Another holiday season has come and gone, which means my wife is now on the mend. Holidays have a way of bringing out illness in her. Just over a year ago her plans for a Thanksgiving feast were waylaid by illness. This year Thanksgiving went well, but we entered into the Christmas season with a visit to the ER for back pain which healed into a sinus infection that she is just now shaking. Her visit to an “urgent care” facility (as distinct from the ER visit) confirmed the sinus infection and also raised concerns about her blood pressure. For a small woman who has never even challenged the weight scale, her blood pressure for the past year has remained quite high.
Clearly, holidays are rough for my wife. She misses our little boy all the time, but his absence is pronounced at the holidays which emphasize time with family. Which raises the question, is her getting sick just in her head? Her sickness is real (as confirmed by the doctors) but it comes from her heart, not her head. She is grieving her child more during the holidays and the stress of grief leads to physical illness. This is no longer a surprise as it is clearly established that stress leads to physical illness. In fact, as the Mayo Clinic points out, “stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior.”
Stress increases inflammation, and inflammation causes a variety of effects on the body including heart disease, joint pain, and even cancer. Stress also weakens the immune system leaving you more vulnerable to a range of illnesses. In fact, stress can lead to what doctors are calling the “broken heart syndrome” which carries symptoms similar to a heart attack but the patient has no sign of heart disease. It usually occurs when someone has gone through a emotionally charged event, such as the loss of a loved one. And as my wife can probably attest, all this impact from stress on the body can also lead to high blood pressure.
Now that we know grief, which leads to stress, can cause people to be physically ill, what can be done about it?
There are many lists out there with ideas about how to reduce stress. While we cannot take away grief, we can reduce the stress that grief creates. Most of them have some common themes but here are ones I can personally attest to helping.
- Exercise regularly or at least be physically active.
Exercising reduces my stress, no doubt about it. But think beyond the normal gym routine here. Tai Chi or yoga classes can be physically active as well and the benefits of walking are well documented.
- Pray or meditate often.
As a Christian, a prayer life comes with the territory. But any type of meditation or quiet time will help. Although I’ve always played music in the car, I’ve learned the benefits of turning it off when driving alone so at least I have some quiet time.
- Focus on the present or as your grandparent would say, “don’t borrow worry from tomorrow.”
I see people in my family and at work who are always worried about all the things that could go wrong. While it is good to anticipate problems, don’t let them ruin the present. Plus, most of what we worry about never happens.
- Take a social media break.
Our phones provide us with constant distractions and trying to live up to someone else’s “Facebook life” can add to the stress. If you must look, set aside an hour in the day to do so and ignore your Instagram, Twitter, and other social media accounts in the meantime. Better yet, give up social media for Lent.
This does not show up on most lists (Nerd Alert: I also find stamp collecting relaxing and absolutely no one lists it!). Reading is my quiet time, it takes me into another world, and always calms me down. I read for nearly an hour each night before going to sleep and it also allows me to sleep better — and sleep shows up on a lot of lists.
- Avoid people.
Okay, this never shows up on a list — most of them say to surround yourself with people. Actually they are correct! However, when the holidays call for gathering together a lot of people, recognize that it may be an overload for a grieving person and keep the gatherings small and filled with supportive people. Big family gatherings are sometimes just too much (and that is not just the introvert in me speaking).
- Be Grateful
In an earlier post I wrote about Brother David Steindl-Rast and he talks about gratefulness and happiness. He points out that people think they are grateful for things that make them happy. However, he turns it around says that being grateful leads to happiness. If we can learn to be grateful for what we have instead of bemoaning all that we don’t have, we are likely to lower our stress.
If you want some more traditional lists, you can do an easy web search or visit these at WebMD, the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and this one at HealthLine which includes interesting ideas such as chewing gum, cuddling, and taking supplements (but probably not all at the same time).
The biggest takeaway from today’s post is that when someone in grief gets sick and you think it is all in their head, you’re wrong. It is in their heart and the illness is real.