How Stress Can Break Down Our Mind, Body, and Spirit: Part Two

March 7, 2018

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In her three-part series therapist and EMDR practitioner Lesley Goth explains how mental stress can negatively impact our physical and spiritual health. Click here to read part one and here to read the part three.

We continue now on our journey of exploring how stress—the S in PTSD—affects our body. In the first installation of this series I addressed how stress negatively affects the brain. I explained that there is a good stress and bad stress. Good stress can motivate us, push us to try our very best, endure through certain challenges when we know the reward is worth it, and engage our fight or flight or freeze reactions as protection. However, when we experience stress that is longer lasting or even chronic, the effects it has on the brain lead to certain behaviors, which are mostly destructive to our physical health. Our physical health is closely tied to our emotional health since the mind, body and spirit are intertwined.

A drawing of a woman sitting down with her face and hands on the ground. She has a bag behind her.

“Homeless” by Jo DiFulvio

I am a trauma specialist. I see and work with traumatized patients in my private practice. People ask me how I can listen to tales of trauma every day. I use my grounding techniques and spiritual belief system to create the necessary space to help people work through their pain. I’m able to leave my work at the end of the day and sleep very well at night. I feel extremely blessed to be able to do this work. The healing transformations I get to observe are pricelessly rewarding.

Through the work I do, I see how stress from trauma affects the body. There is a reason why trauma creates stress in the body and why the diagnosis is literally called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When we experience trauma, it’s either a big “T” form of trauma or a little “t” type. Big “T” traumas are easy to identify: a car crash, the death of a loved one, sexual or physical abuse, etc. Little “t” traumas are much subtler; they’re not isolated incidents like big “T” traumas but daily experiences that accumulate into traumatization: a parent that has unpredictable rage outbursts, an alcoholic in the family, bullying, etc.

Stress from both isolated and ongoing traumas is not just an emotion we feel, but something we experience in our bodies. When clients come to me and share that they have chronic pain, migraines, autoimmune issues, anxiety, depression, asthma, weight loss or gain, thyroid issues, irritable bowel syndrome, etc., I know that they are experiencing a lot of stress—the body is merely trying to express it.

What I’ve learned both personally and professionally is that stress needs to be expressed and that it will find a way to surface, one way or another. We can either find the healthy ways of understanding our stress, coping in functional ways, or we can use a ton of energy suppressing our stress in hopes of avoiding it. When we choose the latter, our body will become ill at ease or even diseased. According to WebMD:

  • 43% of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
  • 75 to 90% of all doctor’s visits are for stress-related illness and complaints.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared stress a hazard of the workplace that costs American industries more than $300 billion annually.
  • In a 2016 survey published in USA Today one third of respondents reported being chronically stressed at work.
  • Several studies are showing that stress is a leading cause of dementia; Alzheimer’s, once thought of as mostly a genetic disease, is now understood to be highly influenced by stress. Researchers say that our environment and stressful experiences are linked to brain deterioration.

I think it’s important to understand what is happening chemically in the body when we experience stress. With chronic stress, our adrenals get fatigued. Our adrenal glands produce cortisol, a stress hormone that helps us balance our stress. Too much stress leads to too much cortisol, which depletes our adrenals. When our adrenals are exhausted and cannot function properly, common symptoms appear:

  • physical exhaustion
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • sugar cravings
  • depression
  • weight gain
  • sleep disturbance
  • memory impairment

Adrenal fatigue is often left untreated because it’s not a recognized medical diagnosis; nonetheless, it has serious effects. We think we’re exhausted and simply need to sleep, but adrenal fatigue is not cured by a good night’s rest. This can help, but long-term stress management and proper diet are much more effective.

Ironically, many people try to manage their stress with exercise. While this is a positive approach, it’s more beneficial to find the right exercise and a balance in life. Some people—unbeknownst to them—don’t realize that exercise may be making stress on the body even worse.

Speaking from personal experience, I have always enjoyed exercise and have used it as a stress management tool. However, my body started to break down because I wasn’t listening to it. I would push through my pain. I had to run to manage my stress. My journey of healing and self-discovery showed me that in attempting to alleviate my mental stress I was stressing my body out.

I’ve been learning new ways to listen to my body and honoring its needs in order to manage my stress. I’ve recently fallen in love with yoga. Before, whenever I tried it, I’d be in agony and end up hating the teacher, the participants, the yoga mat, anything and everything to do with it. I believe my frustration developed from taking classes that were too advanced for me. I am a competitive overachiever, so when I couldn’t hold the poses and would literally fall on my mat, I felt like a failure.

My old workouts were stressing out my body, exhausting my adrenals and increasing my cortisol, all of which had an adverse effect on my body and negatively impacted my mood and spirit. When I started to practice again, slowly and easily, I gave my body and mind time to develop and get stronger so that I could go at a healthier pace that was not counterproductive. I also gave myself permission to be right where I was at the moment.

I am shocked at my newfound love for yoga and have learned that being gentle toward my body is the best stress relief. I’ve learned that listening to my body and trusting it to know what it needs is extremely freeing and much less stressful both physically and mentally.

Stress affects the brain, which then affects the body. As I mentioned in my first article, we need to be compassionate toward ourselves and willing to ask for help in order to obtain the healing we deserve. When our brain chemistry is out of balance due to stress, we will notice a physical imbalance—we won’t see it in our brain, but we will feel it in our body. The brain communicates with us through our bodies. Remember, stress gets expressed one way or another. It can look like sleepless nights, migraines, depression, digestion issues, panic, addictions, emotional turmoil, etc.

Allison Abrams, a licensed psychotherapist from New York, says it best: “Without mental health, there is no health.”

I encourage you to look at what your body is communicating to you. Life is stressful and filled with lots of little “t” traumas that cause us to break down mentally and physically over time. Healing is about connecting to our mind, body and spirit. Have self-compassion and be open to learning and listening to what your body is saying to you.

The traumas of life tend to cause a disconnect with our spiritual being. Whatever “spirit” means to you, it is just as important to address and care for as your physical and emotional health. We can’t separate our spirit from our body or our mind. The three are intertwined like a braided pretzel.

In my next article, I’ll discuss how stress affects our spirit and what we can do to reconnect to our spiritual selves.

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