For a period of time in third grade, I went to the school clinic everyday with a stomach ache. It was about a week or so before my parents realized it was always right before lunch time. We lived in Germany at that time, and the German-American school we attended was huge (accommodating 1,500 students in Grades K-12) and to me, the cafeteria was a scary place. Older students running around and being noisy, a “slop bucket” where you scraped your leftover food (eww), and the fear of losing your friends and being lost in the mess probably made it quite terrifying for me. Mind you, this is all in hindsight. During that week of calling home with stomach aches, I swear I had no ulterior motive and no awareness that my pain was a way of avoiding the horrors of the cafeteria.
Close to 20 years later and I still suffer from stomach aches and headaches. There have been lots of diagnosis for both – needing stronger glasses, hormone induced migraines, TMJ, poor posture, stress/tension headaches… lactose-intolerance, IBS, gluten sensitivities… And probably these are all contributing factors. At this point, its much better than it was, but its still something I live with and have to deal with on a regular basis. Though its clear diet and lifestyle choices can help manage them, I’ve pretty much come to terms that there is no real fix for these ailments.
My current regimen? I eat lots of probiotics and watch my intake of foods that I have trouble digesting (garlic, certain dairy, highly processed or fried foods, specific sweeteners & fake sweeteners, etc.). I sleep with my mouthguard every night (no shame), do yoga and neck stretches to loosen muscles and improve flexibility, try to be aware of my posture while at the computer (just fixed it as I wrote that sentence), and do strengthening exercises recommended by a PT.
Yet all of this isn’t quite enough. Its hard work to keep all of those things in mind while continuing in high spirits, not feeling overwhelmed or sorry for myself about never being 100% well. So I have started doing something thats been recommended to me by a number of people over the years.
I’m only a few months into my meditation practice, but I already think I have seen a change in my mindset. By taking the time everyday (aspiring to that) to sit in stillness, focus on my breathing, turn off judgements and release my thoughts, I have become more aware of my reactions to stress and have deepened my connection to my body.
People practice meditation for years and years and years, so I recognize that I am but the newest of novices in the grand scheme of things. Yet, I find that I am now more aware of my reactions to stressful situations. For example, I work in a dynamic environment where unplanned things happen all the time. As a Type A person, this used to drive me crazy and I spent the majority of the day worried about keeping everything on track, making sure everybody was where they needed to be, and anxiously anticipating the event that would put everything in chaos. Though I still try to keep everything on track (that is my job after all), I am now able to recognize my body and mind’s typical response to these stresses and can sometimes even “talk myself back from the edge,” by focusing on my breath, acknowledging the trigger, and trying to let go just a little bit.
“That’s what the dharma is about; turning all our habits around, reversing the process of how we make everything so solid…It starts with catching ourselves when we spin off in the same old ways. Usually we feel that there’s a large problem and we have to fix it. The instruction is to stop. Do something unfamiliar. Do anything besides rushing off in the same old direction, up to the same old tricks.”
-Pema Chódrón, When Things Fall Apart
Since starting my meditation practice, I now feel that I have more control over my body’s reaction to anxiety or stress. I acknowledge that there are factors outside of my control that impact my physical health and comfort but I also recognize that in changing my habitual responses in a given situation, I can be more aware of how my body responds to tension and stress. Obviously this type of change doesn’t happen overnight so at this point in my practice I am not always able to reverse my reactions, but I am definitely more aware of them. At least I no longer call home sick with stomach aches without realizing what scary thing I am avoiding!
If you’re interested in mindfulness or starting a meditation practice, I highly recommend Pema Chödrön’s book, When Things Fall Apart. It sounds like a weird self help book, but I promise that its amazing. Her thoughts and teachings are deep, yet its written in a very accessible and relatable way. The chapters can be read independently, in times when you need a reminder to let go and not take life so seriously or when you feel like a piece of shit and need a pick-me-up. You won’t be disappointed – buy it here!