Warning over the impact of stress and anxiety on chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia

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Medical herbalist columnist Nicola Parker writes about how stress and anxiety affects chronic illness.

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about recently is the impact of stress and anxiety on chronic illness.

Stress and anxiety have become throwaway terms that we don’t really give credence to anymore.

Living in a busy society, everyone is stressed. Our job, our family, dealing with day to day struggles of our own health can all cause stress. We shrug it off because it becomes our normal state. There’s a stoic pride in being the person that can always handle things, no matter how numerous or difficult they become.

The state of stress, is not normal though.

When we become stressed, our body goes into fight or flight mode. This reaction has evolved to help us escape from predators - to literally save our lives. Energy is drawn away from anything that doesn’t aid survival in that immediate moment. Our digestion and immunity become compromised and our ability to rest and recuperate become impaired.

The worrying thing is, stress no longer just occurs for short periods of time, it becomes our normal state of being.

I was recently contacted by a lady with fibromyalgia, a complex condition that modern medicine still doesn’t really understand.

It often goes hand in hand with chronic fatigue or ME. Symptoms include unexplained pain throughout the body, often accompanied by a state of prolonged exhaustion.

Usually, when I meet people with fibromyalgia, they are asking me to assist with pain relief, which I regularly provide.

Those who know me are fully aware that I dislike this way of treating patients. I’d much prefer to understand what is causing the pain and address the root of the problem. The problem is, nobody really knows what causes fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue.

The lady who came to visit me was interested in spending some time exploring possible causes of her condition. With fibromyalgia it’s rare that I’m able to do this because once someone is in chronic pain, pain relief becomes their priority and long-term strategies become less appealing.

A common theme among sufferers of fibromyalgia is extended periods of stress or trauma. I wonder, what part does this extended period in fight or flight mode, have to play in conditions like this?

For my patient, her illness dated back to a time when a member of her family had become very ill.

Her life began to revolve around caring for this person, worrying for this person and being available for them when needed. Her sleep became disrupted as she was constantly on alert for a number of years.

What was interesting to me is that once this part of her life had passed, her sleep pattern never fully returned.

This lady had been living the past eight years on very little sleep.

The constant stress had permanently affected her ability to rest, recover and recuperate from the stressors of modern life and her body was now in continued pain.

Sleep, digestion and immune function are all vital to our continued wellbeing, so when one of those things goes out of the window, our health slowly starts to deteriorate.

Despite her chronic exhaustion, this lady had a fire in her that demanded respect and there was no way she was letting this condition beat her.

We immediately got to work on correcting her sleep, trying various techniques.

It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy. I think it took a good three months before we finally got results but at this point I felt sure we could start affecting her fibromyalgia.

I sent her away from clinic and told her to return in another three months time, wanting her to monitor what effect regular sleep might have on her condition.

Last week I got a phone call and a report that she’d been away travelling, she’d extended her holiday and she is no longer needing to use pain medication.

What a wonderful result.

Sometimes it is hard to see solutions in simple things and easy to dismiss destructive states of health as merely stress.

This story was an excellent lesson for me in how dramatically our psychological health can impact our physical wellbeing.

I certainly learned the value of digging deeper to reach beyond the most obvious symptoms of fibromyalgia.