This is a guest post from Jessica Smartt of Smartter Each Day.
When I was a little girl, I would crouch by the window at night, waiting for my dad to come home. If he was late, my stomach would be in knots until I saw the lights of his car circle the driveway.
As a child, that was about all I knew of worry. I had a traumatic time in college, but other than that, life breezed by, more or less.
Fast-forward to motherhood.
There are a million ways to say it… I can tell you my hormones went wacko. I can say the lack of sleep got to me. I can say the worries and stresses of motherhood overwhelmed me.
But somewhere along the line, a switch turned inside me. My worry went from casual or periodic to a clinical anxiety disorder.
Looking back on this time in my life (now that the worst is gratefully behind me) I’ve learned so much about anxiety. I’ve learned techniques to overcome worry. I’ve learned to be sympathetic to those who struggle, and thankful for the everyday work I’m blessed with the energy to do.
But more than any of these, I am shocked by what I learned about the impact that my feelings had on my health.
At the time I didn’t see it, but now it’s embarrassingly obvious.
During the months I was struggling with anxiety, I saw my doctor more than I ever have my entire life. I had full blood work done (twice), underwent a chest x-ray, two specialists, and three rounds of antibiotics (which I really cringe at now), tried umpteen crazy diets, and wasted countless hours researching online trying to figure out “what was wrong with me.”
I had never, ever felt so awful, and it wasn’t just my imagination.
I had constant headaches. I would get dizzy and nauseous. I caught cold after cold after cold, suffered three sinus infections and two ear infections (neither of which I’d had in decades), had diarrhea, a gallbladder attack, random stomach pains, and lost about ten pounds (a worrisome fact to me, as I have a fairly small frame already).
On top of that, I was just exhausted. Literally, when I lay down, I felt like my body was a load of bricks, and I could sleep forever.
I was sure I was dying of something.
After the third sinus infection, I went back to the doctor, determined to get to the bottom of whatever was making me feel and act so out of whack. I laid it all out on the table: the repeated infections, the weight loss, the stomach pains, the headaches, and how I was feeling emotionally.
When I was done, I held my breath. I just knew he was going to test me for leukemia, do blood work on my thyroid, scan my brain, or ultrasound my stomach.
Instead, he looked at me kindly. (For the rest of my life, I will love this doctor.)
You know, he said. It’s so funny how everything is connected. Health, anxiety, fatigue, digestion, headaches…it all works together.
And then the phrase that hit me the hardest (but in a good way, giving me hope): When you start feeling better, you start feeling better.
He was a prophet, of sorts…As my anxiety lifted, so did my sickness.
No more infections, no more headaches, no more crippling fatigue or uncomfortable stomach issues. I haven’t been to the doctor in a year. With my anxiety under control, I’ve had one cold. That’s it.
If this seems crazy, think about it this way…Have you ever been so nervous your stomach felt queasy? Ever been so excited you couldn’t sleep, even though you should be exhausted? Have you ever had a tension headache, tight shoulders, or a rush of adrenaline in a scary moment?
All these scenarios prove the same fascinating truth: your feelings affect your body, for better or for worse.
Now that I know this, here are a few things I do differently:
Look for underlying causes of physical maladies. This doesn’t mean I spend hours searching for an explanation of every afternoon headache. But it does mean that when I’m in a stretch of being exceptionally tired, or feeling unwell, I take a mental inventory. Have I been stressed? Anxious? Resentful or unforgiving? I find myself constantly remembering the Scripture, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22).
Fight negative feelings with positive ones. Here is what this means for me. I don’t think “positive thoughts” about my anxiety. I’ve tried this; it didn’t work. (Things like, “stop worrying. This is silly. Don’t be anxious…etc.) Instead, when I feel anxious, I do something completely different. I plan a party. I blog. I tickle my kids or plan a date with my husband. I’ve found if bad thoughts can deplete me, then happy thoughts revive me!
Take anxiety and depression seriously. In addition to causing sickness in the short-term, long-term systemic effects of stress on the body are dangerous. Stress is linked to diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other memory diseases, heart attacks, MS and other auto-immune disorders. I was terrified the first time I studied this (in this book), and I felt more motivated than ever to get these toxic thoughts out of my life! This post goes into detail about how I battled anxiety. These are a few things that helped:
- Exercise and diet. Regular exercise (even if it’s a brisk walk a few times a week) makes a huge difference for me. And I’m more anxious when I’m hungry. I need to have healthy carbohydrates to increase my serotonin.
- Behavioral Cognitive Therapy. This is a fancy way of saying: techniques to retrain the brain! Did you know that your brain can be “rewired” to think differently? This is so exciting to me! I have found this book to be an excellent resource.
- Christian Counseling. If I could, I would shout it from the rooftops how grateful I am for wise, godly counselors. What better use of time and money than to help you enjoy your life and better serve others?
Have you noticed a correlation between your physical and emotional health? What habits keep you healthy?
Jessica Smartt is a former middle-school teacher who lives in beautiful North Carolina. You can find her at www.smarttereachday.wordpress.com where she enjoys poking fun at the everyday challenges of motherhood, sharing delicious allergy-free recipes, and rejoicing that God still loves her no matter what phobia she has recently developed. She is blessed beyond belief with two Smartt little boys and a husband who can fix anything.