Stress is like a clogged drain – Tips for managing our emotional plumbing

August 15, 2021

I think everybody would agree that stress is a challenge in their lives. Personally, I think we should take on the belief that no stress exists and that it is our judgments and reactions to life events that make them stressful or not stressful. The reason I say this is because the same exact thing can occur in one person’s life that they do not find stressful, whereas somebody else finds it to be the most stressful thing possible. Therefore, what exactly is stress when thought if this way? Stress is nothing more than a judgment and a perception based on one’s individual viewpoint.

All of that aside, putting this to practice is immensely difficult, but I encourage you to try thinking this way more. The fact that it is so difficult, we need to learn how to better manage stress, anxiety, and other emotions that trigger us to feel unhealthier, whether or not we live with a health condition. In my case, I live with a health condition called dystonia, a painful neurological movement disorder. I also live with something called middle ear myoclonus, which is more debilitating than pain for me.

The worst thing for me to do whenever I have a flare up of symptoms or when anything undesirable in my life happens, is to react to it emotionally because this increases adrenaline which always makes my dystonia, pain, and ear problem much worse. Adrenaline produced from exercise does not create the same experience for me. It is only when adrenaline is being produced from stress.

I want to share a visual that might help you perhaps better see how stress is operating within your body and how to maybe reduce it when you feel it coming on. I was having a session with one of my coaching clients and we were talking about a circulation issue she is dealing with. While still undiagnosed, she feels this intense pressure in her upper extremities, neck, and head. She has no diagnosis at this point, as mentioned, but doctors have determined that there is some sort of compression with a vein and/or artery.

Her symptoms are always most severe when she is stressed out, anxious, angry, fearful, or when she is in an environment that challenges many of her senses (like a loud, busy restaurant for example). When she, or any of us, experiences these emotions, more blood is being pumped through her body. If there is a blockage or compression of any kind, the blood will not flow properly and create pressure, which is her number one symptom, along with a burning sensation. She often says that her head and ears feel like they are going to explode.

In an effort to try and explain to her why she feels more pain during these emotional experiences, I used the analogy of a clogged drain. As we all know, if a drain in a sink is clogged, the water will collect in the sink the more the water runs. However, if we only slightly turn on the faucet, the water will go down the drain without a problem. If we turn the faucet up to half open to fully open, the sink will eventually fill with water.

Now think of this in terms of the body and how stress, anxiety, fear, and anger amplify our well being. This is just like the faucet running non-stop where it eventually fills up and we have a mess on our hands.  To go a bit further, for a lot of us, overstimulation of our senses, such as the loud, busy restaurant I mentioned previously, can also increase our symptoms. The reason this is such a trigger for us, and I want you to think of the faucet as your trigger(s) and how much water you are allowing to come out so it can properly or improperly drain, is because if you are dealing with pain or a movement disorder like I do, your nervous system is already compromised. When you turn on the faucet, or when you add more stress or anxiety to your life, you further challenge your nervous system and increase adrenaline which almost always increases pain. In other words, we have system overload, to which we can all relate.

So what do we do about it? We need to learn to control our emotions. More specifically we need to control our emotional reaction to life events. We have to be careful about catastrophizing everything that happens to us because it will always worsen the situation. I can’t stress, no pun intended, how important it is to be mindful of this, as well as our level of anger and fear.

We may not be able to control what is going on around us in our lives or even the pain, but we can control our emotional response to these life events and our pain. If we react to it in an angry way, it increases pain, frustration, and stress, all of which negatively impact sleep, relationships, etc., and creates a vicious cycle. You can read more about all of this in my new book, Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges, as well as my first book, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey.

If stress is prolonged, adrenaline and cortisol (both are stress hormones) maintain tension in the body. Over time, muscle tension can become habitual which pulls the body further away from relaxation. You may reach a point where you are no longer aware how constricted your muscles have become and relaxing them can be very difficult. In fact, if you try to relax, your muscles may tighten even more because they have forgotten what letting go and relaxing feels like. This is why practicing mind/body relaxation exercises are vital. Below are some stress management tips to prevent your sink from filling up and overflowing.

