“Do I need to order my medications today? What about my tracheostomy supplies? What meals should I have to get enough calories today? When should I take my next dose of fentanyl? Are any bills due this week? Can I afford to pay them? How is my body feeling? Is my next Roll Models talk going to be ready in time?…” These are just a handful of the questions that race through my mind as I am lying in bed in the morning. We all do this to some degree every day. Even though these are valid questions that need to be addressed, how you go about this process can have a significant impact on your happiness and even your health. As in everyone’s life, if you allow yourself to get caught up in this whirlwind of inquiry, the stress of answering all of these questions can quickly become overwhelming. In order to prevent the stress in your life from crushing you, it is imperative that you develop strategies for managing all of the unknowns in your life.
I, like my mother before me, have always been a worrier (yet another wonderful genetic gift). I attribute this to the fact that when you grow up in a wheelchair, you have to plan and think ahead when you go out to do pretty much anything. By the age of 6 I was already used to thinking “Is there a ramp up to the sidewalk? Can I get through the doorway? Is there a working elevator?…” anytime I went somewhere. This mindset was great for getting around as a disabled person in an able bodied world, but it also caused me to over think, analyze, and stress over everything. As I grew up and matured into adulthood, the number of responsibilities and things to take care of in my life, as well as their importance, increased considerably. In the back of my mind, I also am always aware that one bad decision concerning my health can have huge consequences. The stress and anxiety from trying to juggle all of the decisions in my life slowly ate away at me until it came to a head 4 years ago.
I was in my second year of graduate school, and everything in my life was going ok. I had been having trouble sleeping for a month or so, but it was not anything that I was overly concerned about, and I was fine after I got some coffee in me in the morning. One night after eating some Thai food in front of the TV, I had some really bad heartburn. I took some pepcid and went to bed to sleep it off. When I woke up the next morning, I felt fine, and as I always did I grabbed a cup of coffee to get my motor running. Within 10 minutes of drinking that cup of coffee, I felt like I had a knife in my stomach. After a couple of hours of enduring this sharp, stabbing pain in my gut, it finally subsided. I was hungry since all I had had was the coffee, so I had some macaroni and cheese. Once again, within minutes of eating I felt like I had been shanked in the belly by my cell mate in the prison yard. I continued to have this severe pain in my stomach every time I ate or drank for the next 36 hours. Since I cannot stand to lose weight, and because I was ravenously hungry, at this point I went to the doctor.
Dr. Marcellino, who looked like Sean Aston in “The Goonies,” looked me over, asked me a bunch of questions, scheduled some blood work, and said to make an appointment in 3 days to discuss the results. In the meantime, he suggested some juices and foods that would be easy on my stomach. When I returned a few days later, Marcellino asked, “Scott, are you under a lot of stress? How busy is your average week?” I told him about my classes, my research, my job, taking care of my body, managing my nursing staff, and trying to have a social life, at which point he smiled and nodded. He said, “That’s what I thought. Scott, you are under too much stress, and it has given you an ulcer.” He said that the physical stress that my disability put on my body, the mental stress of my life, and the copious amounts of high dose, pain medication that I put in my stomach, were just too much for my system. He could give me medicine to help strengthen my stomach wall and suggest some dietary changes, but something had to give. Since my physical situation was not changing and the medication was necessary for me to function, I needed to reduce my stress.
I began taking the new medication he prescribed and implemented the changes in my diet he recommended, like no more coffee, as I thought about how to reduce my stress. One of the simplest things I came up with was reducing the number of decisions I have to make. I automated paying most of my bills, asked my day nurse to take over monitoring my medications and tracheostomy supplies, and even scheduled certain tasks on certain days, like always shaving on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, to lessen the number of things I had to think about. Another change I made was adding some new visualization techniques to my meditation regimen that would help me let go of things I can’t control and alleviate stress. Most importantly though, I actually scheduled a few hours every week to do nothing. I couldn’t make plans during this time, and I even put it in my Google calendar with a reminder. This period could give me time to relax, but it also reassured me that if something crucial came up, and I needed a few hours to get something done, I could. This did wonders for my stress levels, and not only did my stomach pain go away, but I also slept much better and was happier overall thanks to these changes.
It is a little sad that it took burning a hole in my stomach to make me realize that I was under too much stress, but I do have a tendency to be a little dense at times. My hope is that in reading my story today, that you will take the time to think about the amount of stress in your life and make changes to avoid having to go through the same hell I did. You will be amazed at how much happier and rested you feel even after making just a few simple changes in your life. I challenge you to, right this instant, make one small change to reduce your stress. Isn’t a couple of hours of your time making a few changes in your daily routine worth having a happier, more successful existence for the rest of your life?