Lowering my stress is a very big deal, because I am an unfortunate individual: I have three conditions which are heavily influenced by stress. The first is my dermatillomania, the second is my OCD (more on that in a minute) and the third is my meningeal herpes (which I’ve described to a small extent on my bio page)
Stress causes what I call “flare-ups”. Frankly I’ve never really liked that word when it comes to conditions not seen by the naked eye because my first understanding of the phrase has it cemented in my mind that a flare-up is something that burns across your body increasing in intensity like, well like fire. Kid logic, yanno? Despite that visual association and all its drama, there really isn’t a better word for it so I use “flare-up”. Whenever I’m talking about my meningeal herpes, saying “I am having a flare-up” makes me imagine a whole opera inside my body. See, first there’s all the little herpes virii lining my spinal column and surrounding my meninges like little pudgy trees, waving in the fluid. They suddenly get flooded with …stress hormones (its hormones, right? not neurotransmitter effluvia or something? hell I’m not a virologist, i’ve just yelled at them) and they all say ‘whoopee! party time!” and they start waving about, getting taller and more… tree-like. Maybe they grow extra appendages, maybe they just grow bigger limbs… in any case, the stress… chemicals…. are flooding the pathways and so the herpes know that the immune police won’t be able to rush over like they usually do or maybe they just move really slow, or maybe the stress effluvia (isn’t that a cool-sounding word? for such a nasty idea?) gums up their little immunizing laser beams, but in any case, the herpes know that when the stress goop flows, the party is ON ! So there you are, with a bunch of fluid that’s supposed to maintain a certain level of pressure or maybe the Ph has to be just right or something but the herpes is making with the disco times and starts taking up more and more space, and now you have the whole system out of whack and the immune police can’t fit their little waahmbulances through the pathways and the herpes know its a Woodstock in my body. That’s what I imagine when I say I am having a “flare-up”. It doesn’t sound as cool as “herpes hippy party” or “viral boink-fest” but I suppose its probably more indicative of the seriousness of the situation. SO I say “flare-up”
Anyway, the point of all that rambling was to give an impression of how stress can cause severe pain in my back and brain. Once it starts, my prophylactic meds (Yes! they really are supposed to prevent little herpes babies! or extra herpes limbs? or mutant herpes? I’m not sure, but they are supposed to suppress…something about growth) won’t really make it go away, they only make it quit getting worse. The virii have to finish their regenerative cycle or something (which as I have learned can go anywhere from two weeks to two months? Egad) so I’m left with just pain meds. Which I just took twenty minutes ago, can you tell? But the point is, the less stress I have, the less I have to deal with in terms of the meningeal herpes clogging up my spine and river-dancing on my brain shell.
I haven’t said anything about the OCD, but I’m going to… right now.
I’ve been off my anti-depressants for about two weeks now. I need to get back on them. This is an issue with the doctors office but I went off of them because I didn’t have the money to get them and I wanted to see the difference without them. I’m under no illusion that I don’t need them, I most certainly do, but ever since returning from the cruise, I’ve really wanted to get more of a handle on my OCD. Up until I started on the anti-depressants (about two years?) I’ve spent my life dealing with OCD mostly by giving into it in the least harmful ways possible. I know I do damaging things because of it but I tend to just brush it off because, hey, I don’t have the dreaded hand-washing version, right? I don’t have ritualistic behaviors, right? So I count my lucky stars and try to downplay the whole thing. My OCD isn’t even really in my cleaning. Cleaning like a maniac is just one of the few behaviors I have that help the URGE go away and make the obsessive thoughts recede for a while. That’s the interesting thing, OCD stands for “obsessive-compulsive disorder” and most of the public is familiar with the “c” part of it – the compulsion – but that’s not really my primary problem. No, my OCD is primarily in my obsessive thoughts. Compulsions I never worried about much because mine are small and not very damaging. Or at least they USED to be not very damaging. (More on that in a minute) My OCD was “accent on the ‘oh'”
If you’re curious, you can read my entry about postpartum depression to get a better idea of what obsessive thinking is like. It really is like it sounds (obsessive) but the part most people aren’t aware of is the TYPE of thoughts that circle round and round the OCDer’s brain. Some are no big deal (earworm? ever get one? annoying, right? Yeah try having FOUR songs taking turns smashing lines and verses so fast you can’t figure out which songs are playing for a couple of hours) and most of them don’t require any kind of action on my part, they just keep. going. on. forever.
My obsessive thoughts are mostly of the completely irrational scary kinds. The kind that are so irrational and scary that even while my brain won’t stop playing them over and over, I don’t get too uptight about it because I know they aren’t “real”. The problem with the obsessive thoughts is that they just aren’t very convenient. I need to use my brain quite often and when I’m fully engaged, everything is peachy. I have learned throughout my life to keep a tight rein on my thoughts. I learned to meditate and empty my mind when I was 12. It is a handy skill to have. But doing so requires a certain kind of environment and/or a certain kind of focus that I don’t always have at my disposal.
