A single stressful situation (either environmental or psychological) triggers a series of physical changes within the body, known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This can create a pounding heart, quickening breath and muscles tensing up as the body prepares itself to react to the situation. It is essentially a survival mechanism which enables us to react quickly to the perceived life-threatening situation. The problem arises from chronic repetitive stress, which can have a profound effect on the body. And unfortunately, there are many everyday situations which trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response. Simple life inconveniences such as a traffic jam, paying bills or taking on a huge workload are enough to be seen by the body as threats. These minor hassles which occur numerous times throughout the day leave the body in a heightened state which, over time can contribute to anxiety, high blood pressure, depression, obesity and many other illnesses.
I want to talk about something close to my heart…
It plagued me for a long time and caused much grief in my life. We ended up labelling it migraines however it was a combination of this and something else that we couldn’t figure out.It started off as a ‘standard’ migraine (if there is such a thing!). I’d start to get that tunnel vision to one side of my peripheral vision which would then envelope my entire sight making is near impossible to see. My head would ache immensely. I’d lose the ability to talk properly and I would then eventually throw up. These migraines were debilitating.
They became more frequent and started to occur earlier and earlier in the day over the course of a fortnight. Until they ended up a daily occurrence. Each time I could feel the migraine symptoms arising, I’d begin to have a panic attack which would result in me breaking down in tears. And if you know me, I tend to hide my tears. So, for me to be breaking down at work in front of everyone – it was bad!
Over time, these migraines then morphed into a fuzzy, snowy vision that was continuous. Think of the static you’d see on an old-school television when it couldn’t find the channel. I had that in front of my vision all day, every day. It was there when I woke up and it was there when I went to bed. Day in and day out.
There was no escape.
This lasted for well over a year. I recall it being a sad day when I desperately laughed about marking the one year anniversary mark of fuzzy vision. I saw a whole variety of different health professionals to try and resolve this. Several doctors to double-check opinions and be given pain killers to manage it – they did nothing. In the end I was on such a high dose (the same as would be given after surgeries!), it would simply knock me out until the migraine subsided.
An osteopath to treat me from a mechanical stance – remove any tension from my neck and jaw. It helped relieve muscle tightness but not the vision problems. An optometrist to confirm there was nothing wrong with my eyes. I saw a neurologist and had a CT scan to confirm there was nothing they could see impinging on the brain. Lastly, I visited a neuro-ophthalmologist who specialises in the brain / eye link. He still couldn’t identify what was going on and instead placed another label on what I had.
I had a ‘diagnosis’ but still no real way of treating it as they didn’t know much about the condition. I was instead actually offered to be part of a research study on the subject. I was prescribed yet another medication. This was an anti-epileptic medication which came with a whole range of side effects. I lost a lot of weight and looked gaunt and withdrawn. But the scariest side effect was the feeling of numbness that came with it. I didn’t feel there was any purpose or joy in life. I didn’t care about anything – either good or bad. There was just no point to anything at all. I had developed depression as a side effect of this.
Luckily, I still had the loving support of people around me who encouraged me to stop the medication and within a short period of time, I was starting to feel like my old fuzzy visioned self.
You’re probably wondering how I overcame all this?
It was the strangest thing and something that none of the health professionals that I’d seen over the past year or so had talked about… Kingsley and I had a six-week holiday adventure planned to South America. Admittedly when we left I was feeling pretty glum about having to go. By the end of second week into the holiday, I started feeling better.
My vision had cleared up.
I was no longer having headaches.
I felt good!
I didn’t have a care in the world!
I was starting to love life again!
Then it dawned on me – this whole condition had been caused by stress! I was working in an extremely stressful environment where I’d frequently be working 80+ hour weeks. I’d be leaving home well before the sun was up and arriving home in the evenings after Kingsley was in bed (which of course puts a strain on any relationship)! I’d stopped attending my Pilates classes which were always my saviour in terms of physical and metal health; and I no longer had time to see my friends. Essentially, I no longer had my physical health, my mental health, relationships or work/life balance.
Remove any one of these things from someone’s life and it has an impact. Remove a whole bunch of them and its very bad news.
Looking back on this, it’s no wonder I had these migraines and visual snow. I was majorly suffering from chronic stress! Isn’t it crazy to think about the effect of chronic repetitive stress response in the body?! I know I’m not the only one out there that has been impacted to greatly by stress either!
I was recently introduced to the ‘Whole Health Cairn’ model by Lissa Rankin. A ‘cairn’ for those who haven’t heard of it before is essentially a pile of stones balanced atop of each other. You might be wondering how this relates to wellness, but it can actually teach us a fair bit about life and balance. The stones all sit precariously atop each other and at any moment, something so small could knock them out of balance and topple over. However, when they are in perfect balance, these stones can weather a storm and remain strong!Look at the ‘Whole Health Cairn’ model here. It is a holistic model which identifies the many different aspects which come together to make up your health. It’s interesting to note that physical health doesn’t sit at the bottom as the foundation stone.
The concept is deeper than that. The bottom stone is ‘your inner pilot light’. In other words – your ‘highest self’ and values. What lights you up? What’s your purpose? What do you stand for?
This stone is unapologetically authentic!
The reason this sits at the bottom of the stack goes to the idea that you must truly believe in everything that you are doing. If you’re simply going through the motions but this doesn’t align with your values – nothing else will be in alignment. Let this inner pilot light guide you!
So, what about physical health?
As I experienced with my migraines and general health around this time; it was the first thing to go. Our physical health is a good gauge when other aspects of life is out of alignment as it is the first thing to deteriorate. We often don’t notice it at first and it can sometimes be seemingly insignificant. It can begin with subtle symptoms such as a headache, back pain or nausea; however as in my case, it can snowball and manifest into a major illness very quickly. The body is essentially giving us a gentle nudge, telling us that we’re out of balance. If we ignore this reminder, the body gets sick and the whole health Cairn can topple over.
What’s the take-away from all this?
Whilst caring for your physical self is obviously important; maybe caring for our mind is truly the most important thing! This is where the outer parts of the Cairn come into play – love, gratitude, service and pleasure. We need to put more focus into these areas of our life. Essentially each of the stones within the Cairn has the potential to heal you or it could make you sick. For example, being in a healthy, loving relationship can heal you. By contrast, being in a toxic relationship can be your poison. Or, if you are someone who loves to spend their time in nature, yet you work inside and live in a small home in a concrete jungle of a city – you’re going to be extinguishing your inner pilot light and making yourself sick.
\You are out of alignment! It’s about identifying what brings you peace and knowing what stresses you out. You know yourself better than any professional in a white coat. You’re far better placed to identify these stresses and prescribe yourself the ‘medicine’ you require to bring your life back into alignment.
For me, that time away from the stresses of my job allowed me to identify my highest values and what lit me up. I knew it was family and having a good relationship with them. I knew it was spending less time in a stressful job and being around my loved ones more. I knew that I loved being out in nature moving my body and having that sense of discovery.
And I knew I wanted to help people and make a difference in the world. So after we returned from holiday, we put a plan in place to return from Melbourne to Perth to be closer to family and start one of our own; to have a better work-life balance and follow a career that I’m truly passionate about; and to make more time to experience the outdoors with friends and family.
Since this move my symptoms have subsided and I have been migraine free for several years. I have also learned to watch out for those gentle nudges my body gives when I am feeling stressed and put plans into place to mitigate them. I wouldn’t wish for anyone to have to go through that experience. So, ask yourself, what stresses you out? What does your body need to heal?
And if something doesn’t feel right within your body – listen to it.