Minor Surgery, Minor Accident 3/11

March 2011

It was yet another cold, snowy day in Edmonton when I left my son at the oral surgery clinic to have four wisdom teeth removed. Meanwhile, I went to pick up his four prescriptions. (One for each tooth?) I was the responsible driver who would take him home.

But less than ten blocks from the pharmacy, I lost control of my car on an icy street and was hit from behind by another vehicle. Being responsible, I continued on to the pharmacy and back to the clinic, arriving just in time to collect my son at the back door.

I wasn’t sure if I should tell my son about the accident just yet, because he would be spaced-out from the general anesthetic. I sat with him and two other patients and their responsible drivers and received at least ten minutes of post-op instructions, some common, some personal, about: hygiene, drugs, diet, ice, pain, bleeding, etc., etc. What do I remember? “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” It’s a good thing my spaced-out son was there to hear the instructions.

It was minor surgery and a minor accident, but I was a little rattled. I recovered in a very short time, however, and my son is also feeling much better. But he won’t let me forget what a horrible nurse I was due to my inability to retain the nurse’s instructions.

Think about how you are functioning in your life. Do you feel like you’re skidding on an icy road? When your brain perceives a threat, be it repeated anxiety or an external threat like an icy road, a stress response hard-wired into your brain goes into action. Designed to protect you, it releases a flood of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream. This signals the body to prepare for fight or flight.

So what exactly happens when you hit an icy patch on the road or in your life? The following are immediate signs, that you may or may not notice, when your stress response has been activated:

• heart rate increases

• breathing becomes rapid and shallow

• senses sharpen

• impulses quicken

• sweat glands open

• pupils dilate

• blood is shunted away from digestive system to muscles and limbs

• pain is diminished due to the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers

• saliva is reduced

• fat and glucose are metabolized to create instant energy

Luckily, the body‘s systems return to normal when the threat passes. And all of this is good when a real threat occurs, but it’s not the way we want to be living day-to-day. Unlike our ancestors, whose stressors routinely threatened life itself, our modern-day stress requires us to learn healthy coping strategies. Fighting or fleeing isn’t usually called for.

It’s important to respond to symptoms that are trying to get your attention, like a persistent eye twitch, headaches, sleeping difficulty, or feelings of overwhelm, anxiety or fear. It’s your body’s way of telling you, “Hey YOU! Something’s got to change here. Do you think maybe you’re working too hard? Have you thought about taking time off?” If you don’t hear the initial messages, the body speaks louder and louder until you get it, or . . . you don’t. (R.I.P)

Living in a constant state of red alert, with the resulting overproduction of cortisol and other stress hormones, disrupts almost all of the body’s processes, putting you at increased risk of many health problems, including:

• heart disease

• sleep problems

• digestive problems

• depression

• memory impairment

• obesity

I’ve worked with a lot of people who are completely surprised to learn how stressed and burnt out they really are because they get used to the stress and often ignore the symptoms. Our bodies are built to heal themselves when given the opportunity and the right environment. When you pay attention to what I call the six aspects of health: physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, intellectual and relational, the symptoms just might take care of themselves – be they physical, behavioral, cognitive and/or emotional.

Though I’ve completely recovered from my little episode, unfortunately my car doesn’t have that ability. It requires repair. My reputation as both driver and nurse are tarnished, at least according to my patient. Regrettably, he has another surgery next month and he’s looking for a responsible driver. Any takers?