Recently I found out it might not be considered an OCD at all. What I have is called dermatillomania. Which is a fun fancy way of saying when I’m stressed I gouge my skin. Mostly its the skin on my face but over the years this penchant has moved around my body and there are still times I’ll gouge other parts of my skin if I feel its “necessary” Finding out there’s even a name for my condition has been relieving. There’s something about having a label to put on your difficulty that makes you feel like you might be able to control it somehow. That’s kind of misleading actually because without medication, I cannot control it. I can maintain it and damp it down sometimes but I cannot control it. I can’t decide when and how I will or will not engage in my obsession any more than I can decide when and how I will breathe. I can hold it in for a while, but I can’t do that indefinitely. I can focus really hard and maneuver it in specific directions sometimes but I can’t have that kind of focusing ability at the ready 24/7. No its really a matter of working around it. But having a label and some basic medical explanation can help in some ways but its a facade really.
Mostly, my dermatillomania seems to be of a type that is more akin to drug addiction than actual OCD. Which is weird in that I always assumed it WAS my OCD. Realistically, my OCD is comprised primarily of my obsessive thoughts rather than any special behaviors though. Because when I get those obsessions, the dermatillomania doesn’t have any connection at all to them. The thoughts don’t make the dermatillomania rise up nor does engaging in the dermatillomania erase or banish the obsessive thoughts. So in a sense, they aren’t really related. And neither are either of them related to the meningeal herpes.
Except they are all heavily affected by stress.
So here I am with three conditions that have the capacity to make my daily life a living hell with mental, emotional and physical pain: obsessive thoughts, dermatillomania and meningeal herpes. Stress has a very profound effect on all three but in entirely different ways.
Stress lowers my mental acuity and banking my obsessive thoughts gets harder and harder the more stressed I am. I can easily end up in a panic attack just from not being able to make my brain shut up. Of course, panic attacks, as uncomfortable as they are, aren’t the end of the world nor do they do any real damage, but the real problem with obsessive thinking really is that it isn’t just obsessive, its intrusive and dominating. Once my brain gets started on a tack, its very very hard to get much else done. One of my favorite tactics to deal with obsessive thoughts is to engage in something that is either attention-grabbing or unpredictable… preferably both. One of the best defenses? Talking to other people about what is going on with them. Its better than reading or watching videos. In both reading and video there are formulas and tropes that get used and become less helpful in the quest to distract my brain from spiralling into near-madness. Talking with another actual human being, however, does ‘t follow formula or tropes or memes. This is why I sometimes get seized with the desperate urge to talk to someone and have them do all the talking. I need this sometimes to distract and reorient my brain. It works remarkably well. This is also part of the reason I love children; children do not follow formulas of any kind. They may be easy to understand (I said MAY) but they definitely do not follow conventions. Children don’t even KNOW conventions. That’s the beauty of it. So when I seem creepy in my enthusiastic desire to converse and play with children, its really just a point wherein their inane chatter and bizarre social interactions are soothing to my obsessed brain patterns. I cannot maintain obsessive thoughts while I am around children.
Stress also increases my anxiety and mishearing because stress slows neurological transmissions. I start dissociation probably as natural slowing of my thought processes but this is also disorienting and scary – it feels like I am not a part of my surroundings because I can’t understand what is being said to me and I can’t figure it out fast enough. When you “hear” things a half-second after everyone else does, its easy to feel alienated from your party. This starts anxiety and as a result, the dermatillomania pops up. I’m not sure if the dermatillomania is some kind of subconscious urge to wrest control of my body (I kind of doubt it) or if its really just a misfiring in my brain that I usually can keep at bay. Anxiety and tension makes it emerge though, this I know. And I don’t mean anxiety of the kind that brings panic attacks, I mean a general feeling of tension and well stress. When I get angry or frustrated with no discernable solution or target, I start in on the skin. When I am overly worried about something and I have no idea how things will go, I start touching my skin. When I have a stray thought of something fearful? no. When I’m scared? no. Just when I’m ill-at-ease.
I wish I could say what makes it lessen. So far, the only thing that’s helped is less coffee and anti-depressants. The meds don’t make it go away completely but they do lessen the urge and make it less frequent.
We all know stress lowers the immune system response so its pretty obvious that stress would greatly affect the herpes. I take meds for that but nothings perfect, you know?
So there you are; three conditions that are affected by stress and sadly can create stress which makes it all worse. Yeah you can see why its become my primary objective in life right now to be as stress-free as possible.
So far so good.