A break after the first semester

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2014. I had one of the busiest and most intense six months in my life. Apart from my 9 to 5 job, I enrolled in a postgraduation course as soon as I was told I didn’t need surgery because of my endometriosis. I also decided to start this blog, my Twitter and I started developing ideas to raise awareness to several health issues. Then, in March, I was told it was my turn to take care of everything there is to take care of in my apartment building. I don’t know how it works in other countries, but where I live when you have an apartment every year someone new is appointed to manage the common areas. That includes supervising the elevators maintenance, the cleaning services, and whatever you may think of. On top of all this, let’s not forget I have to manage the symptoms of all my conditions. There were moments when I was under a lot of pressure and stress, and feeling exhausted. And I was scared too. When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I had gone through a prolonged period of stress, and then, when things finally settled down I had the exacerbation that led to the diagnosis. It’s like my body got so used to the stress hormones, that it freaked out when there weren’t any. Funny, right?

But I decided to take a well-deserved break anyway. A week away from my job and my neighbors. I took all my books because I have a paper I need to write for my course, but so far I haven’t done much besides sunbathing by the pool, taking long walks and eating and sleeping a lot. I get tired from swimming in the pool and wandering with my camera, but it’s the good and normal kind of tired at the end of the day that everyone gets. It’s not the kind of tired that I get during the rest of the year and that I associate with depression and multiple sclerosis. The “I’m sick” kind of tired is a feeling of physical and mental exhaustion caused by looking around and seeing no ways out, no possibilites – of being trapped.

On Monday I will go back to “normal” life, even though I don’t thing there’s anything normal in spending an entire day inside an office looking at a computer. I will have an ultrasound to check on my cyst, and I’m honestly a little worried about it, because I’m getting this bad feeling. Whatever happens in the second half of the year, I know one thing for sure: when I’m on vacation, no stress and no overwork equals no ms symptoms. And I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.

I’m self-destructive therefore autoimmune

545119_3656268165275_2141072253_nWhen I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, my neurologist explained to me in broad terms what happened in the brain of people with this condition. I realized it was an autoimmune disease, to which she said yes, it could be considered an autoimmune disease. I sobbed a little more (I sobbed the whole time) and asked her “So this is another way I found to hurt myself?” She told me not to think about it that way but looking back it makes perfect sense that I have an autoimmune disease (two, if you count with endometriosis). I never tolerated myself much, always brought myself down, and due to specific circumstances in my upbringing I never had much emotional independence, sense of self, or psychological boundaries. So no wonder my body was confused and shooting whatever seemed like a nice thing to shoot.

Autoimmunity fascinates me from every perspective. From a biological point of view, it’s not very smart, is it? It’s just pure self-destruction. From a psychological point of view, can our body really reflect a poor sense of self? Or is there more to it that we don’t even dream of? It remains a mystery, one that scientists are still trying to find answers to. And the list of autoimmune diseases keeps growing, as evidence suggests well-known diseases such as schizophrenia may have an autoimmune pathogenesis. Wikipedia lists many of these with links to scientific articles. It’s worth taking a look.

It is also worth taking a look at how other authors see autoimmunity. In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert M. Sapolsky notes that both physical and psychological stressors seem to cause an early stage of immune activation. However, long-term/chronic stress begins to have the opposite effect, namely, suppressing immunity. But why can’t we not just let our system remain at the enhanced, improved level achieved with temporary stressors and “get the benefits of an activated immune system all the time? Metaphorically, why not have your military that defends you always on maximal alert? For one thing, it costs too much,” he explains. “And, even more important, a system that’s always on maximal, hair-trigger alert is more likely to get carried away at some point and shoot one of your own guys in a friendly fire accident. And that’s what can happen with immune systems that are chronically activated – they begin to mistake part of you for being something invasive, and you’ve got yourself an autoimmune disease.”

Doctor Gabor Maté also links autoimmunity with chronic stress, but he goes further along the way explaining that chronic stress most of the times originates from relationship patterns established during childhood. In When The Body Says No he writes that “The blurring of psychological boundaries during childhood becomes a significant source of future physiological stress in the adult.” He notes that “Within the individual organism, physical mutiny results from an immunologic confusion that perfectly mirrors the unconscious psychological confusion of self and non-self” and adds that “Cancer and ALS and MS and rheumatoid arthritis and all these other conditions, it seems to me, happen to people who have a poor sense of themselves as independent persons. On the emotional level, that is – they can be highly accomplished in the arts or intellectually – but on an emotional level they have a poorly differentiated sense of self. They live in reaction to others without ever really sensing who they themselves are.”

