Stress Series: When your blood work comes back normal
Let’s see if this sounds familiar.
You feel tired 24/7. Relate already? Just kidding, I’ll keep going.
You are so exhausted during the day, that by night you fall asleep immediately but never wake up refreshed. If you somehow muster up enough energy to exercise, it makes you feel so much worse but you do it anyways because that’s what you are supposed to do. The lack of energy is starting to impact tackling your to-do list and your ability to show up for friends and family. You really just don’t feel like yourself anymore, driving you to see your Family Doctor who runs a bunch of lab work. You are super excited to finally get some answers but the lab work comes back clear, landing you with no diagnosis. Based on this, your doctor tells you that you are fine, frustrating you because you really don’t feel that way, now what?
The medical community tends to classify extremes of disease, leaving out what happens in the middle. I’ve heard (and experienced), this scenario many times and in my opinion, it can be best described as burnout. Burnout isn’t a well liked word in the medically community, which is probably because it is not classified as a true medical diagnosis. However, I use this terminology anyways because most people know or can at least imagine what burnout feels like. The term burnout isn’t referring to the state of our adrenal glands as is what is commonly thought (the organ responsible for releasing the stress hormone), but rather our body’s decreased resilience to respond to stress. The stressors we experience over time, constantly deplete resources and eventually slow down every system in our body aka It burns out.
I think this assessment is commonly overlooked because stress is thought to be a) normal b) solely a mental/emotional phenomenon. Today’s society glamourizes the hustle, leaving faster and quicker analogous with being better. So having multiple projects on the go, along side dealing with a break up or your 3 kids under 5 becomes normal. I think high achieving personalities are particularly guilty of over normalizing stress because of expectations around what they “should be able to” accomplish in a day. As well, many individuals don’t recognize the impact emotions can have on the body through the mind/body connection. I know this phrase might also seem fluffy to some, but there are real physiological implications that occur when one experiences any kind of stress, known as the stress response. On the other hand, types of stressors expand beyond mental/emotional. Stressors that are physical tend to be categorized differently but are just as important to consider with stress. Physical stressors can include long days, over exercising, eating foods you are sensitive to, bacterial/viral infection, pregnancy, and other accident/hospitalizations.
On the road to burnout, there is usually a period of time where you can sustain some stress. However, your body will give you subtle warning signs as stress becomes too much. An imbalance in the system might start off as irregular periods, digestive complaints (very common) such as heart burn, diarrhea, bloating, frequently waking up at 2 am, etc. The organ systems that tend to slow down first are the ones that function when the body is in parasympathetic mode also known as the system responsible for rest & digest. Typically, if the first warning signs are ignored, one last stressor triggers symptoms going from manageable to not.
The assessment of burnout patients is easy, but the journey to recovery is not. Firstly, we have to identify all of the stressors that are constantly draining your system. Once those are removed or modified, we can start loading your system back up. Fuelling your system to provide regular energy includes regulating cortisol (stress hormone) with adaptogens, eating foods specifically right for you, creating restorative sleep, and building new coping mechanisms. Most importantly, spending more time in a parasympathetic state is essential for healing. The time it takes to fully heal will depend on how long you’ve been living with your system under stress.
Try to schedule a few hours within the next week where you intentionally go slow and spend time in parasympathetic mode. Sip your tea, read a book, or write in your journal. Scheduling this activity is very important, not only to keep accountable but also to acknowledge going slow counts as being productive.