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HIV/AIDS Blog Central

Stress: "Is It Worth Losing a T Cell?"

By Elizabeth Lombino

May 26, 2011

I probably don't need to tell you that our lives are full of tons of stress. Money, relationships, terror alerts, traffic, unemployment, poverty, the endless circus of GOP candidates, finding out your partner had a child with your maid 10 years ago (okay, maybe that one is specific to a certain Kindergarten Cop).

When you are living with HIV/AIDS, stress can be intensified. Okay, that's a total understatement. Stress can be like a tornado swirling with HIV-related debris coming at you from every angle. Doctor's appointments, endless blood work, waiting for results of blood work, HIV medications, additional medications to off-set the countless side-effects of HIV medications, financial strain, treatment fatigue, stigma, discrimination, disclosure issues ... I could go on with this list, yet that would mean this blog post would be insanely long. Plus, we need to move on to the part where we help you relieve the stress.

There is abundant research that shows a clear connection between our minds and bodies, especially as it pertains to stress. Think about it -- when you experience stress, you feel it in your body. Maybe your muscles tighten, your heart races, your stomach gets upset, you have trouble sleeping. These are just some of the ways stress can impact our bodies.

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Just as our bodies feel the stress of our minds, we can use our bodies to help relieve the stress. Something as simple as taking a deep breath can work wonders in reducing the impact of stress on our bodies. Try it right now. Take a nice, deep, cleansing breath. It helps us to slow down, to provide our muscles with much-needed oxygen, and to slow our heart rate. Of course, the stressful situation is still here, yet our minds and bodies are much better equipped to deal with the stress.

For those living with HIV/AIDS, using your bodies to minimize stress is essential. The impact of stressful issues can be detrimental to your overall health and well-being. Stress not only negatively affects your body and mind, it also can further compromise your immune system. When feeling excessive stress, your T-cell count can lower. This is true for those without compromised immune systems as well. Yet, if the goal is to raise your T-cell count, how you handle stress can be counter-productive in this goal.

In one of the therapy groups I ran, I had a client who talked about stress relief as a necessity for her. She had a saying that has stuck with me: "Is this situation worth me losing a T cell over?" She would talk about her life, the stress she encountered, and always ask that question. As others would be discussing their stressors, she would ask them the same question. It was incredibly powerful and helped everyone see their lives in a new way.

Now of course I realize this is all easier said than done. "Relieve stress, no problem!" I realize it's not this easy. If it were, there would not be a Self-Help aisle in every single book store across the country. Stress relief is something that takes practice and requires you to be in touch with your body and mind. Do you know where you feel stress in your body? Take a moment to think about it. I listed some of the places above. Maybe you feel stress in all of those places. Maybe your neck tightens, or your jaw locks, or your back aches. Stress settles in our bodies. Only when we pay attention to our bodies can we tell where our stress is and take steps to relieve it.

For me, my muscles tighten and ache. All of my muscles. My face, my hands, my back, even my feet. If I let the stress settle in these places, clearly I would have some trouble getting around. So for me, exercise, stretching and breathing work wonders. As I breathe in, I focus my breath to the muscles that are tight. I breathe out and focus on relaxing those muscles. It helps so much. Of course I've been doing this for years now. It took a ton of practice. So it's okay if you don't feel relief on the first try.

In addition, it's perfectly fine if a strategy doesn't work for you. For some people, breathing doesn't work very well. Especially if you are the type of person who has difficulty focusing or slowing down. It may take more practice, or it may not work effectively at all. That's okay. What works for one person may not work for another. That's the beauty of stress relief -- it's personal and there are a ton of options to try. Keep trying something until you feel some relief.

Here's a brief and not comprehensive list of some stress relieving strategies: breathing, exercise, light stretching/yoga, listening to music, playing music, dancing, quiet time, looking at a calming picture, closing your eyes and visualizing a calm place (like the forest or beach), calling a friend, humor, taking a walk, chocolate, prayer, writing, therapy, reading a good book, taking a bubble bath, massage.

Remember, none of these will take stress away completely. Sorry, I wish I could wave a magic wand and all stress would vanish. These strategies are meant to reduce the impact of stress on your mind and body. To assist you in feeling refreshed, energized, and better equipped to deal with the stress. To help you not lose excess T cells but rather, assist you in feeling healthier and happier.

Try one or more and see what works for you! I plan to discuss many of these more specifically in future posts. Please also feel free to share some of your favorite stress-relieving tips in the comments! The more ideas and tools we all have, the healthier and happier we will all be. So always ask yourself: Is this situation worth losing a T cell over?

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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Mary A. (Fargo, ND) Sun., Jun. 19, 2011 at 9:52 pm EDT
What helps me relieve stress? SEX!
Reply to this comment


Comment by: Mark S. King (Fort Lauderdale, FL) Wed., Jun. 15, 2011 at 7:50 am EDT
Thanks for this healthy reminder, Elizabeth. I have always been one of those hyper, low-attention span type people, and the constant rushing and stressing would have probably really hurt me by now, if I hadn't found ways to slow things down.

I have become very Zen in my middle age, learning to let things slide off my back that I cannot control, and learning, further, that that includes just about everything!

Here's one more tip: call a friend who could use your compassionate ear. Just focus on how they are doing and just listen, without too much talking about yourself or even offering advice. They will deeply appreciate the attention, it gets you out of your own worries for a few minutes and probably make you feel grateful not to be in their situation!

It works for me, and now my friends think I'm a swell listener.
Reply to this comment


Comment by: Kel (Western, MD) Tue., Jun. 7, 2011 at 12:46 am EDT
Dear Elizabeth,

I was very glad to read your blog, thank you for all of your efforts. The woman in your group who said "is it worth a T cell", is a very very wise person...

I was however extremely suprised to not find Transcendental Meditation mentioned in your suggested list of tools. Personally, I find it to be the most powerful of all of the correcting efforts that I use to manage my mind-body-spirit relationship...including pharmacology, with the exception of the anti-virals... I haven't learned to focus that far yet... hahaha Unfortunately I don't pratice as often as I wish I did. But, when I do even take just a few moments to center and focus on "my" bigger picture I feel lighter, calmer, more peaceful and grateful for the wisdom of the "practice". I believe that every human being can benefit from it and it should be taught in every venue of better health... but, expecially for those of us who have serious health issues. I took a eight session class years ago and it was the single best $80., I've ever spent...

Peace & Health Always,
Kel
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Elizabeth Lombino Fri., Jun. 10, 2011 at 3:50 pm EDT
Thank you very much for your comments, Kel.
Great suggestion of Transcendental Meditation. I'm really glad it has been working for you.


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Elizabeth Lombino

Elizabeth Lombino

As a Social Worker, I have been providing mental health treatment to HIV-positive adults for over 10 years. I received my master's in Social Work from Columbia University. Also, I write about HIV/AIDS advocacy and present at national conferences on the issues related to HIV/AIDS to professionals and students. Through writing and presenting, I can better advocate for the issues that I see with my clients every day. Living with HIV/AIDS can be a daily struggle with many unique challenges. My goal with this blog is to provide a sort of cyber therapy space for you to learn some skills and tools to better cope with these challenges. Hopefully you will gain confidence and look at life in new ways. Through humor, hope, sarcasm, education, and other therapeutic tools, let me help you live a happier life! So sit back, relax, and let's start relieving some stress!

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