Work overload really blows your mind!
Work stress and headaches go together. Too much angst hits you in physical ways you might not realize, resulting in a stress-related disorder. Here’s a story about how stress overload really blows your mind!
Stress can destroy your health.
When you go for long periods of time with unrelenting stress at super-sized levels, your body is in overdrive. If you revved your car’s engine non-stop, it would break down.
That’s what happens when you live a stress-loaded life without relief. Your body says, “Enough”. And it speaks to you in physical messages. You experience chronic pain in your neck, back, or stomach. You have serious gut problems, like irritable bowel syndrome. Or maybe the body screams at you by powering up headaches so intense that you feel like your brain is about to explode.
These conditions are stress-related disorders and share a feature called “nerve sensitization”. You can develop nerve sensitization that shows up as irritable bowel syndrome, interstitial cystitis, fibromyalgia, migraines, or one of many stress-related disorders.
Bryan’s business became a massive headache.
Not long ago, I met Bryan, an entrepreneur who had built his construction company from the ground up over a ten-year period. He was CEO, COO, and the director of both HR and IT, all at the same time. Bryan was also involved hands-on in the day-to-day workings of the business.
When Bryan came to see me, he had just endured a grueling, three-month stress fest, courtesy of a difficult client. Ivan demanded changes that went beyond the scope of the project. He then refused to pay for the work when it was completed. Ivan’s aggressiveness and arrogance caused three separate project managers to beg Bryan to take them off that job.
With no other manager he could subject to Ivan’s tirades, Bryan stepped up—at the price of his health. Bryan came to my clinic for relief from piercing pain behind his left eye. As he spoke, I noticed his upper eyelid drooping and the eye watering. He was congested and his nose ran. He showed the signs of a migraine or cluster headache.
Bryan thought he was having a stroke. We both agreed he should get to the emergency room immediately. When he arrived, he was ushered to the triage area, where they determine how much of an emergency your emergency really is.
His blood pressure had soared, which could result from the pain or the heart pushing blood to an area that wasn’t getting enough flow. High blood pressure happens with a stroke. He had a CT scan of his head.
After waiting for hours, Bryan was told by a doctor that his CT scan showed nothing abnormal. He diagnosed the pain as a severe migraine headache and followed with, “I see a fair number of these in guys your age. Let’s try a few medications to see if we can calm the headache.”
Treat the cause of the disorder, not just the symptoms.
Any pain reliever is designed to relieve pain. It’s doing nothing to deal with the underlying cause. For Bryan, the medicine could make the headache go away, but it was a temporary fix because he had to address the source of his horrific pain.
Bryan came back to see me after the ER visit, to discuss the findings. Or, more accurately, the lack of findings.
After a lot of conversation, it was clear Bryan’s high stress level triggered his headaches. His body and brain were breaking down after years of living with a supercharged sympathetic nervous system (your body’s stress physiology). So, to combat them, we had to deal with the cause. His body couldn’t tolerate his stress levels. His workload was unsustainable.
Three-step treatment plan
For someone as dedicated to his work and business as Bryan, scaling back was a tough change. But he also knew he couldn’t live with the chronic headaches.
Here’s the three-step treatment plan we came up with together:
- Awareness. Bryan needed to note when he began to feel a headache coming on. What was happening in his life at the time? Recognizing the connection between the stress and his physical response was essential to managing the stress-related condition.
- Stress management. Bryan hired additional staff so he could delegate more of his responsibilities. And he vowed to fire Ivan as a client!
- Medication. The result of the long-term stress was a chronic headache disorder. They weren’t going away, but by taking a daily medication, he could manage the pain.
Your body responds to stress in physical ways. Too much stress can lead to long-term health problems. Learn more about stress-related conditions and nerve sensitization in the forthcoming book Sunbreak (coming summer/fall 2023).