Friday, May 4, 2012

How Stress Affects the Body: A Personal Story

Let me preface today's post by saying that everyone is okay.

On Sunday night, I went to bed like I normally do. I fed the cats, gave Maisy her medication, and set my alarm. Around 2am, I woke up to a loud banging noise. Initially, I thought the cats knocked something over, but the banging noise didn't stop. A quick investigation revealed that someone was pounding on my door, which made me worry that perhaps one of my neighbors needed help.

It wasn't a neighbor. Instead, I found a strange man trying to break into my house.

He was young- late teens or early twenties, maybe- screaming hysterically, and hitting and kicking my front door so hard that it left indentations. He banged on the windows, though thankfully they didn't break. His hands were covered in blood (which was probably the result of shattering our front porch light), and he wanted in.

It was terrifying.

I called 911. Just before the police could get here, the stranger disappeared around the side of the house. We couldn't see where he'd gone, which was actually scarier than when he was right in front of us. We didn't know if he was trying to get in another way, or if was going to escape entirely, free to terrorize us another day.

We later found out that he'd gone to our neighbor's house, broke a window, and crawled into their 8-year-old son's bed. I still can't decide which is worse: being a child and waking up with a blood-covered crazy person in your bed, or being a parent and waking up to discover a blood-covered crazy person in your kid's bed.

After the man was safely contained, the police told us that he was just really, really high, to the point that he was having hallucinations. He thought someone was after him and he was just trying to hide from them.

Like I said, everyone was physically fine, although we were all a bit shaken up. Needless to say, it's incredibly unsettling to have an experience like that, and I think it was possibly the scariest night of my life.

Even though I was exhausted it took me over two hours before I could even think about sleeping again. When I finally tried laying down, my body felt tense, and it was another hour before I finally dozed off. I slept lightly, and jerked awake over every little sound.

The next day- Monday- was terrible. My stomach hurt something awful, and I couldn't eat. I went to work, but had trouble concentrating all day. I felt preoccupied and easily distracted. I'm not sure I got much done. That night was even harder. I had a hard time getting to sleep, and I woke up in the middle of the night, desperately thirsty, but afraid to get out of bed. I know it wasn't logical, but I was worried that if I got up, it might cause a crazy guy to start pounding on my door. I went back to sleep without a drink.

I woke up on Tuesday morning absolutely exhausted. I think I was actually more tired that day than the day before. While it was easier for me to focus on my work, I noticed that I was incredibly irritable. I'm normally quite patient with my most mentally ill and high-maintenance client, but I found it hard to deal with him all day long. That evening, I had to teach a dog training class. My brain was fried, and my co-instructor had to do all the work. By the time I got home, I was on the verge of tears. That night was a little easier. I wasn't afraid to move around my house during the night, although it was really hard to open the back door so Maisy could go potty at bed time.

Wednesday- three days after the initial event- was better, but I still wasn't myself. I was tired and withdrawn, mildly irritable, and a bit teary eyed. I didn't have much trouble sleeping, and I definitely didn't feel as fearful as the previous two nights.

Still, I didn't feel completely normal until Thursday afternoon, which was about 84 hours after I was woken up by the banging on my front door.

Before this week, I thought I knew about stress. I've talked about how stress affects the body. I've told training students how it takes an average of 72 hours for the stress hormones to leave their dogs' bodies after they go over threshold. I've written about how I allow Maisy a week of downtime after a stressful event. But I never really understood what it's like.

Well let me tell you what it's like: it's awful. Even though I was never in any real danger (remember, the stranger was scared himself and was trying to hide), I didn't know that at the time. But even after I knew I was safe, I didn't feel much better. In a way, I was being held hostage by stress hormones.

How much worse must it be for our dogs? They don't know that whatever is scaring them and causing them to react isn't actually dangerous. Everything in their bodies is telling them that death is imminent. What's more, they don't have the language needed for us to be able to tell them that they're okay now. They can only trust that we will keep them safe.

I have a new level of empathy for Maisy and the dogs that I work with now. How awful must it be to live in a world where Sunday night happens multiple times a week? Where the people they must depend on continually thrust them into terrifying situations? And where they are constantly experiencing the restlessness, stomach upset, difficulty concentrating, and irritability that comes along with stress?

One week was bad enough. I can't imagine living life like that.


Kobipup said...

Wow, sorry to hear about your scary experience. I can only imagine how terrifying that must of been! And you are so right that we never seem to equate our own stressful situations with a dogs, they deal with the same things as we do but we often think they should be able to handle it or just get over it because to us it's not that scary.

Jen said...

That's scary stuff :(

Thank yo for sharing it with us, though, and the good lesson of how it relates to fearful/reactive dogs.

Chris and Mike said...

What an insightful post! Glad you're OK, hope the neighbors are OK, hope the intruder is OK despite scaring the wits out of everyone. How did Maisy handle the whole hullabaloo and the days after?

Crystal Thompson said...

I should have known someone would ask about Maisy. :)

Maisy was sleeping in bed with us when the whole thing started. Predictably, she rushed to the front door, barking and growling. (Which I am totally cool with!)

While I was on the phone with 911, I realized that Maisy really didn't need to be present for all the crazy, so I called her away and put her in her crate. Once she got in her crate, she was quiet... although I'm sure she was still on alert.

After everything, Maisy came out of her crate and was pretty jumpy. I ended up giving her clonidine (her short-acting anxiety med) every 12 hours for about 2 days to help her through the worst of it.

She's been slightly more reactive towards noises that sound like knocking, but then, so have I. I suspect we'll both calm down over the next week.

Andreja said...

Crazy! I'm so glad everything ended well! Though now of course you still need to get through the jumpiness...

I read an article about stress in hand to hand combat and how for the training to be effective (so the person can react correctly in real situations) it has to be stressful. It needs to stress the trainee just enough to increase his comfort zone, but not too much or he will be overwhelmed. With overwhelm comes sensitization to the stressful trigger and this makes the person react worse instead of better (does not act as he was trained). It reminded me a lot of the sweet spot that we try to find with our reactive dogs.
Your experience was definitely in the "sensitization to trigger" category. I hope you and Maisy recover soon.