I apologize if this post reads like your grandmother’s obituary, but I want to drive home a very important point: STRESS KILLS YOU.
I’ve always known that chronic and severe stress can damage your body and mind, blocking the fluid communication to and from most organs–especially in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and in the limbic system, the brain’s emotional center. But the last two weeks have been a real wake-up call for me to see how stress is quite literally attacking my body.
Let’s start with my heart.
Two years ago cardiologists discovered a tear in my aortic valve with some regurgitation. Because of the leak my heart is getting bigger and working harder. Double that under stress. The doctors didn’t seem to think it was that big of a deal two years ago, so I blew it off. But for the last few months, I have been experiencing major chills and an intolerance to the cold. (I wear a few sweaters in the house to keep me warm and I’ve quit swimming because the water temperature is too cool.) My lips sometimes turn blue and my fingers are numb and discolored. I often feel my heart palpitating. Plus I’ve been extremely dizzy and lightheaded with some vision problems, especially when I shift positions suddenly. The cardiologist suspected this was due to my very low blood pressure — possibly postural hypotension — but it’s probably aggravated by my malfunctioning valve.
And then there’s my brain.
Bipolar disorder, of course, is no friend to stress, as many of my symptoms can be triggered by stress and fatigue, like the recent “I wish I were dead” thoughts. But stress may be almost entirely responsible, as well, for my pituitary tumor. You see, stress can significantly raise your prolactin level, a hormone produced by the pituitary, and raised prolactin levels can contribute to the development of pituitary tumors.
Three years ago, I was diagnosed with the pituitary tumor after blood work showed raised prolactin levels. But, like the tear in my aortic valve, I ran past this red flag as well because my doctor didn’t seem to think it was a big deal. The MRI results of last week showed that the tumor was growing, by about 30 percent since my first MRI. She increased my dose of bromocriptine, a drug that acts like the nice hormone, dopamine (responsible for the highs you experience with drug use and infatuation … which is why I like it) which inhibits secretion of the evil hormone, prolactin.
Ironically, none of my doctors mentioned the word stress, or urged me to look at the bigger health picture … what is down the road for me if I don’t take some major steps to ease up and turn around the momentum of wear and tear on my body. That was made clear to me only when I did my homework on these two (three, if you count the blood pressure) semi-serious conditions. If my tumor gets much bigger, I’ll need to have it surgically removed. And if my heart continues to work harder than it’s supposed to and I keep on experiencing symptoms (chills and heart palpitations), they will need to replace my valve in open-heart surgery.
Thank God I’m not an investment banker. I have a flexible job and can take some serious measures at slowing down. I already have. I work out hard five times a week, making sure my heart stays in a cardiovascular zone (over 140 beats a minute) for an hour each time. I eat a healthy diet, rich in brain food, and take 6 Omega-3 supplements daily, the kind with the right EPA to DHA ratio to elevate and stabilize mood. I’m in bed by 9:30 every night. I shut down the computer at 6 every night and on Sundays. And I meditate for 20 minutes every morning.
But that’s not enough. This somewhat-fragile and highly-sensitive body needs more. As a member of the somewhat manic and overworked blogosphere — where the MO is to grow your traffic at all costs — I’m frequently caught in rush hour, driving toward the city, because the other bloggers are headed there, so that must be the right place to be. But with my body feeling like Humpy Dumpty one second before his biggest fall, I’m trying more often than not–at least every time I feel my heart palpitate — to turn my clunker of a car around and drive against the traffic. I’m taking back control of my tattered body because I don’t like the idea of some surgeon tinkering with my brain or my heart. In fact, next to my desk hangs a sign with a picture of a brain, a heart, and a computer, with the caption: “Which one of these is most important?… Remember, stress kills.”