Surviving toxic stress

Lately, friends have been talking about the negative effects of stress on their bodies.

First, from a nun who’s also from Baguio City and a batch mate from convent formation days.  She’s among the four “survivors” from our group, 21 in all, who made it after nine years to permanent vows and is now the Mother Superior of the Order’s Novitiate.  Yes.  Wow!  I saw her last seven years ago at their vow taking where it became quite an emotional reunion for the rest of us who left.  This time, it was a serendipitous meeting.  I was just leaving the Cathedral after an unplanned visit and there and then I saw her.  Running to meet her, I was reminded of the words I came to not so long ago– that those who truly meet, meet in God.  I’ve somehow lost communication with her through the years.  I was so surprised I had to check her twice to be sure it was indeed her.  Turns out, she was on vacation leave, an annual one, which meant I’d be seeing her yearly thereafter.  The thought buoyed me up.

In preparation for her assignment as Formator and Mother Superior, she was sent to Rome five years ago for two years of higher studies in theology and spirituality.  I was still communicating with her then and when I learned about it, it excited me more than it did her.  She sent me some photos of her wanderings in the ancient City, and I noted that she looked vital and happy.  Turns out that was just my perception because as she recounted to me in our meeting she was actually stressed about how she would manage her studies and learn to communicate with her professors and the others since the mode of communication was in Italian and Latin (the latter being the reason I gushed over her scholarship. I can’t see myself being able to learn Latin), languages she was just beginning to learn on her arrival.  In contrast to my more casual take to schooling, my friend is a serious and diligent student and I could just imagine how the situation stressed her.  But because she’s those, she was able to complete her studies within the given period, effectively disproving her self-doubts.  She said it helped that her professors, old Carmelite priest-scholars, were lenient toward Carmelite nuns knowing that no nun from the Order was there to gain for herself academic prestige and honors.

But in the latter part of her second year, an annual medical check-up revealed cysts growing inside her breasts, adding that her hypothyroidism, a predisposing illness, increased her chances of contracting it.  The news she said prompted her to be convinced that toxic and prolonged stress eat up the body, literally, in the form of toxic growth.  I understood because this was what we both learned in Pranic Healing class years before.  Despite the condition, she stayed and finished her studies.  On her return, her Superior didn’t install her right away in her Novitiate Mother Superior and Formator assignment but instead to a more relaxed albeit temporary assignment away from the City.  Enjoying her role there, and with the help of alternative healing, the cysts gradually disappeared.

Second, a former colleague who I met for coffee when I was in the Metro told me that she and a few others at the office have recently organized a support group that meets once a week, over lunch, for non-work discussion and sharing.  The proponent, also a colleague, came upon the idea after he himself experienced the effects of work-related stress.

I met this colleague months before and was surprised to see that he was getting seriously bald.  I humored him, asking how come he already looked eligible for membership in the organization of men with hair issues but did he know that my hair was also thinning out?  Since we didn’t have the time to talk long then we both just had a good laugh over it.

Back to the colleague I was meeting for coffee.  She told me that she herself had observed Program staff especially those in the field looking like prunes.  Having been recently in the field, I said I couldn’t agree with her more.  My observation is that, apart from the daily exposure to elements of weather and terrain, development and aid workers are among the loneliest of professionals.  I mean this in the sense that there are few others who understand their work, motivations, and especially their insane schedules.  It’s not that they don’t have significant others to share their work and experiences with, it’s that unless the others are aid workers themselves no one else seems to really understand what you’re talking about.  It’s not others’ fault that they don’t but this all the more adds to the frustration over not having somebody – anybody – who understands, and to have someone to connect with is a basic human need.  Many workers in this sector, especially those in the field, contend with failed marriages or marriages gone to rock bottom because of this.

So to my former colleague, I told her that she and the members of the support group did a very good move.  If others, may I say, HR, won’t make a move to support workers the initiative can always start with the self.

In the Philippines, diseases of the heart is the number one cause of death.  Trending these days is cancer.  For me, this indicates growing toxicity within our physical, social and political environments.  How individuals respond to toxic stress is a function of community action and support, personal choices as to work-life balance and quality of food, and physiological make-up.  WHO has a paper on the integration into city plans of health outcomes as part of Agenda 21, arguing that sustainable development is also about physical and social environments that are health-promoting and -sustaining.

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