We are so used to hearing "it's just stress" from healthcare practitioners, and let's face it, doesn't that feel like a blowoff? Doesn't it feel like the doctor is saying that your real physical symptoms are somehow all in your head? And when you're hypothyroid and struggle with debilitating and confusing symptoms, it's especially frustrating when the doctor tells you that your symptoms are "stress."
The truth is that stress has everything to do with your hypothyroidism—including unresolved symptoms—and many other health challenges as well.
Some people think that stress is feeling "frazzled," but stress is so much more, from a medical sense. Stressors can include mental, emotional, and physical stress. You may experience stress from family issues, money, or your job, for example. Still, you may also experience stress from surgery, poor nutrition, chronic infection, and yes, even hormonal imbalances like hypothyroidism.
When you are under short-term and long-term stress, it affects many physiologic functions in your brain, muscles, heart, circulation, digestion, immune system, and hormones.
If you're hypothyroid and struggle with thyroid symptoms, your first step is to work with a thyroid-savvy practitioner to get optimal treatment for your thyroid condition.
But even after your thyroid treatment is optimized, you still need to identify your stress points, what you can to reduce them, and, most importantly, proactively adopt practices to inoculate yourself against its effects on your health.
I can hear some of you already saying, "But I'm not stressed!" You may not think so, but…
If any of these factors sound familiar, you are experiencing stress!
And don't forget that we are all experiencing an unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime stressor right now: COVID-19. The pandemic has upended our daily lives, creating many new stressors, such as isolation, shutdowns, travel restrictions, economic hardship, and health fears.
You may not realize, any chronic stress—mental, emotional, or physical—can worsen symptoms that you may assume are due only to your hypothyroidism. For example, stress can trigger or worsen what I call the "big three" symptoms of hypothyroidism:
Stress also contributes to other common hypothyroidism symptoms, including:
Stress can wreak havoc on your immune system in many different ways:
As if that's not enough, stress also can further imbalance your other hormones, including:
Finally, stress increases the risk—already elevated in hypothyroidism—of other diseases, including:
With all these potential issues involved, we can't afford to "keep calm and carry on," ignoring the role of stress on our health—especially, hormonal and immune system function!
Herbert Benson, M.D, is a distinguished mind-body professor of medicine at Harvard University and founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine. His famed book, The Relaxation Response, has earned him the title "Father of Mind-Body Medicine." In the book, Dr. Benson explained how physiologic stress-reducing activities—like meditation—could both prevent and reduce the proven health effects of stress. Since his book's publication, Dr. Benson continues to release groundbreaking findings on the impact of stress and the benefits of stress reduction. Most recently, Dr. Benson's research found that just 10 minutes of practicing stress management daily even causes positive genomic and genetic changes!
Specifically, daily physiologic stress reduction can do the following:
Before you grab that bowl of popcorn and settle in on the couch for a Netflix binge, let's clear something up first. Physiologic stress management isn't always what you may think of as "relaxation." As fun and relaxing as it may be, that Netflix binge does not qualify as a physiologic stress-reducing practice!
Stress management activities include those that I refer to as the "Three M's of Stress-Busting:" Mindfulness, Movement, and Manual.
Mind-based activities involve minimal movement and include:
This category includes gentle, movement-based activities—with the emphasis on gentle—including:
These are activities involving your hands that allow you to get into a relaxed, calm state of mind, such as:
There's no need to sit on the floor in a lotus position for hours on end! Instead, commit to ten minutes of your chosen activity to shut down the chatter in your mind, calm your body, and put you into a state of mindful "flow." Those few minutes help you to get all the benefits!
Do you need some ideas on how to easily and quickly incorporate stress reduction practice into your life? Here are just a few suggestions:
So, join me, and let's start by taking a deep, slow breath, all the way down to your belly. Hold it for a few seconds. And then, slowly exhale. Don't you feel even a little bit better already? That's the power of stress reduction. Now, imagine what ten minutes a day will do for you—and your thyroid!
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