As we all know, stress and dystonia (or any other health condition) do not mix. It can have a negative impact on our symptoms, such as increased spasms, twisting, pulling, pain, anxiety, headaches, physical weakness, increased tension, sleep interference, and many other problems. Stress can be especially high around the holidays, making it even more important to take care of ourselves.
A dystonic body is under significant stress during normal circumstances, making our response to additional stress potentially catastrophic. Stress can affect us to such an extent that our nervous system is always aroused, keeping us trapped in fight or flight mode because our body is conditioned, particularly if we are in pain, to always be on guard. Walk into a busy store this holiday season and even a person without dystonia is bound to experience symptom overload and be in fight or flight mode.
If stress is prolonged, adrenaline and cortisol maintain tension in the body. Over time, muscle tension can become habitual which pulls the body further away from relaxation. You may reach a point where you are no longer aware how constricted your muscles have become, and relaxing them can be very difficult. In fact, if you try to relax, your muscles may tighten even more because they have forgotten what letting go and relaxing feels like. This is why mind/body relaxation exercises are vital.
Keeping muscles tense drains much more energy than keeping muscles relaxed, which is one reason so many of us with dystonia experience intense pain and fatigue. This is why the tips below are so important because it is only when the body finds relaxation that it can reverse the damaging effects of stress.
Stress management tips:
- Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Stop what you are doing. Breathe gently, but deeply, from your abdomen. On the out breath say to yourself, “Be calm. Be peaceful.”
- Allow time to pass. When we stress, everything can feel like an emergency. This is all about anxious arousal, which is temporary. Every feeling of panic comes to an end; every concern wears itself out; and every so-called emergency evaporates
- When you are rushed say, “There is plenty of time. Stay calm.”
- Talk to family, friends, therapist, or support group about the situations you find stressful
- Listen to music
- Keep a journal
- Spend time in prayer and meditation
- Eat a balanced diet of healthy carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Avoid caffeine, sugar, and white flour products
- Exercise if you can; modify activities to accommodate your symptoms
- Laugh! Watch a funny movie or go to a comedy club. Tell jokes. If you don’t know any, learn some. Spend time around babies and animals. Watch something funny on television or YouTube
- Avoid isolation. When we lose connection with others it can intensify stress, as well as depression, loneliness, fear, and anger
- Accept help when it is offered and ask for help when you need it
- Get outdoors and spend time in nature; it can be very grounding
- Do not argue about things that are unproductive
- Avoid people who cause you stress
- Don’t waste time worrying about what could have been. The past is over. Focus on the present moment
- Simplify your goals
- Pace yourself
- Engage in fun, pleasurable activities as much as possible