Am I "challenging" myself or just torturing myself?
It’s a Saturday morning, and I’m sitting across from Ugne, my functional medicine practitioner, in a small room at her wellness center. The lab results for the tests we ordered are finally ready for us to review, and I can’t wait to see what they reveal.
For the last year, I have been struggling with some ambiguous health problems. In nutshell, I’m not sleeping at night, and I have no energy during the day. I had been rationalizing it away with excuses.
“Well, 2020 has been a heck of a year.”
“I am pushing 40, so my body is just changing.”
“January and February are dark months, so it’s just seasonal.”
But my fatigue and sleeplessness seemed to be about something more significant. My fun activities have started to feel like work and my actual work feels like climbing Everest. I’m able to pull myself together when I have to, but when the Zoom meeting ends or after the animals are fed or as soon as I get home from running errands—basically when no one is looking—I collapse. Even brushing my teeth before bed can seem like a feat too difficult to tackle.
After my primary care doctor wasn’t able to do anything more than write a prescription, I decided to turn to Functional Medicine. It attempts to get to the root of health challenges rather than treat the symptoms. I am optimistic today is the day I will find out what is keeping me up at night.
Ugne has my labs displayed on a screen and walks me through my sleep profile test, which measured my sleep hormone levels during a one-day period. The first two graphs, Ugne explains, show my cortisol and cortisone levels throughout the day.
Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone,” is produced by your adrenal glands. Cortisone is what cortisol gets converted into that then travels throughout your muscles and organs. When you see a tiger, your brain gets dowsed in cortisol and it says, “RUN!” Then the cortisol gets pushed into your arms and legs in the form of cortisone, allowing you to head for the hills.
Ideally, both should increase in the morning when we wake up and drop off throughout the day, but here’s what my cortisol and cortisone look like at 6:30am, 9:30am, 5pm and 10pm.
The third graph shows the normal daily range of cortisone levels with my four data points overlaid in black dots. As you can see, one dot is literally off the chart. It’s as if the scientists designing the graph said, “No functioning human would have THAT much cortisone in their system!” And they laughed and they laughed. And then I walked into the lab and said, “Hold my beer.”
After taking me through this first bit of information, Ugne looks at me and calmly says, “Let’s talk about your stress.”
I start to explain all the great ways I manage my stress, but then I glance back at the screen where my secret is exposed in bright red, yellow and green. My chest tightens, and my eyes fill with tears. “This is so validating,” I whimper. “I’m carrying a lot. I don’t think people know that about me.”
“You keep a tight lid on it,” she offers.
I nod, wiping away tears.
Ugne and I continue to review the rest of my lab results, and I was sent off an hour later with some helpful recommendations and a plan to meet again in a month.
The rest of that day, I pondered how and why my stress and anxiety was so out of control. I honestly thought I had a handle on it. I truly believed I was doing things that would lead to a better quality of life, including calmness.
It took some naval gazing, and it finally dawned on me. I was going overboard with trying to make things “better.” I have a full plate of typical adult struggles—making rent, maintaining a relationship, getting my work done, building a small business—and instead of sitting down at the table and chewing on that for a while, I go over to the spice cabinet and season my dish with whole seeds of “personal development” and minced “opportunities for growth” and freshly ground “weekly challenges.”
I habitually (some would say obsessively) push myself outside my comfort zone in the interest of self-improvement, but I take it so far it has had the unintended effect of making everything in my life a little (or sometimes a lot) harder than it needs to be.
I had some back pain from sitting more than I ever had before, so I started swapping out my office chair for a yoga ball occasionally. Then recently I upped the ante. I ditched the chair completely. Any moment I’m at my desk, I’m also working my core! (I’ve learned to refrain from bouncing up and down during Zoom meetings.)
When I did my recent Elimination Diet, it was recommended that I wait 12 hours between my last and first meal. I was also told to try to fast for 14 hours a couple times a week. I thought, if I’m going to do this, LET’S DO THIS! I’m going to fast EVERYDAY!
I love podcasts! Most people have a handful that they listen to off and on. Or maybe they let Spotify put together a list for them. Not me. I have every episode organized in a playlist queue, and I am determined to listen to them ALL. In the car, cleaning the barn, washing dishes, going for walks, cleaning the bathroom. These are all valuable podcast listening moments. God forbid my battery dies or I leave my house without my headphones. Do you really expect me to navigate Stop & Shop with just the thoughts in my head?
Exhibit D: (La pièce de resistance!)
Over the last year, I have made a concerted effort to keep Sundays as my sacred day of unscheduled time. Over the winter, I thought it would be nice to have a little something scheduled just to anchor my day. Just a simple activity that I could look forward to. What did I pick? A COLD PLUNGE IN THE OCEAN!
I imagine this isn’t all that shocking to people who know me well. Frankly, this really shouldn’t have been a surprise for me either. There have been sign posts leading up to this point. Years ago, I had a roommate that was a yoga instructor and a healer. One evening she guided me through a therapeutic exercise called Tension, Stress and Trauma Release (TRE) that induces tremors in your body that expel built up emotional and physical trauma. My tremors continued all night while I slept and throughout the next day. It was so unusual that my roommate did some research and reported back that, according to her literature, I was what they call an “iceberg of tension.”
Now that I’m armed with irrefutable evidence that my stress is truly a problem that needs to be addressed, I’ve taken a few baby steps this week to let some steam out of this 38-year-old pressure cooker.
Baby Step #1:
I skipped the cold plunge last week. It was a rainy dreary day, and I treated myself to a long hot shower. Then I put on my coziest socks, my comfiest leggings, and my super soft cashmere sweater. I made myself a big cup of tea and curled up on the couch to read my book.
Baby Step #2
Turning off the noise. I have given myself a one-week break from podcasts. I’m allowed to listen to Up First and The Daily in the morning while I drive back and forth from my barn chores. The rest of the day: silence.
Baby Step #3
No more fasting. We eat dinner whenever dinner is ready, and I eat breakfast when I get up in the morning. As it turns out, I’m still giving myself a 12-hour break between dinner and breakfast without all the stress of scheduling it.
It might seem counterintuitive, but slowing down, giving myself some space, and taking things easy has been quite the journey outside my comfort zone. The biggest difference I have noticed is the calm I feel now that I’ve muted the constant chatter of podcasts. I can hear myself think again. I was nervous at first. It was like I was letting a dog off-leash for the first time. It’s impossible to know if it will stay close by or take off after a squirrel and be lost for hours. So far, it’s been a relief to let my thoughts dash back and forth exploring the trail. And, as of yet, no squirrels.