One of my warning signals that my stress level is rising and I’m getting close to another episode of fatigue syndrome comes from my skin. It starts to ache, all over. I’ve experienced the same kind of feeling when I’m running a fever – it’s like the skin gets over sensitive. Even the touch of clothes that shift against the skin hurts.
The first time I remember noticing this fenomena was when a colleague gave me an encouraging pat on the arm – and it HURT. I remember thinking “this can’t be good”… Half a year later I was on sick-leave, diagnosed with fatigue syndrome (although it had another name back then).
Since then this vague pain has been with me. Nowadays I can measure my level of stress by the ache. If I’m doing well it’s not noticeable, if I’m under severe stress for some time the level of pain increases until I sometimes find it hard to fall asleep because of it.
But it was only last year I got an explanation for the fenomena. This is the way I understand it: when I’m feeling stressed I start breathing shallower. My stomach tenses up, and my lungs can’t expand fully. And so I get less oxygen in my blood. My body responds to this by withdrawing blood from the less necessary areas – like the skin. Between the surface of the skin and the nerves underneath, there is a tissue that is normally filled with blood. This tissue works as a buffer between the skin and the nerves. But when there is less blood there, the sensitive nerves get closer to the surface and that’s what I experience as pain. (I was severely stressed when I received this information, so I may have misunderstood – if you know better, please comment and explain!)
So in order to relieve the pain I need to breathe deeply. Coincidentally that also relieves the stress level in the whole body. So nowadays this is one of my strategies to avoid going back into fatigue syndrome: to make sure I remember to breathe deeply.
One part of my morning yoga routine is a breathing exercise (morning yoga routine sounds very dedicated, doesn’t it… 5-10 minutes of stretching is what it is). The exercise is simple: sit or lie down comfortably. Put your thumb at the base of your index finger. Take a deep breath, and let your thumb glide up to the tip of the finger. Hold a short while, let the air out slowly while sliding the thumb back to the base of the finger again. Repeat, at least 12 times I was taught. Even when I’m not feeling stressed at all, it often takes 8-10 breaths until the stomach is relaxed enough to really let the air expand the lungs fully.
I tend to get a cup of coffee before noon. We have a coffee machine at work, and while it prepares my cup I stretch and take some deep breaths.
In the afternoon, after work, I’ve made it a habit to rest. I listen to a meditation-app, the exercise I use most often takes 13 minutes and also touches on the breathing, and relaxing the stomach.
With these habits I start the day by reminding my body how a deep breath feels, and then find it again in the afternoon. I try to be observant during the day, and if I get worked up I try to remember to pause and breathe for a minute or two. It’s not easy to remember to pause while being stressed, but even if I don’t remember there aren’t to many hours of shallow breathing at a time.
My skin is still sensitive from time to time, but since I started with the regular breathing habits at least I’ve never had trouble sleeping because of it.
How is your breathing right now? Take a deep breath…