Brian’s Extreme Physical Stress Reaction
After several trips to the emergency room, Brian came to my clinic because he was having terrible digestive problems. No matter what he ate, he developed painful cramps and nausea. The tests done in the hospital looked fine. But if there was nothing wrong, why was he in such pain? The answer turned out to be something familiar to many of us – overwhelming stress.
Brian worked at an advertising agency that was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. At 58, he was concerned about finding another decent-paying job. The fact that his house was “underwater” – meaning he owed the bank more than the house was worth – wasn’t helping. “I’ve got one kid in college and one still at home, so there’s a lot of tuition that still needs to be paid.”
And then there was Brian’s wife, Betsy, who was being treated for breast cancer. Brian and Betsy had been together since college. When he described her treatment thus far, there were tears in his eyes, and I could tell she meant the world to him. I could also understand why he was having digestive trouble. To stay sane, Brian was trying to ignore all the frightening prospects in his future. But his anxiety was simply turned inward and then resurfaced in agonizing stomach trouble.
During Brian’s second visit to my office, we talked about his situation, and he agreed he was feeling a tremendous amount of pressure. I suggested a few things, including not trying to bear the entire burden alone, even though he didn’t want to overwhelm Betsy with his worries. Since he had a pastor who was already familiar with Betsy’s condition, I encouraged him to share the other things that were troubling him. Frequently, just having a conversation with a sympathetic listener about our difficulties helps put things in perspective.
Brian found that adjusting his diet, getting daily exercise, and focusing on the positive side of life improved his mood significantly. Then he was able to get serious about landing a better job. “It took a while, but now that Betsy is out of the woods and cancer-free, we feel like we’re starting a whole new life together,” he told me. “But no matter what happens, I’m sticking with the gratitude journal. You have no idea how helpful it is to be reminded of all the good things in life.”