Stress commonly triggers or exacerbates symptoms of chronic illness. This is especially true of conditions including chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and depression/anxiety, in which changes in levels of stress hormones (e.g. cortisol, DHEA) and neurotransmitters (e.g. serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline) reduce the sufferer's natural ability to cope with external stressors.
Having suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and associated conditions and symptoms for 18 years now I have found various ways to reduce the impact that stress has on my life. Today I thought I would share with you those that I have found most helpful:
The importance of a good night's sleep cannot be underestimated when you are chronically ill. This is the time when the body is in an anabolic state, detoxifying and cleansing itself of toxins and repairing wear and tear sustained during the day. I'm sure you will recognise that you feel worse after a poor night's sleep. I certainly feel more fatigued, have more aches and pains, and feel more stressed and irritable. It's vital therefore to do anything to get the best night's sleep possible. Some things I have found useful include:
- Avoiding stimulants
- Eating light evening meals low in animal protein
- Using the bedroom only for sleeping
- Having a regular bedtime (before midnight to maximise sleep's restorative - properties)
- Making sure the bedroom is a comfortable temperature and free from allergens/chemicals
- Using relaxation techniques (see below)
- Melatonin supplements
- Using low doses of medications such as benzodiazepines when needed
2. Relaxation Techniques
These are often simple but very effective. I have found breathing techniques to be particularly useful. When you are stressed you tend to take rapid and shallow breaths. Simply focusing on breathing deeply and slowly can rapidly bring about relaxation and a release of tension from the body. Do this whenever you feel yourself starting to tense up and worry. When done at night while laying in bed it will likely help you get off to sleep as well.
I was initially sceptical about meditation but once I found the form that suited me I have never looked back. I first tried 'mindfullness' meditation in which one focuses the mind on one thing, usually the breathing. Unfortunately I have never been one for silence....it doesn't relax me at all! Eventually I stumbled across a form of meditation that involves chanting a phrase, known as a 'mantra', over and over rhythmically. I now do this for 30 minutes in the morning ,which focuses my mind and gives me the motivation to cope with the day ahead, and for 30 minutes in the evening which relaxes me and helps me wind down. Meditation of all types is known to reduce the heart rate and blood pressure, induce deep breathing, and have positive effects on the brain, increasing feel good neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, as well as producing more coherent brainwave patterns. I'd recommend everyone give it a go as the benefits really need to be felt to be understood. Try out various methods to find the one that suits you...everybody is different.
You could also consider what are known as 'Brain Retraining Programs' which incorporate elements of meditation, along with many other mind-body techniques. These are now being validated by scientific research as effective for everything from stress, to ME / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia (FMS), and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). We won't go into the details here as we have a dedicated page for you to read more: Brain Retraining: Amygdala and Limbic System Desensitization
4. Relaxation and Brain Synchronization CDs
Along with relaxation techniques and meditation I have also found CDs that mimic their effects to be very useful. I listen to a CD called 'Focus' (available from Mercola.com for $19.95) everyday while I am working or studying to reduce stress, focus my mind, and improve my concentration. Simply listen to the CDs through headphones to get the intended effect.
5. A Change of Scenery
Many chronically ill people, understandably, spend the majority of their time at home in the same environment. I personally live, work and study at home at the moment and find it a source of great stress. Going out for a while, even if just for a short walk or trip to the shops, quickly relieves my stress so that when I get back home I can get on with things again feeling more relaxed and focused. Depending on your level of disability/mobility this may not be possible but if it is, it is worth it, even if you need to work up the motivation initially.
If you are able, exercise can be a great stress-reliever. Walking and swimming are great forms of gentle exercise that give you a change of scenery, provide a sense of achievement, and boost self-esteem. More rigorous exercise stimulates the release of endorphins which give a sense of well-being. Be careful not to overdo it though. Stay within your limits!
7. Epsom Salt Baths
A nice hot bath can relax tired and aching muscles and generally provides a relaxing environment, acting as an escape from the troubles of being ill. The addition of epsom salts makes a bath even more relaxing as magnesium is absorbed quickly through the skin. Magnesium is the body's natural muscle relaxant and also calms the mind through regulation of brain activity.
8. Adrenal Hormone Supplementation
Adrenal fatigue may contribute to feelings of stress and inability to cope in chronic illnesses, particularly chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Optimum levels of the adrenal hormones cortisol and DHEA are required to provide us with a sense of well-being and the ability to respond to stress in a healthy way. Low levels of either hormone or imbalances between the two are associated with chronic stress and associated symptoms such as fatigue, hypoglycaemia, and mood disturbances. Cortisol and DHEA levels can be tested in the saliva. The adrenal stress index test requires patients to provide saliva samples at specific times during course of a day. If abnormalities are found work with a healthcare professional to correct them. You may be amazed at the difference this makes.
9. Other Nutritional Supplements
Many nutrients and herbs are effective in reducing stress. Some that I have found useful or have been shown to be helpful in clinical studies include:
- Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide)
- Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
- Vitamin C
- Tyrosine (N-Acetyl-Tyrosine)
- L-Phenylalanine and DL-Phenylalanine
- Tribulus Terrestris
- Rhodiola Rosea
- St. John's Wort
10. Give yourself a Break
Last, but by no means least, remember to give yourself a break! I mean this both literally and figuratively. Along with sleep, time to rest and relax is essential to reduce stress. Also, try to learn not to feel bad for things such as turning down invitations. You are ill and if people have a negative reaction because you aren't always feeling up to socializing - that is their problem, not yours.
I hope at least some of these tips prove to be helpful to you. Take care of yourselves.
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About: Matthew Hogg ("Maff")
Diagnosed with M.E./chronic fatigue syndrome aged only 11 years old and subsequently associated illnesses including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Despite his own struggles he has constantly sought to educate and support others suffering from such "invisible illnesses" through his website, The Environmental Illness Resource. He fully recovered from MCS using his own approach and holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nutritional Health.