I was recently asked to do some freelance writing on the topic of living well with multiple sclerosis. You see, I was a copywriter and patient educator in my pre-Lyme life. I’ve been longing for an opportunity to re-engage in the creation of wellness resources and was happy when the opportunity presented itself (even though I have come to believe a bit differently about my MS diagnosis since I tested positive for Lyme). The truth is, whether I’m writing about Lyme or MS, the practical advice is the same. As I started thinking about my list of actionable tips, I realized how many of them have to do with emotional aspects of self-care.
Huh, that’s sure different than the writing I did 10, 8, even 5 years ago.
This has been one of the most surprising lessons that’s come out of my Lyme journey. You see, pre-Lyme diagnosis, I was still doing pretty well “powering through”. During periods of multiple sclerosis remission, I did it all. The typical type-A self-sacrificing perfectionist, I did crossfit 5x a week, I kept an immaculate home, I always dressed to the height of my sense of fashion, I worked 10 hour days at a high powered corporate job, I always said yes to friends and family, I placated frenemies, I panicked at the slightest sense of disharmony in my primary relationship, I rarely expressed dissent and even though I frequently felt overburdened, I never slowed down. I mean, I went to 5 separate Christmas celebrations in one day last year to make each of my disjointed family members happy.
I did all of that with a deep sense of duty and rightness. Until life forced me not to. In the fall of 2014, my illness struck with a vengeance even I couldn’t ignore. Homebound, dizzy, manic, and panic-stricken, life got really small really fast. Just managing the daily tasks of survival was tough for me, so pleasing anyone else was out of the question. At first, I viewed my cutbacks as a temporary necessity. I worked on my recovery with the aim to get back to all the busyness of my previous life.
Even though the proof was right in front of me, I remained resistant to the notion of a mind / body connection. When my cognitive behavioral therapist (who was helping me cope with Lyme-induced panic attacks) brought up somatic illness, I thought for sure he was saying this disease is all in my head. I came up with defensive ideas like “Well sure, we all have ‘past trauma’ according to therapists” and resisted the cliché notion of looking for maladaptive habits learned in childhood. Therapists always blame your childhood and your parents, don’t they? And I am my own woman, after all, aren’t I?
Well, thankfully his urgings opened my mind just enough that I was able to hear the truth when I came across this interview with Dr. Gabor Maté, author of “When the Body Says No“:
In this video and in his book, Dr. Maté quotes a study that followed 1700 women for 10 years. Researchers found that women who were unhappily married and didn’t express their emotions were 4x as likely to die as those women who were in equally bad marriages but were able to express themselves. In other words, the tendency to not express negative emotion was associated with a 400% increase in death. That stopped all my protesting on the subject straight away. Maybe there was something to this somatic illness idea after all.
Dr. Maté goes on to discuss another study which showed that women with breast cancer who were unskilled at expressing anger had diminished activity of a group of immune cells called natural killer cells. Now, that… that made it personal. You see, on my first visit, my Lyme doctor ran a CD57 test which measured one category of my natural killer cells. I measured at 29; normal healthy range should be in the 300 rage. I had a mere ten percent of the ideal amount of natural killer cells.
That did it for me. The work I am doing in areas of emotional responsibility, self care, expression of negative emotions and exploration of repressed feelings is no longer reluctant. Our emotional experience is not separate from our physical experience. Stress and emotional makeup play critical roles in our immune health, influencing our hormones, our neurotransmitters, our whole bodies and brains.
This period of slowing down has taught me some important lessons. Being forced to say no so much more often has shown me exactly how uncomfortable it makes me. Now that just 2 or 3 extracurricular events leads me to feel overbooked, I can see exactly how stressed out that makes me. And now that my physical wellbeing is so very fragile, I can see the direct physical impacts stress has on my health really easily. Life painted me a reality on this subject impossible to ignore.
I don’t know if I can change the physiological makeup of my body formed in childhood, but I sure as heck can take the reigns now and stop further damage from being done. And surely learning to honor my own needs a little more will halt the effects of acute stress on my health. In a way, I’m grateful. I guess I needed the bad habits of my life to get some big, obvious consequences or I might never have addressed them.
But let’s hope I can kick the disease and maintain the good habits soon, huh?