It was in many ways a very happy and exciting time in my life –
I had just met my future husband and things were getting serious.
I had finally started the most coveted part of medical school – seeing patients.
But things were going downhill fast.
Almost overnight, I developed full blown panic attacks that struck literally anywhere (during rounds at the hospital, in the middle of church, at dinner with friends), severe irritable bowel syndrome that also pretty much reared its ugly head everywhere, migraines on an almost daily basis, and extreme fatigue.
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
And it left me scrambling from doctor to doctor, getting test after test (think blood tests, CT scans, EKGs) with little more insight than – “Your tests are normal. You must be stressed. Here are a bunch of prescriptions you can start taking.”
Well, obviously, that wasn’t what I was looking for. I mean, I was relieved that everything was “normal” but I didn’t feel normal, and I didn’t know how to fix any of my crippling symptoms.
But one thing really hit home – I was stressed.
I was soooooooo stressed.
I had been stressed as long as I could remember. Even as a middle schooler. I mean, I always, always, always wanted to be a doctor, and I knew that it would take a ton of work to get there even as a young kid.
So, from an early age, I put tons of pressure on myself.
The pressure didn’t even come from my parents – it was just internally driven (More on that in a later blog post).
I went to crazy-hard magnet schools in junior high and high school where I was tasked to study non-stop and perform well. Then I went to an even more demanding university where the pressure was exponentially greater (but I had a great friend network and social life that saved my tail), and then I went to med school – the most dysfunctional learning environment of all – where I would attend lectures for 8 hours a day, and study for 8 hours (or more) a day, and the pressure was out of this world.
So finally after years and years of being in full-on stress/survival mode, my nervous system couldn’t handle the load any longer and it started to break down.
I had been chased by the proverbial lion for way too long.
And if it hadn’t been for the help of an amazing nun that taught me meditation and centering prayer and later introduced me to biofeedback, I don’t know if I would have been able to get my panic attacks under control so I could get through the rest of med school.
Most of the patients that I see in my practice are under significant amounts of stress.
Their nervous systems are also so fired up that they believe they are being chased by a lion all the time. And here’s the thing- it doesn’t matter if you are really in danger or if your mind just believes you are in danger – your nervous system fires in the same way.
So how do you step back from that edge?
Biofeedback is the use of electronic monitoring of a normally automatic bodily function in order to train someone to acquire voluntary control of that function.
In other words, you can see how your body is responding in real-time to the exercises that you are doing.
One of my very favorite tools is InnerBalance.
In fact, I recommend it to many of my patients, and I have been using it for years.
It basically allows you to retrain your nervous system so that you can go into a relaxation response quickly. By looking at your heart rate variability and using breath work, you are able to quickly get back into a state of relaxation. And as you practice these quick and simple exercises over time, you are better able to flip the switch from feeling like you are being chased by T-Rex to feeling relaxed.
There have been many studies done on HeartMath technology that show significant results in stress management. In a recent study, they found the following improvements in mental & emotional well-being in over 5,500 people in just 6-9 weeks using heart rate variability biofeedback training and technology:
- 50% drop in fatigue
- 46% drop in anxiety
- 60% drop in depression
- 24% improvement in the ability to focus
- 25% improvement in listening ability
- 30% improvement in sleep
Pretty impressive if you ask me.
Meditation and centering prayer are also really wonderful ways to come down from that edge of fight or flight. And in my case, I was really lucky to have found a nun that taught me how to do those things!
But oftentimes, my patients feel anxious about attempting meditation on their own. So, biofeedback has become my go-to tool for teaching patients how to elicit the relaxation response and I see it as a gateway into meditation and other mindfulness practices.
I have found InnerBalance to be one of the most profound and transformative tools in my practice, as well in my own life.