By Debbie Lyn Toomey
Did you hear that?
I didn’t either until it started showing up in my life as irritability, insomnia, and weight gain. It’s stress, and it’s become a silent killer to many people all over the world. I’ve experienced it personally and work with it professionally as a nurse, a coach, and a wellness trainer. There is a simple way of dealing with stress, and it is just a mindset shift away.
As a nurse for over 25 years at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, I have taken care of my share of patients with ailments caused by infections from pathogens. No one is safe when it comes to an infection breakout in the human body. Germs affect people who are young or old, healthy or sick, and even rich or poor. The bottom line is, if you neglect your health, your body will get sick. This principle is as basic as the ABCs in the medical field.
Many years ago, I took care of Jane. She had been admitted from the emergency room with complaints of chest pains. She showed the classic signs of a heart attack—chest pressure, shortness of breath, sweating, and anxiety. Her EKG showed changes from the normal heart rhythm. Her blood levels revealed changes that further confirmed the diagnosis of a heart attack. Jane was rushed to receive cardiac catheterization, a diagnostic and interventional procedure, so that the doctors could save her life.
Upon completion of the procedure, the doctors found that their actual diagnosis was wrong. Jane had not had a heart attack. What she had was “broken heart syndrome”—otherwise known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. This happens when part of the heart muscle becomes enlarged and fails to properly pump the blood to the body. This leads to symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and other symptoms that mimic a heart attack. Although her presenting symptoms were similar to heart attack symptoms, doctors found no evidence of blocked arteries during the cardiac procedure. According to the American Heart Society, “broken heart syndrome” is stress-induced and can happen even when an individual is healthy. It’s an actual medical diagnosis that requires medical management.
Stress-Induced Health Problems
This stress-induced heart problem, in the case of Jane, possibly came as a result of all of the stress that she had been experiencing. She had just found out her husband wanted a divorce, her job was unstable due a new reorganization, her youngest child was receiving failing grades, and her closest friend had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Jane suffered from a wide range of stress and had no way of taking the time to deal with it or even acknowledge it. She had been experiencing stress in all areas of her life. Fortunately, Jane’s heart condition was diagnosed right away, and her “broken heart syndrome” improved after a few months’ treatment with heart, anti-depressant, and sleeping medications.
Stress is Real
Jane’s story is just one of many that I have seen while working as a nurse. Although stress is invisible to us, stress is real! It can make us sick inside and out. Stress can be as insidious as germs, and as it is with germs, there are good stresses and bad stresses. Good germs help us process food and toxins in our body. Bad germs, to some extent, will not harm us unless we neglect to take proper care of our health and hygiene. Bad germs, when given the opportunity, will take over our whole system. Likewise, there are good stresses and bad stresses. Good stress motivates us into positive action and helps us grow. Bad stress, especially when neglected or suppressed, consumes our mental/emotional/physical body to a point of burnout or even a “broken heart.”
What if there is a simpler way to reduce stress and keep it from piling up?
What if all that is required is a little shift in our mindset to make it happen?
What if we adopt a new point of view for stress and use an old idea, such as germ control, to help us understand the how dangerous stress really is?
In other words, let’s treat stress as if it is an organism that can make us sick and even kill us.
Why not treat stress like a harmful pathogen that can make us sick? It’s already called a silent killer.
Why not use a simple mindset shift to help us “wash our hands” to get rid of any negative encounter or emotions throughout the day?
Why not hold stress in the same light as deadly pathogens that that can potentially kill us?
One of the best ways to help us remember to get rid of our stress is to associate stress with something that we are familiar with. So, we will associate stress with germs. Stress Germ™ is a new and simple approach to viewing stress as if it is a bunch of harmful microbes. It’s an analogy that I came up with to increase awareness and attention to the power of stress. There is so much focus on germicidal products these days, why not use the philosophy and method associated with them when dealing with stress? If we associate releasing stress to getting rid of dirt and germs, we will be prompted us to release our stress throughout the day whenever we are washing. This practice will help ensure that we are physically clean, but also that we are mentally and emotionally clear, calm, and cool.
Stress is real, and it is killing us. By thinking of stress as a germ, or Stress Germ™ as I call it, we will find it easier to pay attention to it and to release it instead of ignoring it. This mindset will help you in six ways, all of which will provide health benefits:
1. It will help you pay attention to your stress levels and your stressors.
2. It will empower you with skills that will reduce and release stress levels constantly.
3. It will prevent the build-up of stress that causes burnout.
4. It will help you take care of yourself more easily.
5. It will help you teach others, like children, how to monitor and release their stress.
6. It will provide valid permission and a purpose for preventing unnecessary suffering.
Mindfulness is being present in the moment. There are over 400 trusted studies that prove the positive effects of stress reduction on overall wellness. The practice of mindfulness offers us the ability to pay attention, bring awareness, and accept what is in the moment. These are key components to stress reduction and wellness. By adding simple mindfulness practices with this new approach of releasing the Stress Germ™, we can be highly efficient and effective with not only our time but also our stress management.
Apply mindfulness techniques along with normal hygiene to reduce two potential sources of illness. As you’re lathering up, let go of stress that is weighing you down.
Here are seven steps to increase your sense of well-being by getting rid of your Stress Germ™.
When you are at the sink, or when you are in the bathroom try the following:
1. Wash. As you are washing your hands or your body, feel the water against your skin. Notice how it feels. Is it hot, cold, or warm? Look at your hands and watch how they move as the soap and water do their job.
2. Check in. Now that you are physically cleansing yourself, turn the cleansing process inward. Ask yourself, “How am I doing?” If you are feeling good, that’s wonderful! If not, dig deeper to find out what is going on. Is there something that’s made you feel hot and bothered? Do you feel cold toward someone, or has someone become cold toward you? Do you feel good and warm and fuzzy inside?
3. Be present. Notice your breathing and your body. Is your breathing fast and shallow? Do you have any tension in your body? Are there any unwelcome thoughts that are running around in your head?
4. Breathe. If your breathing is fast, slow it down. Take in some slow, deep breaths. Repeat this until you feel better.
5. Body scan. Do a quick head-to-toe assessment of yourself. Notice areas in your body where you tend to store stress. Recognize that it’s there. Adjust your posture accordingly and breathe.
6. Bothered. If something or someone has upset you, and the problem keeps running around in your mind, simply label the feeling and state the feeling. Keep saying it until you notice yourself feeling better.
7. Begin. Once you have finished the first six steps, take three more deep breaths and go on to begin the rest your day.
Do these exercise as many times as you can during the day to help you stay centered and calm.
Taking better care of yourself is just a mindset away. Whether you think this concept is crazy or not, I invite you to try it for one week. Let me know if you notice any difference. Although a Stress Germ™ may not be visible under the microscope, it produces very real effects. The more we take small, simple, and consistent actions to reduce them, the happier and healthier we will be.
This post first appeared on the Huffington Post.