When my digestive system shut down due to repressed stress

In my last blog post, I wrote about a book (The Body Keeps the Score) that comprehensively explained how trauma and stress get stored in the body. One of the reasons that this book resonated so much with me is that my digestive system shut down for a few months in 2017, in response to repressed work stress.

I had begun my faculty position at my previous institution in 2014, and by all benchmarks of success in academia, I had hit the ground running. By the end of 2016, I already had accomplished enough to go up for tenure.  I had secured more than enough grant funding, I had more than enough publications, my teaching evaluations were stellar, and I had done plenty of service. I was grateful for the opportunity to put my package in early, as the sooner I got tenure, the sooner I thought that I could finally breathe easy, knowing that I “made it” and I would have job security for the rest of my career, at the university that I loved with all my heart. I submitted my package at the end of summer 2017, just three and a half years after I had officially begun.

I thought that the whole process would be smooth sailing for me, just like it was for the male faculty member in my Department that went up the year before. After all, I knew that my accomplishments were well above the bar. And yet, it ended up being so much more difficult and stressful than I thought it could be.

I gave my tenure talk to my Department on September 19, 2017. I was excited and well-prepared. Giving talks had always been a strength of mine. I was a little surprised when the Chair of the Department, who was supposed to introduce my talk, had apparently forgotten to prepare anything. So he quickly jotted down a few notes that I gave him right before the introductions. But, whatever. I tried not to let it bother me. I gave my talk and I felt on top of the world afterwards. 

After all, the previous Department Chair (the one who hired me) emailed me after my talk, “It was awesome…you ran circles around those fuckheads.” (Yes, that was how he regularly communicated. And he was referring to those people in the Department who were vocal about not liking me and who did not want me to be successful.) Another faculty member wrote to me: “I can’t remember in 30+ years a tenure/promotion seminar presenting so clearly what they are doing and why, how things are moving ahead (and why there is promise) and so clearly laying out the strategies that have made the lab so successful. Should be a teaching moment for the younger scientists. Nice job!” And another one wrote to me that my delivery “was almost worthy of an oscar…in fact, your responses to the questions asked were wonderfully exciting, enthusiastic, & emotion-laden (in a positive sense!).”

All great responses. I was thrilled. And so I was expecting smooth sailing ahead.

Then, strangely, a few days after my tenure talk, I began to have very serious digestive health issues. I’m going to spare the details, but the gist of the situation was, my digestive system began to shut down. At the time, I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t fully link it to the possible repressed stress of the tenure process. But I was experiencing severe abdominal pain almost constantly and I was in and out of doctor’s offices for weeks, trying to figure out how to get my digestive system to start working properly again. 

It’s funny, most of us take for granted that our body knows how to digest our food every time we eat. We put food into our mouths, it travels down to our stomach, and our nervous system automatically knows when to squirt digestive enzymes into our stomach, when to direct the various digestive muscles and sphincters to open and close. It’s actually a very elaborate and complicated process that most of us take for granted. I know I did. Until it stopped working for me. 

My symptoms continued getting worse through the end of October. Now, I don’t think it was a coincidence that the end of October (October 26, 2017) happened to be when my Department faculty had their deliberation and voted about my tenure case. On the surface, I had assumed that there would absolutely be no issues. But I now believe that my body, and the stress that I was experiencing that was manifesting in these digestive issues, was because deep down, in my gut, I knew that everything was not as smooth sailing as I had been telling myself. My gut knew, and was trying to tell me, that all the cracks that I had been ignoring, about how I did not fit in at my institution, that there were some faculty that really did not like me there, that those cracks just might break everything open at some point. But again, I was still in denial. I thought the fact that I was “successful” would be enough. But it wasn’t. There were people in my Department actively campaigning against me and trying to prevent me from getting tenure. And even though other people told me to not worry about them, I was still worrying. That is, my body was still worrying. My mind was completely in denial. So my body had to speak up.

I finally did get tenure in early 2018. Those that did not like me did not have enough of an excuse (yet) to stop me. Unsurprisingly, my digestive issues more or less stabilized shortly thereafter. I’ll write about what I ended up doing to support that gut health stabilization in the next post. Still, even with all my valiant and extensive efforts, my gut health never fully recovered. And I had insomnia that also began at that time, in which I would wake at 3AM and not be able to fall back to sleep again. After a few weeks, I decided to just start my workday at 3AM, since I was awake anyway, and I figured I might as well use the time to work instead of laying in bed restless for hours. So clearly, something just wasn’t right with my body.

But I ignored it all. I didn’t pay attention to what my body was telling me. The more it showed signs of stress, the more I ignored it, the more I tried to dissociate from what it was telling me. It was warning me that things were not as they seemed. And I didn’t like that message. And so I stopped listening to my body at all.

Fortunately, now that it has been several years since then, after my life seemed to fall apart in 2019 and I have now picked up the pieces and put them back together into an even greater and more meaningful version than before, I am now finally focusing on my body and it’s well-being. It will be a long journey though. I still have to remind myself every day to take care of my body.

3 responses to “When my digestive system shut down due to repressed stress”

  1. […] a previous post, I wrote about how my gut shut down because of stress. This was one of the top three most horrific […]

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  2. […] went to post last Friday, it occurred to me how seemingly coincidental it was that I had literally just posted about my own digestive issues, how my own digestive system had shut down 5 years ago, in the prior […]

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  3. […] was very trim and muscular) and I ate very healthy foods, my stress level was so high that I had major digestive issues (I could not even have a normal bowel movement), I had other autoimmune disorder flareups at times, […]

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