Adrenal fatigue and the restless creative; or why I haven’t posted in a while

I’m happy to say I’ve finally reached an age where I like myself enough to secretly revel in many of my flaws. Not saying I don’t have any flaws, I’ve got plenty…but they’re my flaws. By this point, they are old friends. Besides, I sometimes get a little thrill of defiance from indulging them.

irons

But I do still have some tendencies I’d like to change, and one of them is the irresistible urge to constantly add new irons to a fire that is already bristling with them. Even as I am juggling 437 unfinished projects and trying to cope with a totally fried nervous system (on which more anon), I am thinking to myself how I never got to take that Arabic drumming class I wanted to sign up for like 4 years ago, and maybe I should try to find a teacher locally… And while I’m at it, why don’t I write an article for an academic journal? And I really should get back into dancing, I miss that. Hey! Why don’t I teach my darling dog to heel finally? He’s 7 already, he should probably know that. Oh! I’m going to draw a picture. No! I’ll do a watercolor instead! And on and on and on.

Here is a tasting menu of projects I have floating around (besides the ones already mentioned):

  • Various tinctures and infused oil
  • Making chamomile baby lotion for a friend who had a baby…2 months ago
  • New labels for the tinctures & oils I’ve already made (which OF COURSE means modifying the design)
  • Learning to play the Great Highland Bagpipes
  • Assorted drawings and sketches of assorted things
  • Finding places to hike around here and then actually hiking
  • Finishing the edits on my dissertation so I can finally get the blasted thing published

These are just the first ones to come to mind.

I get very frustrated with myself–I mean I hate it–when I don’t finish what I start (which is often). But I’m beginning to come to terms with the fact that I am by nature a wanderer, a mental gypsy; I wither if I’m not able to jump from idea to idea, project to project, place to place. Although I long for stability, for better or worse I’m actually most at home in the moment of change.

There’s just one ugly little wrinkle in this Bohemian creative idyll: adrenal fatigue. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, I may as well say from the get-go that the notion is rejected by conventional medicine, which views it as a passle of unrelated symptoms that, by their own admission, they can barely palliate, let alone heal. Conventional medicine only recognizes complete adrenal failure, a.k.a. Addison’s disease.

adrenals

Adrenal fatigue–for those who consider it a valid diagnosis–arises when type adrenal glands have been overworked to the point that they are out of whack. Like all your glands, they work in partnership; the endocrine system is like a precisely choreographed dance, and if one part gets out of step the while thing goes balls up. So it could be that your symptoms started with a thyroid imbalance, or a problem with the pituitary, or even the ovaries or testes. It could have begun with a bit of depression (or use of antidepressants), heavy metal toxicity, chemical sensitivity, or an auto/immune reaction. Who knows. Point is, based on my experience I think adrenal fatigue is at least as useful a diagnosis as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, or irritable bowel syndrome. That is, it’s a name for a suite of symptoms, any one of which could be something else, but taken as a whole they are something distinct. In traditional Chinese medicine, the suite of symptoms known as adrenal fatigue is recognized as kidney yang deficiency, kidney yin deficiency, or both. The kidneys (including the adrenal glands) are extremely important in TCM, being the receptacles of life force (jing) and responsible for regulation of fluids, sodium, fertility and the reproductive system, and many other important body processes.

In the alternative health community, it is said that adrenal fatigue is the silent epidemic of the modern world. (Just google it and see how much stuff you’ll find.) If you spend your days constantly poised for fight-or-flight-or-freeze alarm–and really who doesn’t these days?–and if you’re not getting enough sleep–then my friend, you are on the road to adrenal fatigue. In my previous career in the hallowed halls of academia, I spent over a decade under extremely high stress. I guess that might come as a surprise to some; there seem to be many people that believe that the academic life is quite cushy, all self-indulgent navel-gazing. And compared to coal mining, that’s quite true. But the culture of academia creates and sustains very high stress levels, and it is more work than many suppose. For example, the first two to three times you teach a course, you will work 80+ hour weeks just on that one course. Most academics teach two or three courses at a time, and we are required to do our own research in our “free” time. A recent study found that, in the categories of “conflicting management demands, workloads and pressures on their time,” “Academics experience far higher levels of stress in these areas than employees in other professions.” I can’t for the life of me find it now, but there was a great post on the London School of Economics’ Impact of Social Sciences blog about how the culture of academia effectively coerces one to work to the breaking point (and beyond) by (1) attracting people who are already highly altruistic, idealistic, and given to self-questioning (= self-monitoring, -editing, and -doubting), (2) telling us that it’s a moral virtue to work for insufficient compensation, (3) inflating the importance of our work, (4) breaking down support networks by emphasizing constant competition among colleagues, with attendant vicious verbal attacks, (5) imposing impossible-to-meet deadlines and goals so that (6) there is never any downtime. It’s not that there’s some nefarious conspiracy doing this to us, it’s just the value system that currently exists. Will a hundred puppies die of a broken heart if you forget to cite the latest paper on mortuary theory and its application to Late Iron Age British burials? No. But you’d swear that you can hear those little puppies calling you and your work insufferably stupid and pretentious with their last dying little puppy breaths. Just as (in my experience) people who go through law school come out confident and contentious, people who go through grad school come out uptight and defensive; before we even make a statement we’ve anticipated the possible counter-arguments and prepared a bulleted list of counter-counter-arguments for each. (I know–not fun at parties.)

I don’t wish to imply that other careers don’t have their stress factors–at least no one’s life depended on my work–but merely to stress (ba dum ching!) that I developed a very bad habit of stressing after spending over a decade in an environment that is now recognized as being detrimental to a person’s mental and physical health.

hormones

So that’s how my adrenals got fatigued. Now, there are many symptoms of adrenal burnout, depending on how severe the situation is, but the main one is chronic fatigue coupled with chronic high levels of anxiety. In a layman’s nutshell, you could say that I am constantly stressing out way more than the situation actually warrants, and my body is so used to that level of anxiety that it can’t settle down; then when a genuinely stressworthy event comes along my body has nothing left to give. No more energy, no more adrenaline, no more cortisol. So I break down mentally and emotionally and usually get sick physically.

I’m not going to delve more deeply into the subject of adrenal fatigue at this time because it’s something that I want to research more and come back to later. It’s an incredibly difficult problem to heal, it seems, but there are herbal therapies and I want to explore those (and try them!). As I do, I will report the results here. For now, I just want to bring this post full circle by noting that the restless creative drive is not very compatible with crushing fatigue. Sometimes the reason a project doesn’t get finished is that I just get worn out. This blog is one of my favorite creative irons-in-the-fire, and I believe I’ll keep coming back to it for a long time yet, but I’m learning that sometimes I just have to take a break. So if I disappear for a little while, don’t worry–I’ll be back. And next time I hope to have useful information for you!

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2 thoughts on “Adrenal fatigue and the restless creative; or why I haven’t posted in a while

  1. I love your writings…”I am by nature a wanderer, a mental gypsy; I wither if I’m not able to jump from idea to idea, project to project, place to place.” This is me exactly!
    Glad I found your site 😉

    • Thanks Karen! (1) It warms the cockles of my heart (what are the cockles of a heart, I wonder?) to hear that you’re enjoying my ravings! and (2) I’m glad to meet (albeit virtually) a kindred spirit. ❤

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