Stress management tips
– Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Stop what you are doing. Breathe gently, but deeply, from your abdomen. On the out breath say to yourself, “Be calm. Be peaceful.”
– Allow time to pass. When we stress, everything can feel like an emergency. This is all about anxious arousal, which is temporary. Every feeling of panic comes to an end; every concern wears itself out; and every so-called emergency evaporates
– When you are rushed say, “There is plenty of time. Stay calm.”
– Talk to family, friends, therapist, life coach, or support group about the situations you find stressful
– Listen to music
– Keep a journal
– Spend time in prayer and meditation
– Eat a balanced diet of healthy carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Avoid caffeine, sugar, and white flour products
– Exercise if you can; modify activities to accommodate your symptoms and ability level
– Laugh as much as you can. Even if it is fake laughter. The brain doesn’t know the difference.
– Avoid isolation. When we lose connection with others it can intensify stress, as well as depression, loneliness, fear, and anger
– Accept help when it is offered and ask for help when you need it
– Get outdoors and spend time in nature; it can be very grounding
– Do not argue about things that are unproductive
– Avoid people who trigger your stress
– Don’t waste time worrying about what could have been. The past is over. Focus on the present moment
– Simplify your goals and make them attainable
– Engage in fun, pleasurable activities as much as possible

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Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and the author of 2 books: Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey (2015) and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges (2021. He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, volunteer for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers NetworkThe MightyPatient Worthy, and The Wellness Universe. To learn more about Tom, get a copy of his books (also on Amazon), or schedule a free life coaching consult, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.

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6 responses to “Stress is like a clogged drain – Tips for managing our emotional plumbing”

  1. Barbara Elmlinger says:

    Thank you, again, Tom, for reminding me how to avoid, or handle, stress as much as possible. Very good counseling that I needed to have reinforced today. The sensory overload part, in particular, explains why I don’t enjoy some things I used to love doing. That’s a hard one for others to understand, I believe. Like right now, our cute and sweet neighbor dog is barking non stop. It’s driving me from my deck back into the house on a beautiful summer morning. That’s normal, I believe, but maybe not to the degree I’m feeling it. 🥴

    • Tom Seaman says:

      Hi Barbara- You’re welcome. I’m glad this came at a good time for you. Thy system overload is one of the hardest things for others to understand. It takes so little sometimes before we have had enough. I can relate to the barking dog story. I have things like that which overload me also. Try and absorb the barking noise rather than letting it become a noxious stimuli if possible. Our nervous system tells us to run, almost automatically, and if we practice acclimating, I found it easier to deal with tough situations.

  2. Karen says:

    As always your post is just what I needed. I am wondering if you have come across many special needs parents who have developed dystonia? Thank you for your posts. I tell my husband your post are always vpoint on what I am dealing with. I call you my brother from another mother. My stress has been so high this last month due to facial paralysis and not getting answers. Hopeful for answers this week.

    • Tom Seaman says:

      Hi Karen- Thank you for your very kind words! It is so nice of you! Please get in touch with Marya. She has a terrific blog devoted to her life as a Mom with dystonia and other health challenges, with a special needs child. Here is a link to her website – https://chronicmomlife.com/ She’s great!

      I hope you can find some answers to your increasing symptoms.

  3. Michele says:

    Thank you Tom, for this article; I will save it and refer to it. Going through a terrible stressful time now, and I will try your techniques to manage stress. I have your first book diagnosis dystonia. When I have the money I’ll purchase your new book. Thank You, You help more people than you know!

    • Tom Seaman says:

      I am so sorry that you are have so much stress in your life right now. It can be so hard to find which end is up when life is like that. Please try to take each thing you are dealing with one at a time and give it as much attention as you need, making sure to take care of yourself through it all the best you can. Wishing you all the very best for as much peace as possible.

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