“Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency”, Natalie Goldberg
Stress and excitement are two main triggers for an acute onset of fibromyalgia in a highly anxious person. Stress may be only minimal or severe, temporary or chronic, nonetheless it is usually bound to bring on an attack, usually a day or two after the episode. Excitement can be happy or frightening, but that too usually precipitates pain, fatigue, sleeplessness and perhaps depression among a host of other undesirable symptoms.
The difference between the two is that stress is an unpleasant state of emotional and psychological arousal which is usually dangerous or threatening to our well being. It brings about negative, unpleasant emotions. Excitement, by contrast, can be either negative or positive . Yet, both stress and excitement result in a state of being emotionally aroused and, as the nervous system becomes aroused certain bodily sensations are noticed, such as pain and fatigue. (For a lengthy and enlightening discussion of stress and depression read Robert Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)
As I write this it is the month of December, a highly stimulating month of the year. In addition to the holidays, for me it is my birthday month and a time of travel to see family on the other side of the country. It is impossible to sustain any effort for peaceful contentment as excitement stirs the nervous system to a frenzy in spite of good intentions to escape the imbalance of the holiday hoopla. It is a struggle to sit in quiet, to still the mind. The nervous system is constantly in a state of upheaval, even though it is not a negative experience to be among family and friends who are loved and appreciated for their kindnesses and caring. The result is even more muscle pain due to emotional and physical excitement. The let down after the holidays usually causes depression because of the prolonged stress.
Why then is there this association between women and fibromyalgia and why is it worse during periods of stress and/or excitement? Furthermore, why are many, if not most, FMS women more prone to suffering at holiday time, family reunions and other celebrations if the occasions are happy excitement times?
In my book I discuss the probable reason why women are by far the gender with the highest incidence of FMS. I present the most detailed explanation about why women are more prone to fibromyalgia than any other theories I have found. I believe it is, first, because women are generally the ones to whom falls the jobs of taking care of the emotional, as well as often the physical needs, of others before their own. Secondly, for many women who have a personality that is ultra-sensitive/super–sensitive/highly-sensitive (in short, an ‘Empath’)to the real or perceived needs of others, the nervous system has become chronically over-stimulated, due to chronic overdoing or ‘over feeling’ for others, and neglect of ourselves. We can often read what people are feeling and try to solve their problems if we find them in need. Being watchful is part of our minute by minute routine when we are around others. We are good readers of human emotions and we are prone to experience the perceived pain of others.
In my view women with fibromyalgia find it very difficult to compartmentalize and sort through what is best for our own tranquility. Furthermore, there is constant chatter in our minds, enslaving our thoughts to our emotions, rarely resting. It is as though there is some place in our bodies that stores all the guilt and empathy possible and never lets it seep out. Our life long intuitive ability is both our strength and our weakness. Our antennas are so finely tuned to read the emotions of others that we can almost feel their experiences. Elaine Aron (her book The Highly Sensitive Person) describes this type of highly sensitive person as a canary in a coal mine and that it is a gift. However, if this is carried to extreme and becomes a life long habit, then, in my view the woman (or man, or child) is prone to the development of FMS.
Unusual physical or emotional stress or excitement from, for example, holidays, is the last thing our poor overworked and over stimulated nervous systems need! Who usually prepares the meals? Who generally buys the gifts? Who worries about people getting along, or the family dynamics ? Who goes into a room and can sense the pain , anger, or unsettling emotions of others? While most women have this intuitive ability, it is the highly sensitive women (and some men) who suffer the most. In my view, this is the root cause of fibromyalgia about which I develop as a theory in my book.
Add to all this the potential turbulence of holidays, usually bad winter weather, travel, and the likelihood of high excitement or stress and the setting is ripe for acute attacks of fibromyalgia. Furthermore, it is as though we are addicted to high achievement and almost unable to pull back from stressful situations. Who wants to live the life of a hermit? But, how do we achieve a more realistic approach to these situations? This last question is the most difficult to answer. One thing is definite: we do not do well with either unusual or chronic stress or excitement that inevitably becomes chaotic. We can become as intuitive about ourselves as we are about other people. We must treat our minds and the emotions that continually spring from them in a loving fashion, as we would treat the emotions of others. We alone are the guardians of our own exhausted nervous systems! Peace and contentment can only come from within ourselves. This requires work on our part, that is, we must confront things about ourselves and our over- empathizing. For the year 2008, I wish us all great tranquillity of spirit and more detachment from the feelings of those around us to the exclusion of our own peaceful stillness.