its literal definition – the ending of life. Your life. I had to teach myself to turn off and let the world spin by itself for a bit while I recharged. Sure, it was difficult for me, but I realized that I had to do everything possible to fend off my lymphoma and stress-relief fell under that umbrella. Besides, how often can you tell yourself that playing Super Mario Bros is literally saving your life? Talk soon.

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