Many times, we may not be actively aware of the impact that stress has on our physical bodies. However, as we have discussed elsewhere, the ties between our physical and mental selves are numerous. Bob Greene posited that what “the body achieves, the mind believes”.
Let us dive into two examples of this philosophy at work:
When we exercise for 30 minutes per day, and we begin to feel stronger, we often then believe that we are stronger, more confident and capable.
When we forget to grocery shop for the week and end up buying fast food for lunch every day, and we start to feel sluggish, we often end up focusing on the belief that we are lazy or unproductive.
The difference in these scenarios lies in its similarity: our mind believes what our body tells us, and our body absorbs the conclusions our minds create. When we entertain the constant activity of our minds, rather than dealing with it in a mindful way, we often neglect the other bodily senses that are also influenced by stressful environments. This reciprocal process shows up in how stress formulates in our minds and subsequently transfers to our bodies. Understanding this exchange of energies is a part of the necessity of a whole-person approach when receiving care for mental, physical, or spiritual healing.
Much like our multifaceted ways of interacting with others or our emotions, our physical existence is made up of entities that are sensitive to stressful changes in our environment.
The Stress Response
Many of us grow up in chaotic or trauma-riddled environments, which causes our minds and bodies to initiate a survivalist, protective mode. We often learn to protect ourselves from danger or fear by avoiding conflict, negative emotions or triggering events, and our bodies tend to follow suit. This also looks like our bodies remaining on high alert, or in a state of hypervigilance, constantly scanning for the next threat.
However, when our bodies endure this type of chronic stress, we experience physical tension that affects muscular function, breathing, heart function, gut regulation, nervous reactions, and even reproductive capabilities.
Along with chronic stress, our bodies also experience varying degrees of acute stress that spur different reactions based on our relationship with the event. There are three common stress responses that we elicit when in fearful situations: fight, flight, or freeze. These situations originate within our animalistic instincts for survival and protection against predators or environmental threats.
While we can appreciate the variety of ways in which we have learned to protect ourselves, we must also consider the long-standing effects of stress and ultimately believing the world to be unsafe.
Some of our bodies choose to fight – a response fueled by adrenaline and an activation of the sympathetic nervous system. We recognize this response in ourselves when we feel a need to proactively protect from a perceived threat, such as when we are in situations of conflict or interpersonal violence. The result of engaging in a fight response like this is physical injury to ourselves or others, perhaps even causing physical traumas that require bodily rest. In the case of unsuccess, this may invite doubt of our true strength to set in.
The second response is when we take flight in the face of danger or fear. The flight response manifests as a feeling of intimidation or overpowering by a situation, person, or event. An example of a flight response might be when a familiar argument arises with a loved one and we feel the urge to emotionally check out of the argument, or even physically leave the space instead of reaching a resolution. The flight response is protective in the way of avoidance – if we can avoid physical or emotional conflict, we remain “safe”.
The urge to freeze comes after the realization that we are neither able to fight or run but can only immobilize ourselves in hopes that the pain will be over soon. This bankruptcy of adrenaline and anxiety can lead to beliefs about inferiority, timidity, or general smallness. When children are consistently exposed to physical or emotional abuse by a parent, the ability to fight back does not often present itself as a readily available option, thereby rendering the child to feel powerless, helpless, or weak (a move from physical stress to emotional).
Don’t let your mind bully your body into believing it must carry the burden of its worries.
– Astrid Alauda
Moving from Fear to Resilience
When our bodies exist in chronic states of fear, survival, or trauma, it begins to recoil from stress by some of the aforementioned responses. The impact of this stress on the body can lead to mental health struggles such as disorders of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress; or physical struggles such as high blood pressure, hypertension, or irregularities in heart function.
Fortunately, there are key strategies in which we can alleviate some of the effects of stress and better manage it:
- Find your people – engage in positive relationships and maintain a healthy support system.
- Know yourself – seek out professional support to address potential triggers for stress and develop a set of coping tools to lean on and DBT skills to employ.
- Pick and choose – notice your emotional or bodily reactions to stress and decide based on your needs and boundaries on how it is most appropriate to respond, whether you’re able to move into problem-solving, or if freedom from stress, in this case, looks more like learning to accept your new reality.
- Move around – physical activity and moving your body has important health benefits that can move negative anxiety into positive motivation.
- Get some rest – adequate, quality sleep is a core component of allowing the body time to recharge.
Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself. – Herman Hesse