Part Two: Sickness As a Coping Skill
Like I described in Part One of this four-part blog series, I never realized that I had experienced anxiety in my life. Instead, I thought that I was uniquely worried and overwhelmed by things, endured “meltdowns” from time to time, and was debilitatingly afraid of some things.
When I created a yoga and meditation practice as an adult, I also started journaling regularly. Through journaling I began to understand how years of being sick off and on had created an accidental way of coping with anxiety.
One of the reasons I didn’t realize that any of this was anxiety, was because rather than getting anxiety attacks, I’d get sick to my stomach.
I had always had digestive issues since I was a baby. I was on formula for a sensitive stomach as an infant.
In elementary school I would go to the nurse’s office everyday before lunch to take the little white lactose-intolerance pill that stuck to my tongue and tasted like cardboard. I remember forgetting one day and the nurse ran into the cafeteria to give it to me. I felt special and taken care of.
If I ever worried – which was a lot – my stomach would hurt. I’d want to stay home from school and be cozy in my bed.
When I began middle school, I got sicker. I developed mono and a tick-borne disease and spent my days watching movies we rented from Blockbuster, eating little bits of beige, flavorless foods. I got sick again in seventh grade, then again in eighth and tenth grade.
Since a lot of my sickness was real, diagnosable, tangible, I believed that perhaps I was just prone to sickness more than others. I thought it might just be in my genes, since my mom had dealt with a lot of health issues.
During those years, I missed so much, spent most of my time with adults – my homeschool teachers and family – and crawled deep within myself.
I felt like my sickness kept me from the world, but also shielded me from it, protected me even.
When I was sick, I was left alone. The only thing that was expected of me was to rest and heal.
I had real, physical symptoms that demanded all of my focus, allowing more difficult emotions and worries that would stare me in the face when I was healthy to hide in the background.
Years of this, created a subconscious pattern in me.
I hated being sick and those experiences brought on a whole list of things to deal with like lots of pain, scary tests, large needles, surgery, and missing out on so much that my friends got to experience.
Yet when I was sick, I didn’t have to face the world. I could curl up in my pajamas and be left alone. Sickness had became an accidental, subconscious coping skill for me.
When I was healthy, I didn’t know how to deal with my worries, melt downs, and fears. I didn’t know how to take care of myself emotionally or speak up and address my worries. It seemed that when those emotions and thoughts got to be too much, my subconscious coping skill would step in and I’d get sick.
When I got healthy and even into adulthood, this pattern had stayed with me. When I’d take on too much, say yes to things I really wanted to say no to, didn’t do much to take care of myself, stuffed away stress and worry, I would get colds, sinus infections, stomach flus.
In the year after my father passed away, I took on more work than I emotionally was capable of, and as a result got one head cold after another.
By the way, I was completely unaware that being sick had become a coping skill. I just wanted to be healthy and happy and my body would continue to get in my way. I was frustrated and developed a negative relationship with my body and myself.
Then I found yoga.
When I deepened my yoga practice, this relationship began to heal.
Yoga offered me a beautiful opportunity to connect my mind with my body, notice how it really felt, feel it in a new way, let go of old burdens, and speak to it with more kindness.
When I began a daily meditation practice, things really began to shift.
Meditation not only offered me a daily opportunity to release stress in that moment – rather than my life’s pattern of shoving it down – but it also gave me healthy tools that I could carry with me anywhere to cope with worry, overwhelm, self-doubt and so much more in the heat of the moment.
My years of sickness had created a barrier. I learned to resist, numb, and run from tough thoughts and emotions, and I learned to resist, numb, and run from physical sensations and pain. Yoga and meditation opened a beautiful doorway that allowed me to start to truly feel my body and listen to it’s whispers.
A quote came to me during this time in my life that is one I still repeat weekly.
“If you listen to your body when it whispers, you won’t have to hear it scream.” – Unknown
Before yoga and meditation, I didn’t even know that my body was whispering to me, I couldn’t hear those whispers, I was so completely deaf to them that the only way I’d hear my body was when it started to scream.
Yoga and meditation taught me how to hear those soft whispers and how to listen to them, rather than trying to fix them, change them, run from them.
This was a beautiful beginning. A pathway towards a healthier body, mind, and lifestyle.
Journaling during this time brought me so much clarity and understanding.
Through writing about my experiences – both in my self-care practices and through my daily life when I’d experience overwhelm and sickness, I began to understand myself more. I realized that as my old coping skills were no longer needed, my view of what a healthy lifestyle is also needed to shift.
I realized that my previous view of a healthy lifestyle meant that I would be healthy, feel good all the time, and work as much as I needed to while enjoying all the activities I desired.
What I didn’t see was that a huge part of living a healthy lifestyle includes self-care, down time, rest, and clear boundaries before it is too late.
I needed to learn how to stop and rest before my body got sick. Could I say no to someone just because I needed to, rather than because I had a more “acceptable” reason, like being sick?
I had to learn ways to set boundaries, say no when I needed to say no, and integrate daily self-care habits.
Tune into next week’s blog post for Part Three to learn more about my journey with anxiety, learn how yoga and meditation became actionable and doable tools in my daily life, and how this journey brought me to a new career and a deeper calm.