This unfortunately makes perfect sense to me considering my personal history. I’m not sure how it applies to the millions of people diagnosed with these diseases but I think it adds a valuable ingredient to the genetic and environmental factors we know about. You see, I always wondered why my sister had mono when I was 8 and I didn’t catch it then, even though I would steal her lipsticks and drink from the same cups. I caught it when I was 18. And why when exposed to the same flu virus some people are bed-ridden and other just have mild symptoms? The virus is the same, right? So there’s got to be something in our immune systems, which in turn are highly influenced by our emotions, that determines whether we’re going to get sick or not.

There is a famous story about Louis Pasteur that illustrates this view. Claude Bernard, his contemporary, thought that germs would only cause harm to the body if it presented the right conditions for them to thrive. He emphasized that it was more important to keep the organism “clean” and in balance than to attack the germs. Pasteur didn’t agree. He thought germs and microbes were the only reason people got sick. However, later in his life he came to change his mind. He’s quoted as saying on his deathbed, “Bernard avait raison. Le germe n’est rien, c’est le terrain qui est tout.” (“Bernard was right. The microbe is nothing, the soil is everything.”)

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

downloadIt’s true, zebras don’t get ulcers. For one thing, they don’t worry about things that are probably not even going to happen. Ever. Humans are the only ones who have that ability, and very often when we worry our body turns on a stress response, flooding it with a number of stress hormones that will promote a series of changes in our organs and our natural balance – heart rate goes up, immune system is suppressed, blood is diverted to muscles or wherever is most needed… Basically we have evolved to turn on a fight-or-flight response like zebras and other animals, however, unlike zebras and other animals, we don’t turn it off as easily – and that’s because most of the time we don’t react to threats, but to perceived  threats.

This is one of the basis to chronic stress. And we know that chronic stress can damage our body in many ways. It doesn’t necessarily means chronic stress is the cause to several diseases. It means that chronic stress, by permanently altering the body’s homeostasis, creates an environment in which it becomes impossible for the body to fight other factors, such as genetic predispositions or environmental risks. This is true for autoimmune diseases but also for heart conditions, ulcers, depression and many more.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is the bible of stress. It’s not a book about a specific disease, it it rather a book about how stress can pave the way to many diseases. Each chapter focuses on a different system: cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, digestive, immune, reproductive… It also includes chapters on sleep, pain, memory, depression and anxiety, and addictions. And it doesn’t leave you with that. It includes insights on stress management, coping styles and how personality and temperament come into play.

The book is rather long and at certain points can become a little technical, but it is also filled with humor, relevant research and even the author’s personal experiences. If you needed further proof that you need to work on all that stress that invades your life uninvited, then this is the book to turn to.

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Somatization, or Why My Body Never Shuts Up

Your-Body-Is-TalkingThe reasons for psychosomatic disorders can be varied, but they are usually linked to an ongoing stressful life situation which, for one reason or another, sufferers cannot (or feel they should not) air. This can be an untenable situation at work where they are required to do jobs which they have not been trained to do, an unpleasant work atmosphere, frequent arguments at work or at home, feeling burdened by great responsibilities without getting recognition, or aggravation over an ongoing situation such as a long-term project at work or problems with difficult children or difficult parents.

It is really surprising how resilient the body is to stress. Emotional upset often needs to go on for a long time before the body’s defences break down or, to put it more precisely, before we notice the body is suffering from the emotional onslaught. The body has an incredibly efficient way of recuperating, so when we find we cannot recover from an illness this indicates we must have run down our resources. This is a warning signal that must be taken seriously or we risk even graver physical problems.

Principles of Hypnotherapy, Vera Peiffer, Singing Dragon, 2013

When The Body Says No








Doctor Gabor Maté worked as medical coordinator of the Palliative Care Unit at Vancouver Hospital for seven years. It was during that time that he started investigating the connection between emotion, stress, coping styles and disease because he realized that most of his patients only allowed themselves to feel or express anger at those final stages in their lives.

In this book he explores the mechanisms of different kinds of diseases – from multiple sclerosis (first chapter), to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, among others – draws from research, and links these data with the stories and backgrounds of his patients – as well as well-known personalities who suffered from these diseases, such as Jacqueline Du Pré, Stephen Hawking, Béla Bartók or Ronald Reagan – making connections and highlighting behavior patterns.

Apart from being so scientifically informative and accessible, what struck me in this book was some of the heartbreaking stories. A patient tells about her happy childhood and how great her relationship with her parents was, and then, when she starts to describe it, there’s nothing but dysfunction. The truth is, when you’ve been under emotional stress for long during your childhood, you can lose your ability to perceive certain situations as stressful. But you body perceives them. And they damage your body. Another patient is so emotionally dependent that she needs to ask her mother for permission to die, even though she’s a grown-up woman…

41ns33Z8vhLI couldn’t read this book as fast as I wanted to because some parts moved me so much that I had to take breaks. I also started reflecting a lot on my own background, my inability to express anger, and all the emotions I keep locked inside. This has definitely been one of the most useful books I’ve read about the link between emotions, stress and disease and I recommend it to anyone who also wants to dive into this subject.

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