Bad Stress/Good Stress

Generally, when fear hits us, it triggers the “flight or fight” response in our body; this is a response from our sympathetic nervous system, which means you can’t control it – at least those first few moments of fear. Chemicals pour into your body, driving blood away from your brain and into your limbs, your heart starts pounding, your blood pressure zooms, your muscles tense, digestion and Neuronimmune systems shut down and your brain lacks focus on small details (this last is one of the reasons you should always have someone go with you to the doctor when discussing your illness – in times of stress you may be unable to understand or remember what the doctor says). In less than 2 minutes those chemicals are flushed from your body and, if the threat is gone, the body goes back to normal. But because you have this diagnosis, the fear probably doesn’t go away and you can experience chronic stress. Since this affects the immune system so greatly, I wanted this kind of stress out of my life. While I did many things to reduce stress – walking, meditation, prayer, jigsaw puzzles – I found a little trick that really worked for me: paying attention to this exact moment and realizing that everything is fine. In this moment, everything is ok. In this moment, everything is working, everything has the potential to be calm, I’m still breathing, I’m still alive. Repeating that to myself, over and over till I believed it, was a huge anxiety killer.

Here’s what you actually know, at any given time, more or less:  who and what surrounds you, what you’re doing, and how you feel. The rest is speculation that ranges from highly informed to completely beyond your reach. You can also know for sure that change is a constant and plans are not guarantees. Depending on how you handle these particular truths, they can paralyze you or liberate you. If you fear uncertainlty, and give yourself over to the dread of the many possible negative outcomes, then you’ll be as stuck in them as surely as if they had occurred…If instead you accept that you’re just as subject to surprises as anyone, and that your only recourse is to choose people well, love them fully and trust yourself to handle it if things don’t turn out as you’d hoped, then the possibility of…whatever else can befall (you) may scare you when it crosses your mind, but it won’t own you.  Carolyn Hax/Tell Me About It/The Washington Post

I know what you’re probably thinking. EVERYTHING ISN’T ALRIGHT, I’M GOING TO DIE. Yes, I’ve been there, I understand. But. If I checked in with myself, usually things were ok. Maybe tomorrow won’t be so good, but RIGHT NOW, I’m fine. Feeling this truly and deeply, the body will relax and calm can return. When I took the time to check in with myself several times a day just to see if everything was OK, it expanded my peace and well being exponentially. And then there’s those days when nausea and pain are very present and nothing seems OK. And it isn’t OK, you’re sick. I had those days and then I had good days. I think if I hadn’t practiced recognizing the beauty of this moment, I would have missed the good days, because the free floating anxiety would have blinded me to them. It’s important to have those good days, to be conscious and present for those good days; your mind will appreciate it and I believe your body will too.  (This is all explained very well in a little video of Rick Hanson’s on how our brains are wired for anxiety. I wasn’t given permission to embed this, so here’s the web address. It’s only about a minute long and well worth the listen:

There is, though, a different kind of stress. In any workout, every weight you lift is putting stress on your body; this stress is what builds muscle and bone, this is what spurs growth. Weight liftingSo there is “good” stress, the kind that challenges you to become stronger, or smarter or braver. This diagnosis could be that stressor. It was for me. It made me take stock of my life and got me moving. Certainly it got my body moving but it also showed me clearly that my time was limited. If I wanted my desires, I had to get going. I didn’t have a bucket list but if I had, I probably would have focused on that. As my oncologist said right after my diagnosis, for heaven’s sake, go travel if you want. Do what you want, savor the life you have left. I did, in my own way. The challenge – the stress – of this diagnosis made me braver, made me stronger in my spiritual life, made me feel more connected to the people I love, made me look at the world with new eyes, made me appreciate what I had right now. I say “made”, but it’s always a choice. Life is so precious – and you know it more than ever right now – that wasting a moment didn’t seem like a choice to me. But however you meet this, I suspect it’s the right way for you. There are no right and wrong actions, right or wrong choices facing pancreatic cancer. We each build our own life and our own death in our own way. Great luck to you on building yours.


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