Warning: "Hanging in there" is destroying your health

Dec 19 2017, 1:45 pm

Sucking it up is highly overrated.

We operate in a society where it seems as if there is some secret committee that hands out awards for people who work through any sickness, embrace sleep depravation or race through the work day without eating. It took me over 36 years to be able to admit to myself that no one was going to give me a gold star for constantly pushing myself forward.

I started asking others why they felt compelled to soldier on, and there seemed to be a few common themes: parents’ expectations growing up, needing to prove oneself and fear of rejection or loss. Regardless of the cause, most people who struggle with easing up on themselves also wrestle with admitting weakness. Fair enough.

When I look back on the years that I refused to admit weakness of any kind, I don’t think anyone could have convinced me to ease up. There were no magic words that would have made me pause and make some drastic changes.

The only reason I finally changed my pace was a health issue that brought me to a grinding halt.  Doctor-ordered time off of work followed and I started to learn the first of a series of very hard lessons. I have several friends and acquaintances who have undergone a similar experience, where they were completely fine—until they were suddenly not. If we could see the brick wall we were about to collide with, we would have stopped.

The problem is that no one sees it coming.

Why we end up paying with our health

When we are constantly functioning with high stress levels, our body stays in “fight or flight” mode.  According to the Mayo Clinic, when your body perceives a threat, adrenaline kicks in to increase heart rate, blood pressure and energy supplies. This also causes cortisol, the main stress hormone, to increase blood sugar and slow down nonessential functions (digestive and reproductive systems). This ends up disrupting almost all of the body’s normal processes, including the areas of your brain that control mood.

It’s no wonder that we suddenly start to experience major problems with our health. At first, the adrenaline and cortisol are giving us the boost we need to deal with high stress levels. But when high levels of these chemicals are sustained in our bodies for too long, things start breaking down.

Heart disease, digestive problems, and sleep disorders are the more familiar health issues, but there are a few that can be difficult to detect.

Nobody wants to talk about mental illness

There are so many people silently struggling with anxiety or depression. Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign references that mental illness is the leading cause of workplace disability and represents 15 per cent of Canada’s burden of disease.

When we start using the term “brain disorder,” as many research institutes do, it becomes easier to link the imbalance of long-term exposure to stress hormones and mental illness. Brain chemistry is disrupted and your ability to self-regulate your mood can be permanently altered.

There are several challenges with identifying anxiety or depression. First, there is a stigma associated with both of these diagnoses. Secondly, the symptoms can be extremely vague and will vary greatly between individuals.

I have talked with busy professionals in their 30s and 40s who were diagnosed with anxiety or depression and many of them indicated that the main symptom was that they had completely lost their mental buffer. They interpreted every curveball life threw at them as a major crisis, and only after starting holistic treatment did they realize they had not been able to cope with everyday life.

If you suspect that you might be struggling with anxiety or depression, Here to Help has an online screening tool that can be helpful to take at home and print out your results for an upcoming doctor appointment.

Adrenal fatigue is a real thing

I recently learned what adrenal glands actually are, thanks to Dr. Aviva Romm. In a recent blog post, Dr. Romm explains that the adrenal glands function like “the shock absorbers for our system,” helping us rebound from life’s stressors by controlling our stress response system. They sit right above your kidneys and are actually the “primary survival organs” of our body.

Once we have experienced unrelenting stress and adrenal fatigue has kicked in, our immune system plummets, we feel exhausted, we can’t regulate our moods and we start gaining weight because of carb or salt cravings.

Women particularly experience hormonal imbalance and unstable blood sugar levels.

If you think you may be experiencing adrenal fatigue, check out Dr. Romm’s blog post, “10 Signs that Your Adrenals are on Overdrive.”

Chronic inflammation flies under the radar

Inflammation is our body’s healthy response to injury or infection. However, experts such as Dr. Andrew Weil, tell us that too much stress (as well as diet and other lifestyle factors) can contribute to chronic low-level whole-body inflammation. This type of inflammation can lead to heart disease, several types of cancer, arthritis and Alzheimer’s. If you have a genetic predisposition to any of these diseases, the health risks of chronic inflammation drastically increases.

The problem with chronic inflammation is that it is almost imperceptible until it triggers a disease. So we get tricked into thinking that our lifestyle isn’t catching up with us.

Avoid learning the hard way

This isn’t going to happen overnight. But you do have a few choices.

First, you can decide that your physical health is a precious commodity that cannot be taken for granted. Ask anyone who has ever faced a life-threatening diagnosis. Your priorities shift pretty quickly when you realize your body may not rebound. If you are committed to protecting your physical health, you can start taking small steps to make sure that you are getting the rest, fuel and exercise that your body needs to fight off stress.

Second, you can assess the major stressors in your life. There is always a choice. Dr. Brené Brown inspired my personal motto, “What is the bravest thing you can do?”

When you have figured out what your major stressors are, ask yourself what is the bravest thing you can do with regard to this issue or person? Then do it.

Finally, figure out what type of support you need to start easing up on yourself. It doesn’t have to be anything radical. Maybe it’s just reading a book that will help you shift your perspective (I would highly recommend The Gifts of Imperfection by Dr. Brené Brown). Maybe it’s a friend, maybe it’s a class, maybe it’s working with a therapist. However you choose to address this, it’s important to deal with the underlying compulsion to push forward at all costs.

If you are looking for more resources in your journey towards wellness, tweet me @2ndhandtherapy or visit the new Secondhand Therapy website.


Feature image: Sitting alone via Shutterstock

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