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Emails to my Therapist

Can You Be Stressed and Not Know It?

Dear Nicholas — I have a couple of minor health glitches of the sort that can be caused by stress and one that has been made worse by stress. I don’t usually have many health glitches and so I have to ask myself: can you be stressed and not know it?

Wrapped metal strands of barbed wire fence.wired tired stressWired and tired

I Had No Idea

Though it has been an intense eight months because of serious family illnesses, I wasn’t aware that I was maintaining a significantly increased level of tension. I’ve come down with a two or three day bug twice in that period and I thought these were  sufficient somatization and sofa time.

But in recent weeks, I’ve had a spate of dental troubles and diagnosis of a wee skin cancer on my face (surgery still three-ish weeks away).  And I noticed that the bursitis I already had in one shoulder went from quiet to fierce within a minute of getting one piece of bad news.

Looks Like Stress Can Do a Whole Lot of Things

These have led to an uncharacteristic lot of doctor visits in a short time. So I Googled each of these items along with the word “stress.” I learned that stress can cause inadequate saliva, dry mouth, leading to tooth decay.

Varanasi India dentist teeth

In Varanasi, 1991, setting for my novel, Sister India

Stress can also lead to eating chocolate but that’s not new.

My laptop tells me stress can cause bursitis especially in women in their fifties; at 68, I could say I’m a late bloomer, but I had a bout of this once before at 42.

The Case of the Stressed Out Mouse

To my surprise and mild amusement, there’s research on skin cancer in tense mice. Johns Hopkins reports that chronically stressed mice exposed to carcinogenic UV light get skin cancer twice as fast as relaxed mice.

stress mouse and cat frightened mouse


Obviously, I need to learn to be a relaxed mouse.

But how?

Already I exercise and meditate and make love with husband and play in the yard.


So What To Do? Or Not Do?

I’d go to a yoga class but don’t want one more place to drive added to my schedule.  I do an occasional few minutes of yoga at home, but seem to need the structure of a class to keep at it.

One night last week, I dreamed that my collaborator on the book The Healing Power of Doing Good came to my house to do my skin cancer surgery. He is not a medical doctor. My interpretation of this dream: I should volunteer and do good for others and then I would be healed. But, as with yoga, I just don’t have the get-up-and-go right now.

It bothers me that I could be so over-wrought without knowing it.  Except for a crisis moment here and there, I thought I was keeping tension to my usual high but not obviously damaging level.

Also, I’ve always been exceptionally lucky in matters of health. I seem to have my mother’s sturdy genes. This batch of glitches makes me suspect that there will be an end to Peggy-exceptionalism. There’s also been doubt cast in recent months on Mama-immortality. Both of these situations are sobering.

Rest? Oh, Please!

Paradoxically, resting and doing nothing don’t feel so good when I’m not at the top of my game. If anything worrisome or depressing is hanging over me, I’d rather work, which reliably distracts me from bad feelings.

But: I’m intermittently way too tired. So I may have to tolerate the mild emotional discomfort of resting.  I guess I’ll find out if I’m up to it. We’ll see.





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  • Robert Braxton
    August 22, 2017 at 7:11 pm Reply

    Finished (reading) and I feel a deep sadness.

    • Peggy Payne
      August 23, 2017 at 2:28 pm Reply

      Gosh, Bob. I didn’t mean to trigger a deep sadness. I’m pleased that I’ve been alerted by minor health problems that I need to chill.

  • August 22, 2017 at 8:07 pm Reply

    Stress can increase &/or cause just about anything, and your current stress may simply co-exist with other physical causes of our physical problems. I’m reluctant to generalize from mouse studies to humans, still I support following-up on your intuition.
    People sure can be quite stressed without realizing it, especially strong, successful folks who expect a great deal of themselves and think they can handle well things that’d Stress most people – especially true of therapists.
    My time of life now involves much more OT, PT nutrition consults and doctor visits than when I was young, and it can be a pain to do all the body stuff that needs to be done now-a-days.
    Systematizing some Mind-Body Practice could well help, if you’re willing to give it the time it needs – I certainly hope you find ways to un-stress while dealing medically with your body.

    • Peggy Payne
      August 23, 2017 at 2:26 pm Reply

      Thanks for this, Bob. It might well feel insurmountable if I weren’t hanging out with you.

  • Lee Grohse
    August 23, 2017 at 12:15 am Reply

    The answer is simple, Peggy. All that you need to add is a small, soft lap dog. An hour or so of petting and nuzzling per day will take care of that sneaky, subterranean stress. I recommend a Maltese, but if that does not suit I remain available for further consultation as to selection of the perfect stress sponge.

    • Peggy Payne
      August 23, 2017 at 2:24 pm Reply

      A charming solution, Lee, and I take it seriously. The doggy would have to come with a nanny though. I’m not good at tolerating regular schedules. Bob is the dog care guy at our house and he likes dogs the size of ponies. I do enjoy the company of our six-month old Carlo. He’d like to be a lap dog in spite of his size.

  • kenju
    August 23, 2017 at 1:59 am Reply

    I suggest weekly massages or facials. They help a good bit in relieving stress – especially when you don’t know you have it. Good luck.

    • Peggy Payne
      August 23, 2017 at 2:12 pm Reply

      Very nice idea, kenju. I may get around to a bit of that.

  • Sandy Joyce
    August 23, 2017 at 2:29 pm Reply

    I too had a great deal of stress of which I was also unaware. I have been gradually ( over a period of a couple of years) removing myself from obligations that cause me any anxiety. The last one was the HOA board though I felt we were doing really good work is was causing me stress. I started doing Qigong and doing the deep belly breathing. Also I set my intention to find inner peace. All of that has worked well for me. I am 69 and not thrilled with the body being less than what I always expected it to be and do not exercise as hard as 10 years ago either. We do need to give ourselves a break and finally deeply feel that however we are is okay. Here is the link to what I am currently learning. It does bring a peaceful feeling.

    • Peggy Payne
      August 23, 2017 at 2:59 pm Reply

      Sandy, I have the Qigong tape playing. Lovely! The music alone is relaxing. You sound like you’re handling this stuff well.

  • Sandy Joyce
    August 23, 2017 at 2:30 pm Reply
  • Ron Perkinson
    August 24, 2017 at 12:58 pm Reply

    I think stress is a condition like cancer. Labeling a situation as stressful is only the beginning. A benign skin cancer is not the same as pancreatic cancer. Similarly, being informed you are in end-stage renal failure will produce a different stress from deciding on the more correct answer in a multiple choice exam. It seems to me that “stress” is a big tent, covering fear, dread, disappointment, disillusion,etc. I am not addressing eustress. For the silent stress described by Peggy, there must be an onset. Other stressors may have followed, and attached themselves to the original, again like metastization of cancer. But it started somewhere. The question , I think, is can you be stressed to such a degree and over such a period of time, that you are oblivious to the stress, but not to the effects? It appears so. Then how to diagnose it? This is where there is an obvious answer, but not a sure way to implement it. The subject has to exist stress-free for a time sufficient to compare that feeling to the silent stress. With our current administration, I can not see this as a viable solution.

    • Peggy Payne
      August 25, 2017 at 3:57 pm Reply

      Several people have made this connection about the current regime, Ron. No doubt that’s bothering quite a few of us. As it happens, my silent stress seems to have lifted for the past few days. Bob and I have both been startled by the difference. Tells me a bit about the state I’d gotten used to.

  • […] I’m new to health glitches–I’ve mentioned this before–I’m long accustomed to the notion of being tightly wired. Meaning: hyper-focused, […]

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