Lupus and Stress

The effects of stress on the body, and especially on chronic conditions, have clearly been established. But I always pictured some middle-aged man wearing a suit who would suffer from cardiovascular problems due to his stressful corporate job. It was always something quite vague, tiny percentages and statistics which would not include me…

It thus came as a surprise how much can stress can actually worsen lupus symptoms.

During my first consultation, my doctor made it a point to ask “Do you get stressed easily?”. Well, yes. As mentioned in previous posts, I’m generally the type of person who’d get all worked up about tiny details. Stress was well embedded in my thinking process and my attitude.

My first flare actually occurred during the weeks preceding the release of exam results for my final university year, a period during which I’d anxiously refresh the ‘results’ page on the university website and fill my head with “What if I fail? What if there is a problem during the marking? What if they lose my exam script?”. Over time, I noticed how often stressful situations would suddenly cause my symptoms to pop up. It became clear that “stop stressing out” should no longer be merely some random advice coming from my family/friends or some resolution which I’d never put into practice.

I’m lucky enough to have a doctor who takes the time to ask “Has something been stressing you out lately?” during my consultations and explained in length that nothing was worth getting sick for. He further emphasises a holistic approach to health and recommended yoga, meditation, exercise or playing an instrument among other ways to manage stress, rather than simply prescribing medication.

I thus made a few changes in my lifestyle and implemented some changes to manage my stress (and thus, illness) properly:

  • Exercise

When my joint and muscle pain isn’t giving me a hard time, I usually go for Zumba classes twice a week. I happen to have an awesome teacher who took the time to discuss my lupus with me and understand what it entails. Those classes are also as a time for me to disconnect, unwind and laugh (and what a better way to keep stress at bay? 😉 ).

I also make it a point to stretch lightly for a few minutes every day, first thing in the morning, a habit which I recently added to my daily routine and is going good so far.

Fortunately, lupus has not affected my mobility as opposed to patients with a more severe case. And while I still need to give special consideration to my rheumatoid arthritis, hypermobility syndrome and mild scoliosis (Go home body, you are drunk), I can afford to exercise regularly.

  • Professional psychological help

I’m still stunned by the amount of people who think that seeing a therapist/psychologist/psychiatrist is a sign of weakness, that you are supposed to “handle it yourself”. Health is also mental, and it’s okay to step out and ask for help, to request a professional opinion on what you are going through – and this includes people who are in perfect physical health.

Back to chronic illnesses: 15-60% of people with a chronic condition will experience clinical depression according to the Lupus Foundation America.

Feeling constantly unwell is a tough experience, and so is the need to give up on a number of things because you are can no longer do them (physically) or because they can be a threat to your health. These two things alone are considerable emotional strains.

Besides, lupus can affect the brain, with symptoms including mood swings, confusion, memory problems, difficultly to concentrate, depression, psychosis, seizures and strokes. The Lupus Research Alliance notes that half of lupus patients suffer from cognitive dysfunction. On top of that, some medication used to treat lupus, including prednisone, can also cause depression.

Telling people to suck it up or discouraging them to seek medical advice is not only inconsiderate, it is irresponsible.

  • Journaling

Most of the content of this blog actually stemmed from some words I jotted down in a notebook at some point in time, when it felt like ‘too much’ in my head. Whether it is flowcharts for making a decision, bullet points for weighing down pros and cons, a to-do-list or just random scribbles, I’ve found out that journaling helps me see more clearly through the mess of my thoughts.

  •  Moodling!

Okay people – the book Moodle presents stressed is a little gem! It features exercises such as “Draw yourself a Do not disturb sign, cut it out and hang it to your door’”, “Write your worries on this page, make a boat out of it and let it sail away” and much more:

Moodles presents stressed.jpg

While I’m absolutely terrible at drawing, focusing and moodling helps me to calm down (in the same way Mandala colouring does).

  •  Music

Besides drawing, know what else I’m terrible at? Yep, playing an instrument. I hadn’t touched a piano in three years when my doc insisted on the importance of practicing music. Back at it, I’m now learning not to feel discouraged by sounding awful, or being a slow learner, and to instead find pleasure in how my hands become autonomous and create something pretty after a lot of practice.

  • Aromatherapy

I’ve been using a ceramic oil diffuser in my bedroom and it’s definitely a mood booster! Each essential oil has properties of its own and it’s interesting to mix them for different effects (from stress reduction to pain relief). I’d recommend to ask tons of questions before any purchase to ensure you are choosing the essential oil which will suit you best, as well as the method which would work for you (diffusion, inhalation, topical application and so forth).

  • Time out

At the end of each day, usually right before sleep, I have one of those ‘time out’ periods during which I forbid myself to think about any responsibilities whatsoever and cut off contact with others. I use this ‘me-time’ to practice one of the above (exercise, piano and so on) without being disturbed. While the exact amount of time varies, I try to balance it with the pace of my life – for instance, a very stressful week at work would require one hour of time out every day, while I’d be happy with ten minutes of time out per day during vacations.

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