To read Part 1 of the series, click here.
“As counselors, we’re reminded continually of our tendency to stuff our hurts rather than allowing time and space for them. Well, those things have to go somewhere, so they go into our physiology and they eventually get our attention in another way” (Susie Larson quoting her counselor friend).
I’ve mentioned before that I used to be a therapist. I should have known better. I DID know better. When I started to get panic attacks, I pretended I didn’t know why, even though it was obvious. I pretended even to myself because I didn’t want to face the massive amount of stuffed pain threatening to crack my walls. But since I wouldn’t let the pain out, it had to go somewhere.
Some of you may not believe that autoimmune diseases have an emotional component but the timing in my life is spot-on. I lost my first grandparent at age twelve and never cried. That’s when I first sent my body the message that emotions should not be felt or released and my body started doubting itself. After grad school, I was miserable in my job. It was far too much stress for me to handle and it owned me 24/7. I was a therapist with a sensitive heart, seeing and hearing brokenness every day, but I never had time to let myself feel anything. It turned into the perfect storm when I lost all three other grandparents during the span of just over a year, while continuing to work at that same job. So much stress and deep grief, completely unexpressed. I’ve written about this in several posts before so if you’d like to read a more detailed version, click here. To be honest, it’s still difficult for me to even read that post.
Emotional tears contain stress hormones. Crying releases toxins and endorphins so it can actually ease pain. When we hold in our tears, the fight or flight response kicks in and our adrenals release stress hormones, increasing our blood pressure and heart rate, causing chest pain, blood sugar issues, anxiety, insomnia, physical pain, and, over time, disease. Stopping ourselves from crying increases the stress and makes us feel worse. After crying, breathing and heart rate decrease and it puts us in a calmer state. If we don’t allow tears, the stress only continues and sits in our bodies (Medical News Today, Psychology Today).
Since I got sick, I have spent countless hours searching for answers. I did not realize/did not want to admit that shutting off my emotions was hurting my body. When I got my first diagnosis, Sjogren’s Syndrome, I finally had proof of an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases happen when the body starts attacking itself. I would not allow normal emotional processes so my body received a confusing message that it should hurt itself. As I’ve continued on my journey and told practitioners that I have Sjogren’s before I told them anything else about my life, two of them immediately said something along the lines of, “you don’t let yourself cry, do you?” Whoa. It is apparently well-known in integrative medicine that a major cause of Sjogren’s is often shutting off tears. It makes sense if you think about it. Sjogren’s is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the moisture-producing glands. It’s why you will rarely see me without water, my parotid/salivary glands are often swollen, I choke on dry food, and I can no longer wear contacts. For many years I was sending my body a message that tears are not permitted. My body received the message that it no longer needed to produce moisture in my eyes or anywhere else. How I grieve what I have done to myself!
And I’m one of the lucky ones. My eye doctor says I don’t produce enough tears and the ones I do produce aren’t good quality and evaporate too quickly, but at least I still have tears. Many, MANY tears. Some Sjogren’s patients aren’t quite so blessed. There are often people in the Sjogren’s online support group talking about how they feel deeply but can’t cry anymore. Their tears are gone. Can you imagine not being able to have a release? To not be able to cry when something deeply moves you? Imagining that breaks my heart, and makes me want to cry! I don’t want to take it for granted anymore.
When I held back such an enormous amount of emotion during those two short but horrible years, my body went into fight or flight mode and I began having panic attacks which started while I was driving back to TN after my last grandpa’s funeral. I numbed those with medication instead of allowing myself to feel. It would be many more years of unexplained knock-down, drag-out illness before I finally snapped awake to what I had done to myself. Many years before the dam finally broke.
Now I think I must be making up for lost time. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t cry. Everything moves me in some way or another. God created me this way. Honestly, sometimes I get angry with Him for creating me with such a sensitive heart. Anyone who knew me during the ‘dry years’ would think I’m crazy for saying I’m sensitive, but I am. Extremely. I always have been, but I was denying my true self. I was pushing away the gift of emotion that God gave me. I believe God’s heart is moved by many things, and my heart is a reflection of His. I don’t want to squander the gift to feel the heart of God anymore. Habits die hard, though, but I’m working on it. God is working on it. “…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). I’m so thankful God allows me to be a work in progress.
I will close today with a reminder of Jesus’ grief over Jerusalem in Luke 13:34, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” and Luke 19:41-42, “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace-but now it is hidden from your eyes.'” Jesus wept over the hardness of the people’s hearts… and I believe he has wept over the hardness of mine. I can hardly stand to think about grieving the heart of Jesus in such a way. He longs to gather us into his protecting and loving embrace and he longs to give us peace, but we won’t let Him. We favor the protection of our own hearts. I am thankful that He is softening my heart and I pray that He softens the hearts of His children everywhere. Beautiful things happen when the walls come down and we allow ourselves to feel the heart of God.
Song I’m feeling: Weep with Me, by Rend Collective
“Lord, I believe You weep with me.”
Thank you for entering into such a sensitive subject with me, and stay tuned for the next post in the series…