Inherent in my nature is the tendency to stress. To worry. To push.
It’s always been 'black or white', 'all or nothing' for me, and over the past few months this kind of high strung approach finally caught up to me - because it simply wasn’t sustainable for my body to be constantly pushed to extremes.
Between my Type A personality and perfectionism, as well as my history of disordered eating and anxiety, I’ve become really good at not listening to my body, and instead, letting my mind and drive guide my behaviour.
All throughout high school and uni, I pushed my social life, hobbies and a lot of internal happiness aside to push myself to achieve the highest grades I could.
When my studies were over, I channeled all this perfectionism and need for control into my diet and exercise. More was better when it came to exercise, and less was key when it came to food.
I pushed through hunger.
I pushed aside food offered to me.
I pushed through (looking back, really f*cking frightening) chest pains just so I could finish my intense workouts.
Even when I entered recovery from my eating disorder and began focusing on healing, I was still pushing hard to succeed.
I was still chasing control over my intake, and was now meticulously tracking every macro and calorie that I consumed.
I was still trying to manipulate my body, and though I'd cut back on the amount of exercise I was doing, I was still relying all too heavily on a strict workout routine to feel at peace with my body as it changed throughout the recovery process.
I was eating a lot, but I was training a lot too, and I was never really happy.
My body was still perceiving so much stress in its environment, and this became manifested in a chronic stress response.
Phase 1: Adrenal overactivity
I went through this stage of heightened stress for a long time - perhaps years. I became so used to thriving off adrenalin, to feeling on-edge, to not knowing what it felt like to take a proper deep breath, and all the little episodes of burnouts I experienced just became motivation for me to push back even harder. My adrenals were pumping out cortisol left, right and centre so I could cope with all this stress I was facing externally (and also internally forcing onto myself).
After all the time, I finally reached the height of this adrenal overactivity just over a month ago.
Symptoms of Adrenal Overactivity
I started experiencing so much cortisol in my system that the manifesting anxiety, depression and panic became too much for me to ignore.
What you should do in this phase:
The most beneficial thing you can do for your body at this stage is to stop, slow down and remove a lot of the stressors from your external and internal environment.
This could mean lowering the intensity of your exercise, reducing your intake of stimulants like caffeine, increasing your calorie intake to meet your body's demands, reducing your work-load, turning down a few commitments , mastering some mindfulness and meditation techniques cope with stress, and just working to reduce the overall perception of stress your body is experiencing, and offset the stress-load from your system.
The worst thing you can do in this phase:
If you’re like me though, then all these signs and symptoms start to take their toll on you in a way that makes you want to do anything but slow down and rest.
You start to feel so useless and crap, that the only way you know how to feel better, is to push harder.
I started exercising more and more.
I started to eat less, and go hours without eating
I turned to coffee to fuel my workouts and my work, multiple times a day.
I looked to social media for ‘inspiration’ to get my body back to where I thought it needed to be.
I berated myself endlessly for how lousy I looked and felt, and I found myself being unable to cope with anything I was facing.
I was desperately trying to fight stress with more stress, and eventually my body had nothing left to give.
Without me really knowing, I all of a sudden entered a phase of Adrenal Conservation.
Phase II: Adrenal Conservation
My body had become so used to this constant and excessive stress, that it started to resist the effects of the cortisol it was pumping out. Small levels of stressed failed to illicit a stress response, and so my body pumped out more and more to try to stimulate this stress response it knew it needed. After months stuck like this, my entire metabolic reserves became depleted, my body didn’t have the energy left to keep producing cortisol or any of the hormones it needed to, and I now had huge hormonal imbalances.
There was definitely a change in my symptoms - but at the time I didn’t really take notice of it. To me, it was kind of just like moving from one feeling of lousiness to another, but here’s some of the things I noticed.
Symptoms of adrenal conservation:
Where to go from here?
When two separate blood and saliva tests taken just 1 month apart revealed these two very different pictures of hormone levels (from overactivity to conservation), I realised pretty quick that my body needed some intensive TLC and attention. I couldn’t ignore what it was trying to tell me anymore, because my entire wellbeing was deteriorating in front of me - despite my assurance that I was pursuing the healthiest lifestyle I could.
I was so lost at this point, because if the solution to high cortisol was to rest, then was the solution of my now low levels to push harder again?! I honestly felt so stuck in this vicious circle of hormonal imbalance, that I succumbed to a pretty bad bout of depression for a few weeks.
Eventually, I sought out the advice of a new specialist and my GP, did a load of research and started playing around with some pretty big lifestyle changes that didn’t require me to completely rest, nor completely push harder.
I knew I had to learn the true meaning of balance and address a variety of factors in my body - not just my adrenals or any one hormone. Everything happening was tying in with other things in my body - which meant that taking any specific drug or supplement, or chasing a high or low level of anything, wasn’t going to be the solution.
It meant rewiring my entire approach to health in order to reset, regain and preserve that very health I always thought I was chasing, but really wasn’t.
Where I‘m at now:
It’s only been a few weeks, but already I’ve managed to nudge my cortisol levels back into normal ranges, I’ve regained a lot of my energy, I’m sleeping better than ever, and I just feel more at peace. I can’t even explain how much more comfortable I feel right now in comparison to this time last month.
I’ll share the Top 5 things that I think have been helping me the most in my next post…so stay tuned. Here’s hoping it’s only onwards and upwards from here xx
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