There is No Small Stuff: How Fibromyalgia Has Affected my Tolerance for Stress

Yep, for me, it’s as if there is no small stuff.
 Everything looms large over me-all the time.
As many of you probably see out here in cyber-net articles, there is a big focus on how to eliminate stress over the holiday season.  In this article featured in Psychology Today: 7 Tips to Relieve Holiday Stress, the writer provides some very concrete and helpful steps to take.  Holidays tend to bring many to-dos on top of the normal list of daily commitments, so talking about calming stress or eliminating stress makes sense.  Many of the suggestions I’ve read or heard are healthy and helpful.
However, what if the stress that one is feeling is really unrealistic?  Really out-of-proportion to the reality. That is what I seem to be experiencing.  The prior couple of years leading up to my Fibromyalgia diagnosis, my intolerance to nearly any demand (given from others or self-inflicted) had turned up to a high-intensity level. It’s as if the same amped-up nervous system is also controlling my stress-o-meter and both have been turned up to 9.

“Fibromyalgia is a disorder of pain processing. Evidence suggests that both the ascending and descending pain pathways operate abnormally, resulting in central amplification of pain signals, analogous to the “volume control setting” being turned up too high.”  Dr. Daniel J. Clauw, UofM
Most who knew me before the onset of Fibromyalgia would probably say that I’m pretty calm.  I’ve even been told by the school psychologist in a meeting that my voice was so calm and soothing, she could listen to it for hours.  I’ve also been one to be level-headed in a crisis and really someone that didn’t let too many things get me riled up.  I saw my “to-do” lists as fun (usually) and would enjoy ticking things off as the day or week went by.  I never really stressed whether I could get it done. 
I barely planned ahead. I prided myself on being able to live off the cuff.  I just did as I did and things got accomplished.  As I look back on my life before Fibro, it was as if I had a magic power of which I was totally unaware. Meals would just fall together; events that I planned always seemed to work out. 
Also, I have never been a big worrier. I wouldn’t ruminate on if this would be just so or what others would think.  I accepted that I wasn’t a perfectionist (to say the least) and that if my classroom bulletin board was a bit cock-eyed, oh well, it got the message across and had charm.  
So when this sense of feeling overwhelmed with minor plans of the day: laundry, yoga, get gas, email a friend, make dinner, fit in a substitute job, comes around, I’m at a loss as to why.  Only my closest humans who are with me all the time really see the change.  The other day, I began to whimper in frustration when talking about feeling overwhelmed by doing the few things I had planned for the day.  My husband, thank God he’s so understanding, just listened, not really seeing where my anxiety was coming from.  To be honest, neither did I.
While I 100% believe this, right now my nervous system
 is reacting before I consciously make the choice.

I do know that it’s the struggle against the things in life that cause stress.  Like tug-of-war, if I chose to drop the rope end, the tension is gone.  The problem that I’m having, is that just getting a shower can cause me to feel stressed. My chest gets an aching feeling, my jaw tenses, even my heart rate elevates.  It seems unbelievable that in my retirement, I’m feeling like I don’t have enough time in the day!  Seriously!  When I worked 10 hours a day, I felt more capable of handling my life.
So, what are my demands that are causing me to feel overwhelmed?  I’m realizing most are self-imposed. 
My Wants:
In this time of transition, I feel like a kid in a candy store.  There are so many things I want to learn, try, accomplish, participate in.  Finding time to write. Get outside for hikes, bikes, snowshoeing, etc. Learn to play Ukelele. Help in my community.  Earn some $. Learn to cook tasty, healthy meals.  Make my own yard art.  Connect with friends.
My Needs: We all have these things that we just need to do. Shower, get dressed, drink water.  While those a very small, there are a gazillion of them that I had never really noticed.  Often I mentally give myself a pep talk.  “You can get out of bed.  All you need to do is pee and brush your teeth.”  Then, getting that done, my body wants to lie down, but say, “You can get that towel and step into the shower but after you can just put on a robe, you don’t have to dress.”  However, I get out of the shower, go to get the robe out of the closet and realize that actually putting on close wouldn’t be too far of a stretch and so I do.  Walking by the bed, I encourage myself “Go ahead, pull up the blankets and make the bed.” This was my actual inner monologue this morning.  
My Wellness Routine: Fitting in the wellness pieces of my life is taking quite a few hours a day.  Yoga, if I go to the studio, is a two-hour commitment at the minimum. Then, fit in daily meditation, gratitude journal, going through the Pathways ap that has sessions for me to work through in an attempt to quell the pain by rewiring my brain. Also, I have found a wonderful chiropractor and a magical masseuse who really help my body move more freely and with less pain.  Going there is a three-hour commitment which was every week for the past two months but now every other week.  I’ve also just started CBT counseling, which will be an hour every other week.
My Obligations: I emphasize, these obligations are what I place on myself on behalf of the others in my life.  I’m finding that I have lived in the caregiver role even as a child with my single-parent mom who struggled to get off the couch many days, as a parent myself, as a teacher… It’s hard to turn that off.   I’ve prided myself in reading and often meeting others’ needs before even they knew they had them. This is a good thing, really.  However, I’ve taken it to the level I have no business being.  For example, when I was at a local elementary school to substitute teach in PE, I saw a woman lugging boxes to the balcony part of the gym.  I didn’t have students for another 30 minutes so I asked if I could help her.  (This, I feel is a good part of my natural tendency.) After finding out that she was a classroom teacher on her planning time, getting set up for the Secret Santa Shop because there weren’t any volunteers from the school’s PTC, a nagging voice from within calls me to volunteer at that school to help out. This feeling is a pressure that wells up inside.  It’s not coming from a place of want but a place of should. It’s things like this that come up for me all the time.  I see a need and feel I’m the one who has to fill it. 

And so there are times, like the other morning, when I know I can’t go forth.  The stress is too overwhelming.  Instead, I laid down and did a tapping (EFT) meditation on feeling overwhelmed.  I acknowledge that my brain and body are saying they are on overload. (Even, when from the outside, it looks like this shouldn’t be the case.)  I accept that is the way it is at this moment. 
Lying down, knees bolstered and eyes covered with a pillow, I belly breathe to the count of four and out to the count of six, working to calm my system from the fight/flight to the rest/digest. I give myself grace, sometimes even talking to my brain letting it know that I appreciate how it’s worked so hard all these years to protect me, letting it know that I’m safe and secure.  
And then I get up, feeling like I can move forward again. The ache in my chest and the tension in my neck both gone.  Like neuroplasticity as it relates to the hyper-vigilance of pain my Fibromyalgia brings, I feel like I’m now needing to treat my amped-up anxiety similarly.  If you’d like to know more about what I’m doing to create new brain pathways to calm both my pain and anxiety, please read this previous blog: Just Breath and Other Ways to Ways to Rewire the Pain-filled Brain.

Have you also noticed an amped-up intolerance to stress?  What form does it take for you?  What do you do to calm it? 
Thank you for visiting my blog today.  Click the subscribe button above if you’d like my post to be delivered to your email every Friday.
I am committing to posting once a week on Fridays.  However, as you know, my new normal means that some times I have to listen to my body and am not able to follow through as planned. Thank you for your understanding.

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