Failing to Understand Stress

I thought that I fully understood the stress response and had been to enough yoga classes to avoid getting sick due to stress. But what I’ve learned over the past year has been a real game changer. It turns out I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to stress and chances are, you have too.

In a previous post on trauma, I talked about how the stress response is more traumatic to our nervous system than previously thought. We now know that not completing the stress response by discharging stress-energy is an underlying cause of many chronic conditions and illness.

As most of us know, the stress response involves:

  • Increased heart rate,
  • Increased respiration
  • Increased muscular tension
  • Increased pulse rate/blood pressure
  • Increased sweating
  • Decreased digestion
  • Increased release of glucose and fat
  • Increased release of corticosteroids
  • Immune system suppression

Most realize how our jerk of a boss might be the reason we can’t lose weight (fat and glucose keep entering our system), we get the flu (immune system suppression) we’re refilling our high blood pressure medication or need a massage on a regular basis. But we also are beginning to acknowledge how past stressors that haven’t been dealt with may show up today as a symptom or an illness. In other words, that compound leg fracture in high school, the creepy guy from the fraternity party back in 1988 or a sad 2 am call about a sudden family death – All of these moments not only change us psychologically and emotionally but also physically.

Another piece to this puzzle is how seemingly non-traumatic events can be just as detrimental. Let’s say, for example, that you skidded on ice into a telephone pole. Even though you weren’t hurt, it traumatized your nervous system as you braced for the impact. Let me repeat that.  It traumatized your nervous system.

It sounds very dramatic to say that you were traumatized by a fender bender. How could something you survived be so devastating?  That’s because your autonomic nervous system kicked in, forcing you to: hold your breath; tense up your muscles; release a ton of cortisol; stop digesting your lunch; stop healing the cut on your arm while your heart began to race. It responded automatically, hence the name autonomic nervous system. It didn’t care what happened to you, it just knew you needed to either fight, flee or freeze so it prepped your body for what was about to happen. Even though you walked away unscathed, all of the energy that was created needed to be processed and discharged.

We spend a ton of time and money trying to avoid or handle the stress in our lives. We change jobs, get divorced, end toxic friendships, go to cross-fit, take deep breaths, color, and pray which are all great tools because completely avoiding stress is impossible. However, since we’re never taught what do to during the immediate aftermath of stressful situations, we store more and more of this energy in our bodies. Many of us simply need to learn how to deal with the stress responses our body automatically creates.

Animals discharge stress all the time. Pay attention to your pets and notice how many times they shake off the weight of being on high alert, playing or determining dominance with another animal.

That’s why animals don’t have nervous breakdowns, irritable bowel syndrome, or other human-only diseases (unless they’re abused or confined). But we humans don’t complete the stress cycle by shaking it off (discharging the stress-energy). Instead, we ignore it, store it and eventually get sick.

So what should we do after that car accident above? Well, before you grab your cell phone to call for a tow truck, or tell your boss you’ll be late, you would want to stay seated and orient to your surroundings. Notice that the accident is over, the airbag deployed and you’re still here. Then if you were to begin trembling or shaking allow that to occur and don’t try to stop it from happening (same with chills, sweating, or any other tingling sensations or emotions that arise).

Feel them. Experience them. Notice where the shock has landed in your body. Don’t allow your logical brain to take over. Don’t spend these precious moments jumping ahead to needing a car rental, dealing with insurance stuff and figuring out how you’re going to get to your noon appointment. Stay with what you’re experiencing in the present moment.  If you feel like crying, by all means cry. If you’re pissed, get angry. And if suddenly memories of a past car accident begin flooding your consciousness, allow your body to react to those as well.

Now here’s where it gets tricky. Someone is probably going to stop, knock on your window and talk loudly to you, asking if you’re okay. A person wanting to help is not going to want to watch you shake or cry. So feel free to tell any good Samaritan that you need a minute and to leave you alone while your body does what it needs to do.

All of this somatic experiencing is the work of Dr. Peter Levine who after working with thousands of trauma patients had the opportunity to respond to the trauma of being hit by a car, which he explains below. His ability to discharge his body’s own accumulated stress in real time kept him from storing a trauma that would haunt him later.

To learn more, pick up his book, In An Unspoken Voice.

And if this post has got you wondering how much trauma and stress you’ve stored over your lifetime, consider working with a somatic experience professional. They can gently help you discharge anything from your past that could be negatively affecting your health today.

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