The Importance of Psychosocial Support
Recently, I had to come to terms with the fact that my stem cell transplant was not a finite curative therapy. At first, I was angry, then defeated. But as I tried to process the disappointment I felt, psychosocial stressors started to affect my physical, mental, and emotional health. Full disclosure, it felt like I was unraveling quite quickly.
Psychosocial stress and sickle cell
Psychosocial stress occurs when a life situation creates an intense level of stress. This can result in maladaptive behaviors, which are counterproductive or detrimental reactions to external/internal stimuli. These can include avoidance, withdrawal, anger, or a passive-aggressive disposition. These behaviors can stop you from adjusting to new or difficult circumstances.
In my case, I experienced physical symptoms like headaches, irritability, insomnia, rapid heartbeat, and sweating. These were caused by what psychologists call an "achievement/goal-oriented evaluation." Honestly, psychosocial stress can push your body into fight or flight mode. This leads to social withdrawal, isolation, and low energy. For clarity, I'll explain this concept using a personal example.
The weight of expectations
My transplant journey involved a lot of people — family, friends, work colleagues, physicians, nurses, community advocates, prayer circles, and well-wishers. People had watched me battle sickle cell for over 3 decades, so the prospect of being sickle cell-free was a source of hope and joy to many. As you can imagine, my recovery was closely monitored by doctors, and at every major milestone (30, 60, 90 days) people would repeatedly ask how I was doing/feeling.
To cut down the back-and-forth text message exchange, I took it upon myself to share quarterly email updates with a small group of close friends and family. As I continued to battle chronic pain and iron overload, it became apparent that my recovery would take longer than I had anticipated. Therein lies the disappointment and anger I felt.
My family had sacrificed so much. I was eager to repay years of kindness, compassion, and care. Living a pain-free, healthy, and happy life would be a small token of my appreciation to them. However, the healing was taking too long and I felt my biggest achievement slipping away. Everything I felt, thought, and believed on the inside started to manifest itself outwardly.
The importance of seeking psychosocial support
My chronic stress symptoms aggravated existing conditions like migraines and asthma. To better understand how this type of stress affected me, I sought help from a senior psychometrist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who taught me about the mind-body connection.
The pandemic brought to light the importance of taking care of our mental health, and therapy helped me reframe my thought structures, identify my behavior, and manage stress better. One of the important lessons I learned is that I don't have to carry my feelings alone anymore; I can heal old wounds and move on from traumatic incidents that made me sad or anxious.
How I learned to manage stress with sickle cell
It isn't always possible to completely remove the sources of stress in your life, but you can learn to center yourself in stressful situations.
Leaning on others
A good therapist can help you feel heard, comfortable, and accepted. As I navigate life in my 30s, I've made it a practice to strengthen supportive relationships that mean a lot to me. Instead of withdrawing socially, I lean on my mom, my faith, and my tight circle of friends.
One of my favorite things to do is journal. It declutters my mind, helps me to better understand my feelings, and keeps my hands busy. I purchased a mind and body journal to help me process thoughts, emotions, and triggers. Making a conscious decision to make my mind a more pleasant place came at a fair price — filtering my feelings from the crystal clear facts. Journaling lets you be a spectator of your own thoughts. You observe silently, reflect, and let go!
Meditating my way
Mindful meditation and breathing exercises were hard to incorporate because my mind was constantly in overdrive. Every time I'd start a daily meditation podcast, my mind was flooded with random thoughts — Did I unplug the flat iron? What am I eating for lunch? Wait, did I forget to email Sarah? etc. However, I quickly learned that there are different types of meditation.
The true purpose of meditation is to slow down your mind from constantly oscillating between events of the past and worries of the future. Since I was raised in the Catholic faith, reciting my rosary always made me feel closer to God. Contemplative prayer is a form of spiritual meditation, so I adopted elements of silent, spoken, and chanted prayers. Although prayers can sometimes feel repetitive, they gave me an opportunity to lay my burdens down and surrender to a higher power.
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