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Dear Inner Health Studio,
I am plagued with headaches, stomachaches and heart palpitations. I don't deliberately make myself sick but I think that my mind is more responsible for the way that I'm feeling rather than an actual physical ailment.
Is there any way I can train myself to recognize when stress is causing physical symptoms and learn how to control it?
I have no patience for yoga, stretching or sitting still because I feel like I need to be busy doing something.
Your devoted listener. (sometimes) hahahaha
It must be hard to admit that some of your thinking patterns might be contributing to your physical symptoms. Good for you for having the courage to consider this possibility. The reason this takes courage is because if our thoughts contribute to illness, there might be steps that we can take to contribute to our own wellness - and this is hard work.
Headaches, stomach aches, and heart palpitations can be symptoms of anxiety or of stress overload. See this page for details about the symptoms of anxiety. The fist step is to visit your medical doctor for a thorough checkup to rule out treatable physical conditions.
You're right on track for the next step, which is to train yourself to recognize when stress is causing physical symptoms. We all have our own early warning signs of stress. You might notice a particular symptom that starts early on as you are feeling stressed or anxious. The key is to monitor your symptoms (physical, emotional, intellectual) so that you notice which symptoms start to show up before you reach the point of overload (the point where you are experiencing full blown headaches, stomach aches, and heart palpitations).
You might want to keep a journal for a few days. Just write down the time of day, what is going on, and how you are feeling. Rate your stress level from 0 to 10, and describe any symptoms you are having. After a few days, look back at the journal and see if you can identify patterns. Once you notice the early warning signs of stress (whether these be symptoms or events or routine difficult times of day), you can make a plan for when to intervene to keep the stress from worsening.
So in short, you identify your early warning signs by monitoring your responses to daily events. Once you keep track and have identified some patterns, you know what early warning signs to look for.
Next is the HOW. It can be difficult to take time to be still and relax. Fortunately, there are many forms of relaxation that do not require being still! Before considering what kind of relaxation or stress management strategies to try, you might want to evaluate how you spend your time. Do you spend time doing things you enjoy, or is your time filled with activities that you view as chores? If you feel the need to be busy and you are doing things that you do not enjoy, you might want to think about whether your time is being spent on things that you consider truly important.
How important do you think it is to take care of yourself? What are your priorities when deciding how you spend your time? Make sure that you deliberately schedule in the things that are most important to you.
[side note: if you ask people what they most enjoy and what is most important to them, and then ask how often they have done those important things in the last week, many people realize that they have devoted little time to the things they value most. If something is important to you, but you aren't spending any time on it, maybe some changes need to occur!]
If you prefer to spend your time being busy and doing productive things, it is still possible to relax. You can select active kinds of relaxation that allow you to still keep busy. For example, if you are a parent, playing sports with your children can be both stress-relieving and can allow you to spend time with your kids.
If, after evaluating what is important in your life, you come to the conclusion that quiet relaxation and time for yourself is necessary to reduce your stress, there are ways to gradually introduce relaxation strategies. In my experience, I have found that most people do find it difficult to be still and do relaxation activities (like yoga, stretching, or sitting still, as you mentioned). Part of the reason for this is the reservations people have about taking time for themselves - feeling guilty or selfish for taking time for themselves - even though taking time for you is a necessary and important thing to do. The other reason for this is that relaxation is a skill that must be learned.
We don't often realize that the ability to relax is a learned skill. Not every form of relaxation will work for you. If yoga and stretching are not effective, there are numerous other strategies you can try. To determine which type of relaxation may work for you, you can try this relaxation quiz. After completing the quiz, have a look at the relaxation examples page for ideas of things you can try.
A good way to introduce relaxation gradually is to start with short sessions. Try a one minute relaxation session - e.g. one minute of calm breathing (try the breathing relaxation script available on the relaxation downloads page). As you become skilled at relaxing for one minute, try relaxing for a bit longer. See if you can do 5 minutes...10... or even longer. If you jump into relaxation by trying long sessions right away, it can be nearly impossible to do! Start slowly, and try things that interest you. If not yoga, what about visualization, creative expression relaxation, or progressive muscle relaxation? And remember - start short! Just a minute or two to begin with!
Sometimes it can hep to look at relaxation as a necessary part of self-care. It's like showering or brushing your teeth or eating - just something you need to do to stay well.
Even if you incorporate just one brief relaxation strategy into your routine - for example, calm breathing and then a 5 minute walk when you notice your early warning signs of stress overload - you will probably notice an improvement in your symptoms.
I know this is alot of information, but there is ONE MORE step to take. That step is to look at changing the thoughts that contribute to anxiety. You are not trying to make yourself sick, and please remember that the symptoms you are having are not your fault. The good news is that even though you are not at fault for these symptoms, there are things that you can do about them. If your anxious thoughts are contributing to your symptoms and you want to look into changing those thoughts, you may want to explore managing anxiety with cognitive (thought) based strategies. Cognitive therapy is proven to be very effective for managing anxiety and changing the negative and self-defeating thought patterns that are associated with anxiety and stress. When Panic Attacks, by David Burns, is an excellent book that I highly recommend. It contains effective techniques for managing anxiety. You can search chapters.indigo.ca
to find this book.
I hope that by incorporating some relaxation strategies gradually into your day you find that your symptoms decrease. Good luck!
Question for listeners/readers - have you ever felt the way L.L. described? Do you have any advice for him or her? For those of you who can't stand to be still and need to be busy - how do you unwind? Questions and comments are appreciated. You can send them via our contact form (click contact us on the nav bar at left) or post them live at the Ask Inner Health Studio Blog (http://innerhealthstudio.blogspot.com/).
Tune in next time as we hear from a busy Mother who worries about her family - and feels that this worrying is part of her job as a Mom. How can she manage the difficult balancing act between caring about her family and worrying too much? Find out next time on Ask Inner Health Studio.
Links and information from this podcast:
Burns, David. (2006). When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life. Morgan Road Books, Random House Inc, New York.