by Jenna Warnock
Stress isn’t inherently bad. We have given it a negative connotation because where it screams the loudest. In the workplace, with personal responsibilities, trauma, and an unending list that I could never finish. Something I always wondered was where stress came from and why it manifests the way it does in certain situations. Not long ago, I witnessed my house erupt in flames while my parents were 1,300 miles away in another state. I felt alone, terrified, and stressed at seeing my house almost burn to ash. Tell me why, then, did I feel equally as alone, terrified, and stressed in the depth of my eating disorder less than two years prior to the fire incident?
Two entirely different situations, yet the same response.
That’s what makes stress so terrifyingly fascinating. We can’t link it to one cause, event, or experience. We can’t see it and can never plan when it comes. When it gets out of our control, it manifests physically in ways as insidious as from where it originates. Everyone knows what it is without knowing what it is at all. We accept it without questioning because we’ve been engrained to believe it’s necessary for survival which, biologically, makes complete sense. Stress exists for the sake of survival, but we live in an age where survival is mostly threatened by our own choices and not the environment we live in.
I could not present a better example of this outside of what I’ve witnessed being an Army dependent. The most common instigators of stress are from the workplace, personal responsibilities, and trauma (physical or emotional). I saw all three consume my dad. He was an operating room (OR) nurse in the military for 20 years. I noticed the workplace stress first. He worked 50-60 hours a week, including weekends, and deployed three times before I was 5 years old.
When I was 9, he transitioned roles outside of the OR that gave him the weekends off for the first time I witnessed in my life. That was 10 years ago and I still vividly remember walking downstairs on the Saturday morning after we moved to Virginia for his new job. I saw my dad in the kitchen. Out of all the things a daughter could have said to her father who had a Saturday off for the first time, I simply asked “Why are you here?”
I didn’t say it with any callous intent, I was simply filled with genuine shock. For the first nine years of my life, I rarely saw my father because of work and it wasn’t until later that I realized why he worked so many hours and how it took a toll on him. Stress consumed him. He couldn’t rest inside or outside of work. He needed chaotic noise to sleep. He had what seemed to be a neverending weight of responsibility to provide for his family he loved so much. As I got older, I was able to understand the completely circuitous journey the military had put my dad on to receive retirement.
It’s been almost four years since he retired and I initially assumed the stress would end in conjunction with his service in the military. I was painfully wrong. Not even a year after retiring, his stress manifested through cancer, hypertension, and heart disease. My dad was never seemingly ill while he was on active duty, and it was no coincidence his body responded this way to retiring.
I’m currently going to school to study human nutrition and metabolism. In turn, I’ve engrossed myself in understanding hormones, food, and how they impact health. With the context of my dad’s work, stress, and health history, I now see clearly how these three entities have intertwined with one another.
I can’t change what has happened to my dad and I can’t cure the accumulated stress the military has entrenched in him. I can, however, combine my experience of witnessing chronic stress and knowledge from school to bring awareness to this all-encompassing silent killer.
Cortisol is the main hormone that responds to stress we encounter both mentally and physically. Cortisol isn’t bad and we have it for a reason. Originally, the main source of stress came from physical threats, so when I say “stress” in the proceeding sentences, I am referring to “holy shit there is a grizzly bear in front of me” stress. It regulates this stress by reorganizing the access to nutrients in our body. It triggers a blast of glucose into our bloodstream for easy access and slows down digestion. Cortisol is actually a very considerate hormone with good intentions. It assumes the stress you feel is coming from a physical threat that will require you to have easy access to fuel and concentrated energy for physical demands (hence diverting energy away from digestion). Hence the “fight or flight” phrase. Cortisol prepares our body for the physical demands of escaping this stressful situation.
It is safe to say our stressful situations do not come from grizzly bears anymore. Our negative stress typically comes from work and not just from its physical demands. It also comes from mental demands. It makes the stress that much harder to manage. Cortisol is only responsible for managing physical stress. What about managing mental stress?
It places us in quite a frustrating position. We have a hormone for regulating stress (yay!), but for the kind of stress we rarely encounter while simultaneously seeing an increase in the form of stress we don’t have a hormone to help regulate (boo!). Leaving this form of stress unregulated keeps our cortisol in a chronically high state. Cortisol and stress are great for short bursts and can be very effective. However, they are entities that should not be left at high levels.
The result of chronic cortisol and stress levels can be seen in my father. He was rarely sick when he was on active duty because his body never stopped to breathe, to assess the current physical state of his biological machinery. He never properly “rested and digested.” The stress while in the military left him in a constant state of unrest for 20 years. Retirement allowed my father to finally hit the brakes after decades, but not without consequence. His body tried, but having such a prolonged level of stress caused him to “make up for lost time.” Me and my family saw this with his cancer, hypertension, and heart disease.
I don’t say these things out of fear or to drive people away from the military. I say it to disrupt the normalization of chronic stress. Work, military or not, takes advantage of the “grind doesn’t stop” mentality. All I can say is don’t let it take advantage of you. If you’ve been chronically stressed for years, you have to be the cortisol for your mind. Have breakfast before PT, don’t have caffeine on an empty stomach, get a consistent sleep schedule, schedule time to do nothing, embrace the sunshine, talk or write out your problems, and go to therapy. These are just a few places to start and you will find the list of ways to manage stress is just as long as the list of causes.
Stress will never disappear completely. Traumatic events will always side-tackle you no matter how they appear. Your house may burn down and you might have an eating disorder, but only you can determine how long those things haunt you. Since those two incidents, I have emotionally recovered from both, at starkly different rates due to how I handled them.
My eating disorder lasted over three years because I denied the stress it gave me. I saw it as “sacrificing for the greater good,” a common theme I see with soldiers serving in the military. It wasn’t until the stress manifested physically, through my shutdown reproductive system and dangerously low weight, that I accepted this chronic stress wasn’t right for me. I addressed the root cause, went to therapy, and set my actions with the intention of doing what was best for me and my well-being.
Years later, my recovery from the stress of the house fire was significantly faster. I connect the stressful experience of my eating disorder and its recovery to my house fire because of what the disorder taught me about managing stress. After the house fire, I knew what I had to do to regulate my nervous system and feel at peace. I journaled and expressed what I felt, whether I understood the feelings or not. I followed a surprisingly similar process of managing stress that I did for my eating disorder.
Don’t wait for the physical manifestations of stress to tell you when to stop. We aren’t designed biologically to handle the amount of stress life tries to give us. Stress, similar to the events that cause them, should always come and go, not stay for eternity. Be the cortisol for your mind. Your body and well-being will thank you for it.
Jenna Warnock is a dietetics student currently attending Appalachian State University. Her interest areas include hormonal health, functional medicine, and public health with the intent of becoming a registered dietitian for the veteran population. Jenna is also an RD2BE [Registered Dietician 2 BE] intern and serves as RD2BE Social Media and Marketing Intern, Student Host of the RD2BE Podcast, and Content Developer.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by my younger daughter who is the youngest of my three children. I retired from the US Army in 2019 and was diagnosed with thyroid cancer (which had also spread to several lymph nodes in my neck) in 2020. I had a total thyroidectomy with neck lymph node resection followed by RAI (radioactive iodine) treatment. I received superb care from my PCM (primary care manager), who caught the disease through an incidental CT, as well as the physicians, nurses, and surgical technicians at Womack Army Medical Center. In general, if thyroid cancer returns it typically does so in the first three years after treatment. I’m two years out and so far so good… this time next year I’m looking forward to one helluva celebration!
Also, Jenna received counseling for her eating disorder for as long as she felt she needed it and is also doing great.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.