Stress and Emotional Healing
The link between ongoing stress, emotions or unresolved psychological or emotional trauma is well documented. Perhaps the most well known recent research is the 'ACE' study of adverse childhood experiences which clearly demonstrates a correlation between stressful or traumatic experiences and chronic illness including heart disease, cancer, depression, and shortened life span. In addition, there is a well recognised link between adverse childhood experiences and addictive behaviour.
People who have experienced such difficulties fall into 2 broad camps: those who already recognise that they have experienced trauma, and those who have no recognition of this fact. This is a phenomenon which is often seen on people who are in abusive or controlling relationships - there may be no conscious awareness of the problem or the behavioural patterns that often follow. One of the most common difficulties in resolving stress or trauma is that it is often invisible to the person experiencing it. This is why having support from a suitably experienced coach who has this awareness can be invaluable.
Another fundamental issue which is often overlooked is the approach to resolving trauma or ongoing stress. The difference in view toward mind and body in Eastern and Western cultures is central to how trauma is resolved. In general, Western cultures tend to focus on treating the mind as a separate entity to the body. This can be seen in the discipline of psychology. But when the focus of healing is on controlling the mind, there is a tendency to ignore the extent to which body and mind are one organism. If unresolved stress or trauma continues to exist and to build up without physical release, health is likely to suffer as a result.
Ongoing Stress, Emotions and Illness
Here are a few examples of issues commonly found in people who have chronic conditions:
Unresolved grief or bereavement
History of childhood abuse
Dysfunctional family circumstances
Being bullied, either as a child or an adult
Life threatening illness or disability
Overwhelming life experiences and stressors
Ongoing and relentless stress
The Stress Response
The stress response is a great way of your body protecting itself from impending danger. It allows you to access the physical requirements needed to run away, fight your attacker, or remain unnoticed. ie fight, flight or freeze. However, the stress response can affect health if it remains active for a prolonged period of time.
In an acute situation the stress response produces highly desirable traits, you escape from the danger, and your body returns to normal. However, when this response remains switched on for a prolonged period of time, so the corresponding physical attributes, and this may create problems for your health.
The autonomic nervous system controls physical processes which are largely unconscious including heart rate, digestive function, respiratory rate and vascular response. It is divided into 2 main components: The sympathetic nervous system activates physiological changes in response to a perceived threat, and the parasympathetic nervous system restores the body back to homeostasis following a stress trigger.
Some effects of the acute stress response can be seen here:
The stress response has these physiological effects:
- Increases heart rate and respiration
- Vascular constriction in many areas of body
- Inhibits the digestive function of stomach and upper-intestine
- Dilation of blood vessels in muscles
- Inhibits salivation and lacrimal gland function
- Relaxes bladder
- Produces shaking
- Loss of peripheral vision
- Feelings of anxiety & fear
- Cognitive effects - perception & processing
The Purpose of the Stress Response:
- Increase blood flow to the muscles, by diverting from elsewhere in the body
- Provide extra energy through increased heart rate, respiration, and raising of blood sugar levels
- Increase muscle tension for extra speed and strength
- Focus mind and body on self preservation
Long Term Effects on Health
If the stress response is switched on for a prolonged period of time, it can begin to produce undesired effects including:
- Cardiovascular issues
- Adrenal & metabolic dysfunction
- Blood sugar dysregulation
- Anxiety disorders
- Muscle pain
- Digestive problems
- Cognitive disorders
- Heightened emotional reactivity
- Inflammatory disorders
Spirituality and Adversity
There is a well established link between spirituality and improved health. People who have a spiritual belief, community or practice also tend to have higher levels of resilience, purpose and meaning in their lives, and they are able to cope better with life challenges such as illness, pain, anxiety, trauma and personal loss.
Many people get caught up in the cycle of trying to define a specific version of what spirituality is. But all language contains a subjective quality, and is influenced by a persons education, experience, culture, and upbringing. Even within any religious or spiritual group there is never a unified, clear-cut agreement of what it is to be part of that specific group. So, it is important to recognise that spirituality is essentially a very personal experience. But belief in a higher power or spiritual concept, no matter what that is, can bring a sense of perspective in times of stress, trauma and adversity.
Spiritual belief provides a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself, an intuitive knowing that there is a purpose and meaning to life, and a source of love, compassion, and harmony.
This source of connection is experienced more easily in some people than others. For example, highly intuitive or sensitive people are generally more aligned with the spiritual aspect of life. Spiritual connection and awareness can also be accessed more easily through activities which either quiet the mind, or turn its focus inward. A few examples are walking in nature, gardening, yoga, or meditation. These practices do not necessarily involve isolation: sitting for long periods of time for meditation, or cutting yourself off from the external world. It can be equally effective to simply switch awareness to your inner life. Simply noticing the nature of thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the body can lead to an awakening experience, where you realise the true nature of who you are. And during this process, you will naturally dissolve stressful thoughts and emotions, restoring harmony, balance and well-being to the mind-body. Beliefs of the ego can be released, fear and anxiety naturally subside, and challenging situations can be viewed from a wider perspective, bringing a sense of acceptance and peace.
Managing Ongoing Stress
It is obviously sensible to initiate the parasympathetic response in order to counteract these harmful effects. The stress response and health can benefit by restoring homeostasis, and this in turn can be achieved by:
1. Changing perception of external events so that they no longer appear threatening, thus reducing the reaction to stress
2. Reducing or avoiding exposure to stress, where appropriate. This requires being able to accurately identify the cause of stress, which can be difficult in some instances. For example, if you have grown up in an abusive situation, the behaviour is normalised. Also, as a protective mechanism, your mind may repress the significance of the situation, creating a 'blind spot'.
3. Increasing exposure to situations which will stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This can be any form of relaxation such as meditating, gardening, walking, or listening to calming music.
By switching off the stress response, and providing ample opportunity for homeostasis to occur, it becomes possible to improve your health and well being.