Whether you have worked with me personally or simply follow me online, you’re likely to know that I talk a lot about #stress and #stressmanagement. My personal friends meanwhile might advise you NOT to talk to me about #stress, because once I start I won’t stop!! It is a subject that I genuinely find fascinating, and due to #myownstory I passionately believe that if you are suffering from stress, addressing it in a way that is appropriate to YOU can honestly change your life.
Back in 2011 whilst still living in Greece, I suffered a couple of nasty viruses which left me with a horribly wheezy cough. Months later, after endless lung functioning tests, scans and biopsies, I was diagnosed with “possible sarcoidosis” of the lungs. It was all a bit scary and more than a little frustrating. Transparency is not a major priority for the Greek medical profession, and it took months to find a doctor who would explain to me what was really going on. I did eventually glean – more from Google than from the doctors! – that sarcoidosis or ‘sarcoid’ is an #autoimmunecondition, (which made some sense to me as I had been Coeliac since the age of 6 months, and I knew these disorders of the immune system often go together). Shortly after my diagnosis I moved back to the UK. Yet more tests followed, and then a very scary summer which culminated in a lung cancer scare. I don’t need to give you the gory details, but suffice to say it was not a great summer. A few months later however, getting the results of a PET scan which gave me the ‘all clear’ for anything cancerous on my lungs made it the October of my dreams. The scarring on my lungs was still there, along with some breathlessness, but steroids were helping, and hey, it wasn’t cancer!
The medication reduced inflammation and my lung functioning slowly improved: by April of the following year, I was able to complete my training as a Personal Trainer & Nutritional Advisor. Amongst other things, the course encouraged me to rethink my own health and lifestyle. I had always been active, and had eaten fairly well during my dancing years, but this had just sort of ‘happened’ with no conscious decision making on my part. Now, my new studies made me far more consciously aware, and I started to make much more #mindful decisions about my own lifestyle. It also made me take a step back and wonder – now that I had allowed myself a little space from the whole experience – what had brought on my own illness back in Greece…?
LIFE IN GREECE…
When I lived in Greece my nutrition had been pretty good. Delicious local cuisine included lots of fish, a large variety of fresh salads and veg, lots of pulses, and almost everything was home cooked. I was certainly getting lots of vitamin D from the glorious Greek sunshine, and I was pretty active, managing my dance school, dancing myself, and running around after my two little boys.
So what was going wrong? The real truth was that I was severely #stressed. Between running my business, the Greek economic crisis, bringing up two young boys and simply dealing with a life of mixed cultures and all that brings, the stress had built up way beyond anything I could comprehend.
This realisation took me back to something one of my UK consultants – an expert on sarcoid – had once said to me: he believed the disease was largely caused by #stress. There are of course other medics who will disagree, but this is definitely the theory which resonates with me. I wasn’t aware of my stress levels at the time of my diagnosis because I was just “getting on with it”, as you do. Life does throw things at you, doesn’t it? And we have to get on with it, don’t we? Only sometimes we don’t realise just how tough “getting on with it” can be, and we certainly don’t realise the toll it can take on our own health…
MY WAKE UP CALL…
Fortunately for me I suffered two nasty viruses which were my wake up call. Stress had indeed made me very ill and I had to do something about it. By reducing inflammation the steroids had enabled my breathing to massively improve. The aim now was to gradually reduce the dosage and hopefully eventually stop it altogether: the fear however was that once the steroids stopped, the inflammation may return, and then I might be back to square one.
If anyone were telling me this story now, I would undoubtedly suggest lifestyle interventions, but when you’re “in it” yourself, you often can’t see the wood for the trees. I consider myself incredibly lucky that in my case, reducing medication coincided with my new training, and my ‘New Life Resolution’ to eat healthy and get active again. I became far more focused on my 5-a-day, more aware of sugar intake, and I started to read food labels…properly! I started to work out alongside my clients and got back into Pilates. In addition to all this a friend encouraged me to sign up for a 6 week Meditation Course, which was massively inspiring and genuinely life changing.
ZEBRAS & ULCERS…
It was this same friend who first talked to me about zebras and ulcers…yes, you heard right: zebras and ulcers!
Robert M Sapolsky’s acclaimed book explaining what stress is and what it does to you was what encouraged me to think about what ‘stress’ actually meant physiologically for the first time. Once I started to understand this, the whole concept of stress became so much more tangible, and therefore more manageable. Stress went from being something that gave me wakeful nights of worrying (often about something that had never happened and probably never would), to something which I understood. I got why it had made me sick before, and now that I understood what it was all about, I could see ways to deal with it…magic!
For me, ‘dealing with it’ was a case of keeping up the good nutrition (plus the odd treat!), and regular exercise, plus daily meditation. This was the game changer for me: I meditated every night and finally discovered a way to switch my head away from whatever may have been stressing me out. I could finally stop “spinning” on stuff, and it improved so many aspects of my life, from parenting skills to sleep: I was so grateful that someone had popped this wonderful gift of relaxation into my life.
I was soon able to stop the steroids entirely, and today I am still under observation for autoimmune conditions, but I am (touch wood) healthy, and I seem to be very well able to fight the colds, bugs and viruses my boys inevitably bring home from school!
The results of stress coming on bit by bit without conscious realisation is something I now see time and again amongst my clients. It’s when little bits of stress chip away at us day by day that we can start to experience a myriad of symptoms which can make us feel really quite poorly, and these – if left unchecked – can genuinely make us sick. The good news is that there are many stress management techniques which really do work. If we utilise these within a genuinely healthy lifestyle we will start to see results and also feel more energised, less foggy-headed, and generally so much healthier and happier. I am not just spouting this because I’ve read it somewhere on the net: I’ve lived it, I’ve seen it work for me and for others. It is the reason I can love and enjoy my gorgeous boys, and it was a huge part of my inspiration for creating #ShawLifestyle.