I found out last week that, because of some bureaucratic miscommunications, I haven’t had health insurance for two months, and I immediately broke out into stress hives.
Which, of course, I can’t see a doctor about because … I have no health insurance.
I think this is the first time I’ve had stress hives, but I knew that’s what they were, because as soon as I felt the cortisol flow through my body, these pink, itchy welts popped up on my arm and my knees, for some reason. I don’t have any allergies and I hadn’t put on any lotion that might have upset my skin. Fortunately, I work at a medical facility, which is the best place to be if you suddenly develop any weird symptoms. They started to feel better once I took a Zyrtec.
This seems to be a pattern in my life: I think everything is fine and I’m not stressed, and then my body immediately informs me otherwise. You may have pulled muscles in your neck and back because you’re tense – I certainly have. But my body has really been taking things to the next level. Like my case of shingles last September. While stress doesn’t directly cause shingles (dormant chickenpox virus causes shingles), stress can weaken your immune system and make it more vulnerable to an outbreak.
At that time, I had been unemployed because of the pandemic for several months, and was going through several personal, relationship-type issues. I thought I was fine and then blammo! Flat on my back for three weeks. And to add insult to injury (well, to add injury to injury), I’ve developed a complication called post-herpetic neuralgia. It’s nerve pain in the place where you had the shingles rash (for me, around my ribs), which pops up when you over-exert yourself or, you guessed it, it you are experiencing stress. That’s right. My ribs start hurting when I’m stressed. I’m worried about developing a Pavlovian response – if my ribs hurt, will I automatically start feeling anxious as well?
I’ve got coping mechanisms, of course, but most of them can’t be done at work. I can do only so much deep breathing before I pass out. I like to take long walks with my dog, but I’m out of the house for 10 hours every day and by the time I’ve been getting home, it’s dark. Scented candles are good, but I can’t light them at my desk and while I’m not sure if it’s illegal to have a candle burning in your car, I’m definitely sure that it’s a bad idea. Sometimes when I’m driving home from work, I turn up the music really loud and scream. Sometimes I scream along to the lyrics, but mostly I just sort of … let it all out. So if you’ve ever seen a girl in a Honda Accord looking like she’s having a breakdown in the passing lane of I-295, don’t worry! I am preventing a breakdown.
I told my mom about the car scream thing and she got worried and suggested yoga instead. Everyone suggests yoga. But if I do yoga in the house, the dog will just spend the whole session crawling over me and licking my feet. And part of my problem is that I honestly don’t realized I’m feeling stressed out until my body informs me! I guess my brain is better at compartmentalizing than I realized. That can be a useful survival tool, but it’s no way to live.
And we are clearly living in some stressful times. Pandemic. Economic crisis. The thousands of tiny daily stressors that make up modern life. We often talk about “mental health” as if it is a separate entity from “health,” but it isn’t. Psychological issues can cause actual, visible, undeniable physical symptoms. (I won’t print a picture of my welts but trust me, you could see them from space.) If you ignore your brain’s well-being for too long, it’s liable to take it out on your body. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Reducing your stress levels is as important as reducing your cholesterol.
Also, since we are talking about health: If you are physically able, please consider donating blood at the Red Cross. There is such a shortage right now that Maine Medical Center has had to postpone surgeries. Talk about stressful!