Coping with Distress

Today has already been what some might call distressing.

I spent my morning in the ER. Again. I thought, perhaps, it was a continuation of one of the two problems I’ve had within the past two weeks: either another kidney stone or another small-bowel obstruction. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how one looks at it) it was neither of those things. Instead, it was a condition called inflammatory colitis – in other words, an infection inside or outside the small bowel causing inflammation, pain, nausea, etc. To me, the symptoms were very difficult to distinguish from the feel  caused by a kidney stone or a bowel obstruction. There was a slight variance in severity and location of the pain, and the level of physiological distress (I separate this from pain because for me, it is a separate issue) which is a term I have invented for that feeling of intense frustration and anxiety that occurs when one has a medical condition or illness (or even a psychiatric or psychosocial issue) that is continuing to reoccur or worsen despite your best efforts. It is that feeling inside your head that makes you crazy: you start to wonder if perhaps there is no cure, no treatment, no solution that will be effective for you. It starts to seem like no matter what you do, you will always have pain, always be depressed, always have difficulty meeting people or with the opposite sex, or perhaps that you will always be estranged from a friend or family member whom you love.

I may have invented the term “physiological distress”, but I’m betting I’m not the only one to have experienced it. Like pain, or anxiety, this type of distress defies external measurement. It is subjective. In fact, in my experience, it is so subjective as to be unpredictable even to one who has experienced it multiple times in multiple situations. For example, I have had abdominal pain and nausea more times than I can count in my short life. And yet, there is no predictability in the way each iteration of these symptoms will cause physiological distress. Last Thursday I was feeling possibly the worst pain and worst nausea out of the last two weeks. Yet I proceeded to drive myself to the hospital and wait in the ER and explain everything to the nurse who commented: “you seem incredibly calm for someone experiencing the symptoms you are experiencing”. And yet, when went to the ER this morning, I was so anxious and upset that I took the wrong freeway exit, then misspelled my name, then nearly missed the gurney as I tried to sit down. I could barely get the gown on, and for those who have ever put one of them on, they are about the simplest garment one could imagine: there are two holes for your arms in the upper portion of the gown. That is it. Sure, it has a place to tie in the back, but no one expects you to tie it yourself.

I guess this post is really about this idea that the frustration in dealing with chronic or reoccurring problems in my life can actually become a significant, separate issue that may not really coincide with the severity of the inciting incident.

That is really easy to demonstrate, given that today, I was not actively passing a kidney stone, nor had I passed one (at least to my knowledge) in the past several days. A kidney stone SHOULD produce a significantly higher level of distress than a simple inflammation of the intestinal tract. And yet, possibly because it seemed to be a reoccurrence of an incurable and unpredictable problem, today’s pain and nausea (most likely lower in severity than that of a few days ago) produced a much higher distress level.

I honestly don’t know what the application would be. Perhaps all of this just means I need some more psychiatric and psychological help. (that is probably a fact rather than a supposition, whether for this type of distress or for one of the other myriad of mental absurdities my brain and body put me through on a daily basis) Perhaps it just means I am spending more time than I should using my brain to watch my body and using my brain to watch itself – we typically call this “introspection” or something like that, but I find that term to be rather one dimensional as it primarily refers to using one’s brain to ruminate on past actions, behavior, thoughts, and responses rather than focusing one’s attention on what one is thinking NOW, or a combination of those things, or even what one is feeling emotionally and physically combined with what one is thinking at any given point in time.

Enough with the terminology.

My question to myself and to all of you, in light of the distress I was feeling this morning, is this: if and when you are feeling physiological distress, what methods are available to deal with it, and which ones are the most effective? Which ones are healthiest? Which ones support your personal wellness and lifestyle goals?

For example, one way many of use deal with our distress is to eat. Yet for many, that is a destructive way of dealing with distress, and might even wind up causing distress in the future. Another method for dealing with distress is recreational drug use. But if you don’t know from personal experience, then take a leaf out of my book: this is NOT the way to deal with your distress. It ultimately causes a significantly higher level of distress in all areas of life, rather than a single source of distress that may have triggered the drug use originally.

But there are healthy ways to deal with what distresses you. One thing I can almost always count on to alleviate my distress is to act. To DO something that addresses whatever is causing me to feel the way I do. So today, that action was to go to the hospital. Something that, even as frustrating and anxiety producing as it was, was actually less frustrating than sitting at home hurting and anxious.

I wish I could tell you that because I am aware of this dynamic in my life I always choose the healthy ways to combat my distress. In fact, it is probably the opposite: even though I am aware of this dynamic, I still often choose unhealthy coping methods.

I’d love to hear from you about your experiences. Have you felt “physiological distress”? If so, what does it feel like to you, personally? What methods, healthy or not, have you employed to cope? What works best, and what just doesn’t work at all?

Thank you for reading. I wish you a distress-free Sunday!

Peace to you,



2 responses to “Coping with Distress

  1. I absolutely know exactly what you are talking about. I suffer migraines and headaches, I have my whole life. I have been through SO many doctors, ’causes’ and ‘solutions’ in the past few years as it has has worsened. I get so scared for my career and relationship, and extremely scared that people will think me a hypochondriac, and resent me, as many people have done to my mother, who suffers similarly.

    Action is by far the first thing to make me feel better, but lately actions have been one after the other with little or only brief improvement. I finally think I may have hit a solution, linking my migraines to my hormonal cycle and my headaches to bowel obstruction. I now have a good set of doctors including a new GP, a women’s health specialist and an allergist. Having found doctors I like helps too. I realised how I was being effected emotionally when I was describing my headaches, and my fears, to one doc and suddenly started sobbing uncontrollably. I’d been holding it all in so tightly. She has recommended using an Australian Government health plan to gain several free consults with both a nutritionist and a therapist…which I had never considered and I think will help a lot. I also find having a very full life makes it hard to find time to dwell however this can make a crash harder to deal with.

    I don’t know that I have the answer as I am going through the process of trying to calm myself too. But I certainly understand.

  2. Thanks for your honesty about dealing with distress. I’ve tried several ways that work and don’t work too over my life. A couple of things I’ve learned and am still learning… one is to be more aware of the early warning signs so I can “nip it in the bud” and make better choices before the physical, emotional, mental stress overwhelms me. I tend to “choose” then instead of react. The second one is a more recent learning; when I feel pain of anykind to look at it and not try to run from it. Just to stop and acknowledge; “I feel sad”, “I feel hurt”, “I feel frustrated”, “I feel unappreciated”. This is especially hard with emotional/mental pain. It’s much easier to eat (as you said), go over the top of it with work and activity or use any substance or relatonship in an unhealthy way. Sitting in the pain and moving into the suffering goes against our natural human instinct to escape. Recently I’ve learned when I “lean in” I learn things and though it’s hard at first, it has more integrity than playing the avoidance game. Suffering is growing me, slowly whittling off the rough edges of pride, independence, self delusion, selfishness,etc. The third thing I’m practicing more regularly is to not isolate. I’ve been more open with others in my life lately and in my communication with God about dark areas in my life, frustrations, disappoitnments. I am convinced that “it is not good for mankind to live alone” and that even though we hide and avoid, we are desperately in need of unconditional love and support. In this season of Lent, I’m noticing that several spiritual practices (nothing fancy, just giving up some things that I lean on and shouldn’t) are revealing areas that need confessing and commitment to healthier thoughts and behaviors. Ok – that’s way too much but this post struck a cord.

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