How Getting Shingles Saved My Life

shinglesDid the title make you do a double-take? Same! Even though I penned it myself, I am still shocked that suffering through an awful virus has completely changed my life for the better. I was once a woman plagued by stress, consumed with productivity, and if I’m honest, a little proud of my busyness and ability to “do it all” — until the day I could not.

On December 17, 2021, Santa banished me to the naughty list, but instead of leaving coal in my stocking, I got a nasty case of shingles. Here’s the scoop on shingles: If you had chickenpox as a child, the varicella-zoster virus lies dormant in your body. For some, it may never rear its ugly head again, but for those unlucky ones like me, it can reappear and wreak havoc. Some common risk factors are age (over 50), certain medications (prolonged use of steroids), and a compromised immune system.

Let us dig a little deeper into that last one. Though not an official cause of shingles (and in my opinion, I want to add a yet), research does link stress to a weakened immune system. Though I am not a medical professional, I am living proof that my highly stressful life events exhausted my immune system to the point that my varicella-zoster virus did rear its ugly little head.

The two weeks leading up to my illness are what one would consider a perfect storm. My husband was unexpectedly out of town for work, forcing me into double-duty parent mode. My days are jam-packed; I have three part-time gigs, with some fitness sessions starting with a 5:45 a.m. wake-up call. I log carpool miles upwards of 75 miles a day between the girls’ school and gymnastics practices. My septuagenarian parents have recently moved here, but my dad was leaving town that same week for the first time, leaving me to look after my mom, too. I love my mom, but my dad does a lot to take care of their daily activities. She may or may not have gotten lost driving to my house and left her phone at home, so I had no way to contact her. At that moment, I realized that if anything did happen, I barely had a description of their car, and I for sure did not know the license plate number! It was one of those days that turned into one of those days, again and again. I was completely over-programmed. Looking back, I missed all the signs. I was physically exhausted at the end of the day but had trouble falling asleep. I got my first cold sore in the corner of my mouth but didn’t think much of it. My body was so stiff because I was holding the weight of my world on my shoulders. Why didn’t I ask for help? Valid question because I have a great support system. I was too busy to ask for more help and made a habit of just powering through. It took my body screaming out in pain from shingles for me to realize that something had to change — and change immediately.

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Unfortunately, my shingles erupted right below my eye, and what started as a twitching tingly sensation quickly turned into unsightly oozing blisters. But worse than the blisters was the gut-wrenching nerve pain. I have not felt that kind of paralyzing pain since childbirth. Much like a contraction, it hit me in waves. I couldn’t talk and had to close my eyes. I tried to distract myself from the pain by counting my breaths. I was told to avoid crying if possible because if the blisters oozed into my eye, there could be a risk of vision loss. The irony of trying not to create more stress while I was obviously failing in the stress department was not lost on me.

Because of the location of my shingles, I landed in the office of one of the most compassionate ophthalmologists at the Mayo Clinic (Dr. Doja, please excuse my tardiness in thanking you for changing my life). After my eye exam, in which thankfully he told me my vision was unaffected, he rolled his stool close to me and gently told me I was too young to be this sick. He wanted to know what was wrong, and he wanted to help. He explained that I must be under significant stress, as I had no other risk factors. He so eloquently and wisely said stress will always come back, but I had to find a new way to live with it. He said he was a man of medicine, but it can only do so much. We talked about prayer, he spoke about carving out time to just be, like meditating. His words have echoed in my heart and my head for the last four months, and it turns out he was right about everything. Don’t get me wrong, I was a complete skeptic — but I did the research. How could a bunch of deep breaths change my circumstances? Well, it does not, but it changed my perspective while teaching me the tools I need to manage my stress. 

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I have been diligent each week to meditate. Research shows stress throws us into fight or flight mode controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. Our heart rates increase while our normal body functions slow down to keep us on high alert. Our bloodstream is flooded with cortisol, which is fine for short periods of time. But when constantly in this heightened state, our immune systems will weaken, and our bodies will not perform their normal duties at an optimal level. Meditation flips the switch from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic system, calming us down and allowing our body to rest, relax, and resume normal life.

I know what you are thinking, what if I just fall asleep? I am too ADD to stay focused on just breathing. Or the ever-popular, how do I know I am doing it right? Another thing I love about meditation is that there is no meditation police. I have fallen asleep, but it is still a win in my book because sleeping is better than being wide awake and stressed out, am I right? There are so many apps offered to guide you through meditation. I stumbled upon Headspace, and it was such a good match I am still using it. I picked my instructor (love me some Andy), and there is a menu of meditations based on time and certain focuses like anxiety, sleep issues, and of course, stress! Plus, they offer a free two-week trial — just long enough to complete the stress management meditation course and get hooked. Not only did Andy walk me through the breathing exercises, but he also imparted little tidbits about stress itself. The kind of quotes you want to stick on a Post-It because it will hit you again right when you need it.

Some of you think you do not have time to drop everything and breathe. Take it from me, you cannot afford not to. Shingles lasted a full two weeks: seven days with the blisters and another week dealing with ghost pains and waiting for the redness and inflammation to subside. Turns out recovery is exhausting. My body was working overtime to fight this virus. With rest and daily meditations, I came out the other side. Shingles is a real witch. Once I got my clean bill of health, my doc warned me I am at the greatest risk for a second case of the shingles within the next two years! I am constantly relearning that I cannot control anything, but I can control what healthy habits I utilize to manage stress. I firmly believe that mediation is one of my best lines of defense, and it should be yours, too.

Do you have a meditation practice? How do you go about combating stress?

Mary-Lauren is a curly-haired Texan in the trenches of motherhood with two sassy and entertaining daughters. A busy body in the truest sense, she teaches fitness classes all week at Define Jacksonville. To stay sane, Mary-Lauren requires a daily dose of dark chocolate, unwinds with a page-turner and folds laundry watching just the kind of reality TV that she will forbid her girls from watching in the future. A wannabe foodie, she loves to learn about, prepare, experiment and indulge in all things food…well except the shopping part with kids in tow. She blogs about all things fitness from debunking the latest trends to goal setting, Mary-Lauren is passionate about being active, being real and being healthy!

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