In this fourth post about the main contributing factors to our health and wellness, I’d like to talk about stress and how it works in our body and mind.
We all experience stress to a greater or lesser degree. No one is immune to it throughout life. The main difference in how stress impacts and affects us as individuals, is how we respond and ultimately process stress, which we experience in our everyday lives.
A certain amount of stress is actually beneficial to our overall health and wellbeing at times, giving us a boost or surge of energy, motivation and inspiration, to help us get through something like a deadline at work or a test. However, prolonged chronic stress can create more serious health challenges, including having an impact on the cardiovascular, immune, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems.
Further to this, as you may recall from my previous post about how emotions impact our health…prolonged stress can impact these emotional responses as well, bringing about a debilitating sense of self in both physical and psychological ways. While we can all generally manage some simple stress triggers, by tapping into our bodies natural ability to cope, prolonged chronic stress can and does have serious implications upon our overall wellbeing in the long term, if left unchecked.
Stress is our natural inbuilt response to an experience, which to us as an individual, felt threatening or challenging in that moment, either physically and/or psychologically. Our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and autonomic nervous system are the major aspects of our body, which react to stress, which we, as individuals, feel is threatening, by activating the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response via our sympathetic nervous system – the part of our body, which pushes our entire system into stress, in an effort to keep us safe and survive the threat, be it real or perceived.
The body and some of its major systems may remain in this state of sympathetic activity for some time if we do not or cannot switch off the stress trigger. This is when we see chronic symptoms begin to manifest. However, when we are able to reduce or eliminate the root cause which triggered our stress response in the first place, the parasympathetic nervous system then takes over, moving, calling, guiding our body into a recovery phase, which may include feeling more tired, hot and hungry than what is considered normal. This is simply a natural response and symptomatic of the body regenerating itself, in an attempt to return to a state of homeostasis…i.e. balanced health and wellness again.
How does stress work in the body though…?
It isn’t new knowledge that traditional, long-standing, ancient paradigms of health and healing all acknowledge the mind-body-social-spiritual connection and the way in which different types of emotion and mental imbalances take root in different parts of the body. Indian Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese medicine are two of the more well-known disciplines, which explore these connections, as well as other ethnic-based traditions found in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
The foundational beliefs of these traditional disciplines (which have been successfully used for over 2500 years) are that every organ and tissue in our body correlates with the same vibration or energy of specific emotions, which we may feel at any given time. Therefore, it stands to reason, that every symptom, be it physical or mental, which creates an imbalance in our body, putting it into a state of dis-ease, develops from an emotional stress trigger, which is connected with a specific organ or tissue, creating a block or disruption in the normal flow, for optimal functioning to happen.
A domino-type effect can then begin to occur if symptoms are not dealt with in the immediate moments, days and weeks following a stress trigger. This is when we see symptoms changing from being acute (short-term) to chronic (long-term). This can potentially add further stress to the mental and emotional psyche of the individual, thus multiplying the overall stress on the mind-body…and a whole myriad of other symptoms can begin to grow and emerge, feeling like it’s spiralling out of our control.
Big ‘T’ traumas such as earthquakes, major accidents, fires, floods and divorce can all cause incredible stress and left unchecked, can contribute to existing symptoms, as well as manifest new ones. Small ‘t’ traumas can equally contribute to existing symptoms and because they’re small, we often ignore the significance of them. However, like a slow dripping tap, over time, they too can contribute to chronic symptoms.
Stress, be it a big ‘T’ or little ‘t’, is something, which to the individual, felt unexpected, dramatic and isolating and you had no strategy at that moment to deal with and handle what was happening. We call this a UDIN. It’s a very subjective experience…therefore no two people respond the same way and thus, no two people came to have their symptoms from the same stress trigger.
These events or stress triggers can begin when we’re children and become conditioned responses, such as a comment or look we received from a parent, teacher or bullying in the playground and they can also happen as adults, with major events such as those described above.
Whatever the original trigger for the UDIN moment, because we’re all subjective individuals, with our own conditioning and background, the pattern and process our own biological programming will follow through it’s sympathetic and parasympathetic phases will depend on how we’ve perceived the UDIN. For example, a child who’s told she can’t play football because she’s a girl may take this personally and feel devalued, thus impacting her muscular-skeletal system. Whereas another child given the same comment may feel like their territory is being invaded, thus impacting their bladder.
The key point to remember is that stress does not come from just one source, such as a major event like an earthquake. It can be cumulative over time as well, such as that condemning comment from a parent or teacher…which is then reignited by a boss or spouse later in life and so it goes on and on and on, thus reopening the old unhealed wound again and again and again and keeping the body in a fight-flight-freeze cycle of stress, whenever that button is pushed.
These conditioned responses form beliefs and over time, we become entwined in an unconscious cycle of stress, whereby specific organs will react with the corresponding brain relay and related emotions are all retriggered. This on-going cycle ultimately forms symptoms, which can and do become chronic. Knowing the root cause of these life-long response patterns, as well as the big T events, can help us detect where symptoms have stemmed from and inform us in a more specific and individual way to create a plan for changing patterns, behaviours and emotions. This ultimately allows the body to complete its own natural process of healing, through this deeper understanding and empowerment of us as individuals.
There is a lot we can do on our own to take back our power and reduce stress in our lives. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Learn to meditate to quieten your mind. InsightTimer is a fantastic free app with loads of guided meditations to get you started. I would advise beginning with guided meditations until you know you feel 100% comfortable with a silent practice. Seek out a certified teacher for more specific guidance and disciplines. After many years of exploring and trying out different styles and approaches, I now personally practice Transcendental Meditation (TM), which has been a life-changing addition to my daily self-care routine, since I began practicing it several years ago.
- Spend time in nature. Research now shows us that time in nature is very healing for our overall wellbeing. The Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, which loosely translates as forest bathing, has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. The beach is also a very powerful space to de-stress from those daily grinds. Simply kicking leaves in the park or getting outside can be all it takes though, to change your state of being. So get outside and breath in some of those positive vibes.
- Move your body. Whatever your ability, movement will help. Find what works for you and commit to it. The best movement activity for you is the one you do regularly…so experiment and try some things out. There is so much to choose from these days, from high-energy HIIT classes to slow motion yoga and everything in-between. So find the one which gives you that high and go for it. You’ve nothing to lose except the stress you don’t want anyway.
- Journalling. For those who like words…writing things down can help. I’ve been a journaler for many years and when I am consistent, it helps heaps. One resource which I found helpful was the simple morning pages practice described in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.
- Find your tribe. Community and a sense of belonging are so important to us as humans, in order for us to thrive. With the age of technology, many of us find that we’re a lot more isolated however, even with the social media platforms of our day. So I’d encourage you to seek out your face-to-face tribe so that you have people who are on the same page as you, who cheer you on when you need that extra support, motivation and inspiration. We don’t always get this from our biological family…so I like to see these groups of people who form our community as our soul family…they get you and accept you for who you are, no matter what.
- Where possible, eliminate the stress triggers, which you can control yourself. And set boundaries, which support you to maintain a stress-free space for yourself.
- Breathe. So often when we are in stress, we actually forget to breathe normally. So take the time to sit and take some slow deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth, while placing your hands on your heart. You will soon notice yourself calming down and feeling a sense of peace again. The Heart Math Institute continues to do extensive research on how some simple breathing with your hands on your heart can help with more balanced heart coherence. See their website for some free resources.
- And if all this seems a bit too much to manage on your own, then you can also book a discovery call to see how working with me can help and support you on your journey towards balanced health and wellness again.
“It is not that stress kills us, it is our reaction to it”
~ Hans Selye