How bad is stress for us and how does the body keep the score?
In this post, I am going to touch on the advantages of mild stress and the disadvantages of chronic stress. Also, I will try to explain how emotions impact our body.
There is no doubt that when we perpetually experience an internal conflict (such as anger, resentment, irritation, fear, sadness, regret, hopelessness, loneliness, guilt, shame, etc.), we may develop gastrointestinal problems like stomach ulcers, we may suffer from headaches, heartache, stiff muscles, and other (sometimes unexplainable) aches and pains. Also, if there is too much cortisol (the stress hormone) circulating in our system, this may lead to decreased libido, increased blood pressure & sugar level, lead to weight gain/obesity, and even increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cancer. However,...
...not all stress is bad, but chronic psychological stress is the killer of our immune system.
We hear from all sides how bad stress is for us. However, in many cases, stress hormones (like adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol) give us a surge of energy to take necessary action - whether we are about to do bungee jumping, avoid a car collision, give a presentation, or fight or flee danger.
Thus, it is important to differentiate between acute and chronic stress. While acute stress lasts for a period of minutes to hours, chronic stress persists for days, weeks, months, or years. And while chronic stress suppresses immune function and leads to allergic, inflammatory, or autoimmune diseases, acute stress may enhance immune function, i.e., may lead to immunoprotection (for more information, see, for example, Dhabhar, 2008 referenced below).
I can think of a few examples when acute stress boosts our immune system - when we do vigorous exercise, when we engage in adrenaline sports and when we take cold showers. You might have heard about 'The Iceman' - the Dutch extreme athlete called Wim Hof, who astounds researchers with what his body is capable of. The latest research studies (although it is still in its infancy) into how his (as well as his followers') brain & body function reveal that taking cold showers, doing certain breathing exercises, and meditating improve immune response, decrease inflammation, improve sleep, etc. If you wish to find out more, please visit https://www.wimhofmethod.com
Before I share what psychologists/psychotherapists say about the effects of chronic psychological stress on our body, I will briefly explain the physiological processes that take place when we experience emotions.
In order to understand how thoughts & emotions impact our mind and body, we need to consider the function of neuropeptides. A neuropeptide is a chain of amino acids that is released either into the brain where it can activate receptors in our brain, or into the blood where it activates receptors in our body. Neuropeptides have a regulatory role on sleep, feelings, maternal and social behaviours, and changes in neuropeptide production have been associated with depression, anxiety, drug addiction, eating disorders, and social disorders.
To explain it in simple terms, the moment we think a thought or feel an emotion, we activate neuropeptides corresponding with that thought or emotion (‘positive’ or ‘negative’), Neuropeptides than travel from the brain into our body and impact cells in our body. With repetition, it even creates epigenetic changes in the cells (for more information about epigenetics, please see my post 'Are genes our destiny?'). This explains how constant rumination, critical self-talk, overthinking, or catastrophising have a negative impact on our thought processes, our emotions and ultimately our physical health. While positive thoughts & emotions heal the body, negative thoughts & emotions may harm the body.
An early pioneer in the field, Dr Candace Pert (referenced below), who used to be the chief of brain biochemistry at the National Institutes of Health, eloquently stated:
‘As your feelings change, this mixture of peptides travels throughout your body and your brain. And they’re literally changing the chemistry of every cell in your body.’
This explains the quite well-known phrase ‘the body keeps the score’. No wonder that Bassel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist & top trauma specialist, used the same words for the title of his brilliant book ‘The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma’.
So, we really have to choose what thoughts we think and emotions we feel, although this is more easily said than done. Please, see more on this topic in my post 'Thoughts versus emotions & feelings'.
I think that we would all agree that a lot of stress is created by unrealistic expectations we have on ourselves - expectations created at an early age by our parents, teachers, society, culture, social media messages, endless comparison to our siblings, peers, or celebrities. Being aware of these expectations and learning to let go of our inner critical voice, of habitual thought patterns that we have created by repetition, of comparing ourselves to others & longing to be like them is very important.
In terms of the effects of psychological stress on the body, a psychotherapist Sean Grover has studied people's reactions to psychological stress for years and found the following recurring patterns. If you wish to read his full article, it is referenced below.
1. Lower Back: Anger
2. Stomach & Intestines: Fear
3. Heart & Chest: Hurt, Grief and Loss
4. Headache: Loss of Control (I would add overthinking)
5. Neck /Shoulder Tension: Burdens and Responsibilities
6. Fatigue: Resentments
7. Numbness: Trauma
8. Breathing Difficulties: Anxiety
9. Voice & Throat Problems: Oppression (I would add not being allowed to use one's voice)
10. Insomnia: Loss of Self
So, what can we do in order to feel better?
What I find extremely useful for immediate stress relief are Emotionally Focused Techniques (EFT). There are a lot of videos about EFT and the techniques seem simple, however, I would highly recommend seeing a therapist who is familiar with EFT if you wish to tackle deep-seated emotional issues - watching EFT videos will not suffice.
Please, see my posts termed What constitutes self-care and why can it be difficult to engage in self-care? and Thoughts versus emotions & feelings.
Dhabhar, F.S. Enhancing versus Suppressive Effects of Stress on Immune Function: Implications for Immunoprotection versus Immunopathology. All Asth Clin Immun 4, 2 (2008) doi:10.1186/1710-1492-4-1-2
Grover, S. (2018). Where Do You Store Stress in Your Body? Top 10 Secret Areas. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/when-kids-call-the-shots/201807/where-do-you-store-stress-in-your-body-top-10-secret-areas
Pert, C. (1997). Molecules of emotion: The science behind mind-body medicine. New York: Scribner.