When I was first diagnosed with uveitis in 2017, it seemed like doctors tested me for everything under the sun. I had tests done on my blood, urine, and spinal fluid, as well as x-rays, MRI scans, CT scans, and images of blood vessels in my eyes. Specialists were looking for infectious blood diseases, systemic disorders, and autoimmune diseases; they were so determined to find a cause for my vision loss. But all the tests were fruitless, and my uveitis was considered idiopathic.
Like my doctors, I was eager to find a cause for my uveitis. If a true cause for the vision loss could be found, then maybe there would be a better chance to treat it or cure it, and a good chance of preventing it from happening again in the future. In thinking about life circumstances that preceded my uveitis flare, I talked with my doctors and questioned whether stress could have played a part in my illness. My doctors answered “Absolutely.”
Now, it is important to note that I have a flappable personality. I freak out easily. I am nervous and anxious and paranoid. I am a worrier, not a warrior. I am Type A. Stress is not a stranger to me. Prior to my first uveitis flare, I had traveled across the country, and I am not a good traveler. I had also had an incredibly busy work event, with a hectic schedule. I did not manage my emotions well during this time; I was not sleeping well, I was not eating healthfully, and my mental health was not a priority for me.
In 2018, when I had a second flare of uveitis that corresponded with international travel, another hectic work occasion, and the final stages of wedding planning, I again made a connection between illness and stress. As I struggled with the side effects of prednisone, I vowed that I would be healthier. I would exercise regularly; take proper vitamins and supplements; meditate, stay calm, and “manage my stress” once and for all. I talked with my doctor about anti-inflammatory foods, and dabbled with paleo and keto diets. I saw some successes, and my body did feel happier with every healthy choice I made. However, I still struggle with keeping my life, and my body, stress-free.
This year, I was struck with a third bout of uveitis. The flare came on less than a month after my father suddenly passed away. The death of such a close and beloved family member is without question the most stressful experience I’ve ever endured. It doesn’t surprise me that my body reacted with illness. Grief is a powerful and intense emotion with so many physical effects on the body. It really amazed me how thoroughly I felt the pain of losing my Dad, and how death permeates every aspect of life. It has been extraordinarily difficult.
Yet as tough as it has been, I nevertheless feel motivated to push through, to keep going, and to not let the grief take over. It’s a balancing act, I have learned. Grief needs a place in your life, because grief is, in some ways, a demonstration of love. You grieve so heavily because you loved so much. You must feel every bit of the sadness and the loss. The emotions have to come out, have to be felt. Allowing yourself to grieve, to cry, and to feel is self-care, and in the end it reduces stress, too. I had a hard time reconciling that, because my deepest moments of grief and crying and mourning felt tremendously stressful. Yet holding in the emotion or avoiding it had much worst consequences, like panic attacks and depths of depression.
In the toughest moments of grief, I had to work harder than ever to be healthy, to practice self-care, and to reduce stress. Some habits that I found important to maintain were:
- Talking with my doctors and a therapist. Mental health is just as important as physical health. In moments of high stress and grief, your doctors and counselors are allies. There are so many resources and options for taking care of yourself, and it’s not just medication. I don’t like to use medication, so my doctors and therapist help me find natural ways, like talk therapy and meditation, to feel better.
- Maintaining a healthy diet. Listen to your body. I have learned that gluten, dairy, sugar, and alcohol usually make my body feel bad. There can be a tendency to rely on food, treats, or alcohol during times of stress, which isn’t helpful. (I am so guilty of this!) If you really listen to your body and consume food and beverages healthfully, it can make a noticeably positive difference.
- Consider vitamins and supplements, but talk to your doctor first. My doctor told me that I sometimes get a Vitamin D deficiency, which can worsen seasonal depression and weaken the immune system. I also have talked to my doctor about the benefits of fish oil and turmeric supplements for inflammation. When I take all of my vitamins on a regular basis, I noticed that I feel a lot better!
- Hydrate! I struggle with this, and I know a lot of other people do, too. Dehydration makes your body feel crummy, and it can affect your mental health too! I carry a 32-ounce water bottle with me every day and I aim to drink between 100-120 ounces of water every day. I limit coffee, and I avoid soda and sugary drinks. Water is life!
- Exercise. I struggle with this, too, but I’ve been told that even 30 minutes of exercise each day can make an enormous difference. It’s important to find an exercise that you like. I recently fell back in love with Zumba because it makes me laugh. All the dancing feels more like fun than exercise, so I try to do that a few times during the week, and I also try to hit 10,000 steps everyday.
- Meditation and/or Yoga. I learned about Kripalu yoga during a mindfulness-based stress reduction class. It’s easy and gentle, and made me feel so relaxed. I also learned about the benefits of meditation. There are so many apps out there that offer guided meditations. I use Insight Timer, but I know others who love Breathe and Calm. Five to ten minutes of meditation every day can bring down your blood pressure, calm anxiety, and reduce stress.
- Practice self-care. Listen to yourself and do what makes your soul happy! Some examples include: increasing positive self-talk, laughing with a friend, establishing healthy boundaries, saying no to stressful plans, staying home and watching your favorite show, taking a bubble bath, getting a massage, or going for a long walk in a beautiful nature setting. As long as it’s healthy and it makes you happy, you should make time for it!
- Sleep. Your body needs rest more than ever during stressful times, but unfortunately, stress can cause insomnia. I try to combat nighttime restlessness with a cup of herbal tea, limited time on my phone in the evenings, and a consistent bedtime routine.
It’s so important to take care of our bodies. We only get one! And mental health affects overall health, so don’t ignore or shrug off feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression. We have to be our own best advocates for health if we are going to make it through this crazy life! ❤️