Actually Dying of Stress? It's a Thing (And Here's How You Can Avoid It)

I have a rare condition where too much stress can actually kill me, but my treatment can probably help you to not wig out too.

Feb 27, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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Everyone knows that stress is bad for you, and that minimizing it is key to a long and happy life, but for me, the stakes are a bit different. Because when I get stressed out, I become incredibly, seriously ill.

I have a very rare (featured-on-an-episode-of-"House" rare) thing called Adult-Onset Stills Disease. I was diagnosed with it almost five years ago, when I was hospitalized for a month and put on a respirator while doctors tried to figure out why my organs were all shutting down. Stills affects people in myriad heinous ways, but its main jam is that it's a form of arthritis that affects your organs as well as your joints. It's easily treatable, if you know you've got it, but it's a pain in the ass. When I'm having an episode, my body essentially shuts down on me, with fevers, difficulty breathing, horrid pain.

I get episodes from any combination of the following things: an overloaded work schedule; partying too many nights in a row; several days of not getting a break to exercise and relax; having a cold and not resting; eating junk food too much; not getting enough sleep; delayed flights and lost luggage; being worried about other people; exercising too hard for a few days in a row; waiting to hear about a job I applied for; not being able to eat regularly, etc and so on.

If this list resembles your own life, that's exactly my point: It resembles everyone's life. Things being gonzo and nonstop is kinda what life is, and it's been hard for me to adjust to the idea that living the life that a lot of my hustling, freelancing sisters lead actually hurts me.

My life, out of necessity, resembles the life that ladymags condescendingly push on us in their "Health and Body" sections, because when I get an episode, if I do not stop everything I'm doing and just lie down for at least 2 or 3 days, I have to be hospitalized. (See above mention of month-long hospitalization.) But what I've realized is that living a less-stress life is attainable for anyone.

This doesn't mean that I don't stay up too late anymore, or that I don't eat junk food, or that I don't freak out over deadlines, it just means that if I feel those things piling up on me, I stop everything and reshuffle. You may say "Sure, that's easy for you to say," and maybe my stakes are higher, but if you make it important, reshuffling your life to ease your stress is possible for anyone. So, as un-ladymag as possible, here are a few tips that have helped me make my life less stressful.

I say no to things.
This is a big one. I have the luxury of saying no to things, justifying it in my head because it's "for my health," but the secret is that you can do it too! Too tired to go to dinner with a girl you kinda know? Don't do it! The boss wants you to take on a project that would probably get you brownie points, but you don't know how you'll find the time? Don't do it! Ultimately, you're a better friend/employee/spouse only if you're healthy enough to fulfill your duties in any of those roles. Don't ever say yes to things out of guilt and you'll find yourself feeling healthier and happier immediately. 

Sleep is key above all.
Sometimes this means going to sleep early, sometimes this means shifting meetings later, but if my body needs sleep, I listen to it. And if it's particularly hard to sleep, I take sleeping pills and let God's little chemicals do the work.

I ask for help.
If I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed, I will let people know that I might need backup or might not be as able to contribute at the moment. I used to have the opinion that I could never show weakness to bosses, employees, friends, anyone -- now I realize that by letting people in and being honest about what you can and can't do, you're showing vulnerability and genius, which are very attractive qualities.

I do some sort of exercise every day.
Whether it's taking a walk for a few blocks, or dancing around my apartment to 15 minutes of songs that I've set up under the playlist "Ass Shake," or a yoga class, I make sure that I do something active every day, to keep my joints nice and loose. Bonus if you get some sun in the process.

I do time versus money calculations.
I try my best to have at least two hours per day that are "leisure time." This may mean watching RuPaul's Drag Race, or reading a book, or zoning out on the couch to whatever's on TV, or having dinner with friends, but the point is that I cannot be doing anything work or errand-related for those hours. So if I have to do laundry, go to the grocery store, and run other errands, I start making calculations: It's $10 to get groceries delivered, and I can order them while I'm at the office -- is $10 worth the 45 minutes I'd be at the store tonight, rather than relaxing? Most of the time, that answer is yes. If I can find a way to make my life more convenient for a negligible fee, I do it. I won't miss the money as much as I will miss the free time, and believe me, I'm not rich. I just see things like laundry services and Amazon Prime as things I pay for to get more of my life.

There are a million other things you can do to de-stress your life a bit, and we all know what they are (I doubt I taught you anything groundbreaking here, in fact), but what we're often missing is permission to do those things.

So if you get nothing else out of this, please have my permission to say no, to get cat food delivered to your house and to sleep 8 hours instead of waking up to have breakfast with a colleague. I do it because I have to, but the truth is, it's a requirement for all of us.