Healing your dysfunctional stress response system is a multifactorial process. The system only falls apart because of chronic, cumulative stress over time, often taking decades before it yields the greatest problematic symptoms. Because it’s a process, it takes time to heal. At times, it can be challenging to see the incremental progress, because the changes are subtle. These are a few indicators I share with my patients in the middle of treatment.
#1 You’re becoming calmer
For your system to heal, it has to calm down. You be able to tell it’s calming down by noticing you are less wired, you’re anxiety is down, or you’re sleeping better. It’s not that you can’t heal at all until your system is perfectly calm, but you want to see that it’s always calming more and more. The more it calms, the faster you will heal. At first, calming may show itself as you having fewer (or less severe) panic attacks, or maybe just fewer wakings at night. It may show itself as you noticing slivers of time when you are less wired. If your system is calming, even a little, then you’re healing.
#2 Your symptoms are decreasing in intensity
You will notice the symptoms decreasing not only in intensity but in frequency and duration. You will still have symptoms for a while, but they will slowly fade away. You’ll notice you have a little less pain, or your sleep is improving, or you have less brain fog. These periods of decreased symptoms will occur…sporadically at first. You’ll get glimpses of fewer symptoms. But those glimpses turn into moments, moments turn into minutes, and minutes string together into an hour here and there. Decent days, weeks: they’re on their way. As long as your symptoms are decreasing in intensity, frequency, and duration, you are healing.
#3 You’re “doing” more
In time, you’ll realize that you’re doing more. This, too, is incremental. The changes you notice depend on your level of dysfunction. Someone functioning at 10% is going to notice different changes than is someone functioning at 70%. For some people, it will feel like being able to be vertical a little more; for others, it will mean being able to do two tasks in a day, as opposed to only one. Initially, these changes are subtle and are often only seen in retrospect (you may only notice when your symptoms return). My predecessor, Dr. Gerald Poesnecker, would never ask patients how they felt; rather he would ask them, “What are you up to?” or “What are you doing these days?” As long as his patients were doing more and more, incrementally, he knew they were healing.
#4 Your functional capacity improves
Symptoms occur as your life’s demands approach or exceed your ability to live it; this is what’s called “functional capacity.” You will have symptoms for a long time, even as you are healing. As I said before, they will decrease in intensity, frequency, and duration over time, but they will still be present. The idea is to reduce your life’s demands within the parameters of your current ability, below your current functional capacity. Do that, and those parameters will gradually broaden over time. As those parameters broaden, and as your functional capacity increases, you will automatically do more. Inevitably, your life will again approach its new, increased functional capacity; as this happens, you will see some familiar symptoms return. You have approached your new functional capacity ceiling. Back off again, tighten the reins, lighten your load, and your functional capacity will again begin to increase.
Holding onto the reins
You will gradually start to do more as you heal. This is inevitable; it’s human nature. Even though I recommend my patients resist and to “hold onto the reins,” you will eventually live a bit more every day. Having gone through it myself and knowing the ups and downs of the condition, I don’t doubt you will want more and do more.
“Holding onto the reins” means keeping life simplified by minimizing demands, keeping stress and responsibility low, and doing as little as possible for as long as possible. Think of it this way: The less energy you spend, the more you save. The more you save, the quicker you build up that energetic bank account that’s been drained.
Don’t chase the energy
Strange enough, although this condition is hallmarked by a lack of sustained energy, I recommend that patients not pay attention to the energy as a sign of healing, at least not initially. I ask them to trust that it will come in time, however. The process of the body creating energy is a complex one, and Adrenal Dysfunction results in several mechanisms of damage to that very process. The energy only comes as the system starts to heal as a whole.
To get your system to heal, it has to calm. You have to turn on the healing and repair (rest and digest) side of your physiology. Chasing energy is always problematic because it’s always artificial. If your body could give you energy, it would. Anything from the outside, like stimulants, herbs, vitamins, etc., are designed to give you energy will lead you to believe you have energy, and that false energy is not really yours; it belongs to a pill. False energy is dangerous, and it will make you worse over time. Be patient with the process, and the energy will come.
There’s no corner to “turn”
With Adrenal Dysfunction, recovery is inconsistent and sporadic, especially in the beginning. Eventually, you will be able to depend on the energy you think you have, but in the beginning, it will be fleeting. I tell my patients don’t get used to how you feel right now because it’s temporary (that goes for feeling bad, as well). You will have good days and bad days for a while.
Eventually, the energy will be more consistent, but it takes time. There is “no turning the corner” on your way to healing, which means it’s not all smooth sailing and gradual, linear improvement. You will have setbacks, detours, and crashes, and that is okay. It’s the nature of this condition. As long as you start having more ups and fewer downs over time, you are healing.