Warning Signs

This time last year, I went to the doctor with some slightly alarming symptoms. Swollen lymph glands, fatigue, hot sweats, and unexplained weight loss. Lots of unexplained weight loss. Naturally, I’d already had a consult with Dr Google, and the prognosis wasn’t looking good. I had cancer. I was going to die. The only question was how quickly.

A consultation with Dr Google

The real doctor thankfully wasn’t quite so alarmist. But he did agree there was enough reason for concern. So he ran some tests and I waited. Two weeks later, except for a mild infection (explaining my lymph glands) I had a clean bill of health.

‘So what’s wrong with me doc?’

‘Stress’

My heart sank.

Not because I wanted cancer (my sanity had not yet completely flown the nest) but because I knew exactly what it meant to be diagnosed with stress.

For starters: very little in the way of treatment. On at least one occasion, I recall my doctor advising that I ‘try to relax’. If I’d been in a more argumentative mood, I’d have challenged him on the evidence base. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t find that being told to relax actually helps me to, well, relax. ‘Perhaps try some breathing exercises, or relaxation techniques?’. Oh, good idea doc, I hadn’t thought of that. Treatment administered. Patient cured. Next!

Once you’re in the outside world, a diagnosis of stress also brings other problems. Tell someone you have a serious physical illness, like cancer, and you can usually expect some degree of concern and empathy. Tell someone you’re struggling with stress, and you’re lucky if they don’t just say, ‘join the club’.

There’s a shred of logic to it; cancer is painful, life threatening, and the treatment can be horrendous. In contrast, most people view stress as little more than a minor irritation; an inevitable consequence of modern life.

Except stress can be very destructive, especially when you are exposed to it for a medium to long time. I only have to look at my own experience to realise that.

Five years ago, I had a series of increasingly embarrassing investigations, to find out the causes of my ‘fun bum and tum’. Well, that’s what I call it. It’s not actually fun. A better description would be my ‘very unpleasant and inconvenient disorder of the digestive system‘. But that isn’t quite so pithy. Also, I find a little bit of sarcasm and self mockery can be empowering. Anyway, the symptoms (which are now a permanent part of my life) are constant (sometimes severe) abdominal pain, constant (sometimes severe) nausea and unpredictable (sometimes extremely inconvenient), erm, ‘toiletry habits’ (that’s British for ‘I shit funny’, by the way). When I first developed the symptoms, Dr Google suggested I had either had bowel cancer or inflammatory bowel disease. But all the tests came back clear.

‘So what’s wrong with me doc?’

‘Stress’

Four years later, and I was in A&E having an ECG. I’d been experiencing irregular, and painful, heart beats, dizziness, lightheadedness, cold sweats, and a’ ghostly complexion’; or so people would remark. Yet my heart was fine.

‘So what’s wrong with me doc?’

‘Stress’

A mild irritation, a part of modern life. Yet, in just one person, it was causing palpitations, dizziness, lightheadedness, shaking, limb tingling, cold sweats, hot sweats, abdominal pain, headaches, dry mouth, nausea, weight loss, and fatigue. No wonder stress is shown to shorten your lifespan, and precede depression.

Stress can do surprising things

It’s easy to say that my eventual slide in severe depression was inevitable, given what I was living with physically. But the problem wasn’t as much the state of my body, as the fact that I wasn’t listening to it. For months, perhaps even years, I was ignoring an environment and a set of circumstances that were causing significant stress. With each additional symptom, my body was begging me to change. Warning that if things didn’t change, a crisis would come.

In fact, stress doesn’t just precede depression, it actively prepares our brain for it. Perhaps, in this context, depression can almost be seen as a defence mechanism; the body’s way of slamming on the brakes when it can’t keep going?

Regardless, all that matters is this: don’t ignore stress. Don’t ignore your body. And don’t trivialise. If someone tells you they are stressed: empathise with them, listen to them. They may not know it, but somewhere inside, their body is warning, ‘if things don’t change, a crisis will come’.

 

UPDATE (15-May-2014): I have had to disable comments for this post due to a relentless bombardment of spam 😦

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7 thoughts on “Warning Signs”

  1. I totally relate to this. All of my major bouts of depression have been triggered by stress. I’ve found that once I get past the stress and/or depression, I can look back and see the warning signs so tell myself, “next time I have these symptoms, I’ll know to take action before I slip too far down the slope”. However, each of those bouts have had very different physical symptoms which means I’ve missed the warning signs and before I knew it, I was back on anti-depressants and in counselling trying to figure out what went wrong. I need to remember, for the future, that any extreme ‘illness’ I’m experiencing for a prolonged period might well be stress in my case, and I need to take preventative action.

    1. Yes! I relate to that too! I remember after one very serious bout of depression trying to reassure everyone that – now that I knew the warning signs – I would be able to avoid it next time. Of course I was spectacularly wrong. I guess it’s about being alert to any change in your body. I have very little faith in my own ability to do that, but at least I am one step closer to knowing my enemy! I hope you are able to spot the signs and take preventive action if you start feeling stressed again.

  2. This is such a well written piece Black Dog Runner. I understand that an article like this doesn’t just happen by chance, as it requires for the writer to go through hell and back and then be in a condition to accept and share his reality. I’ve had my share of depression bouts,illness and all being a result of stress. I completely agree with you on the illusion of belief that “I can handle myself next time, now that I know the signs and the extent to which I can be sucked in.” I guess it’s a person’s nature that defines his ability to deal with depression. I for example, am extremely emotional. I feel and think too deeply, which I believe is my biggest flaw. As time passed, I convinced myself that this is something I must consciously try and change about myself because it is the only way I can protect myself from depression. But I realised two things. One, that it is absolutely impossible to lie to yourself for too long and live in denial. And two, that ones nature cannot be altered.

    Having discovered these the hard way sometimes I wonder if there is a solution to this recurring problem. But then I stopped looking at it as a problem and accepted it as a personality trait. It’s quite amazing what can be achieved once you accept your flaws and don’t feel the need to conceal them just because the society doesn’t accept it as “normal.” So my later encounters with depression have not been as traumatising and painful as the initial few, even though I failed to avoid the completely knowing very well I was being sucked into the danger zone. But, I’m less harsh and critical on myself and my life choices now. It helps me because as long as I’m comfortable and at peace with my state of mind, however chaotic it might be, it gives me hope that if I have succumbed to the emotional failure, very well aware (in theory) that it is forbidden territory, a day will come when I will have the courage and strength to pull myself out of it.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience! Although it’s always sad to hear about someone else going through hard times, it’s also reassuring to know I’m not alone. I agree with you on a lot of the things you say, in particular that acceptance crucial. I have also come to accept that I will always be an emotionally unstable person who over-thinks, but I also hope that the more learn about that, the better I’ll be at managing it. I completely agree about lying to yourself. Many of the times when I’ve been at my worst are when I’ve lied to myself. It’s reassuring to know that you have found strength through acceptance, even if you’ve not conquered the beast completely, taming it is a *big* step!

  3. I absolutely agree with you… Our body is a well tuned instrument and it has its ways to say the mind to stop. Unfortunatelly, we don’t listen. :/ Well, not until it’s to late. And then we ask, why? When in retrospective it was only a question: When?

    1. I like that idea, that it’s literally an instrument. To be monitored carefully… I guess this is one of the areas that mindfulness is really supposed to help with. I say ‘supposed’ because I find it really hard to practice. But then, I keep telling myself, practice makes perfect 😉

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