Are You Locked In Stress Mode?

We know that the mind and body are intrinsically linked. But have we ever wondered how much damage poor mental health can have on our physical health?

It was just after 7:30, on what was a pretty regular morning, as I started to fumble with my tie knot my attention was drawn by a piece on the BBC-TV morning news. The presenter was telling me that academics had found a link between anger and heart disease. How on earth could that be the case? Anger is an emotion. Emotions are all in the head, in effect, they are imaginary. How could anger be linked to the real physical problem of heart disease?

A few months later, there was another piece on the very same breakfast television BBC program. This time the presenter was telling me that there was a link between anger and heart disease in women. So even though we generally think of men as having “anger problems,” getting all riled up, being destructive and aggressive, we were now being told that women, whose displays of rage seem far less frequent and explosive than men’s, are also experiencing heart disease because of anger.

This information is revolutionary, when we think about the implications of it. If anger can somehow cause heart disease that means anger, and therefore all emotions, must actually be more than the “all-in the-mind” notion we have been led to believe. “It’s not clear what causes this effect. It may be linked to the physiological changes that anger causes to our bodies, but more research is needed to explore the biology behind this,” said Doireann Maddock, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation (BHF). Okay, so more research is needed. But more importantly mainstream science is now open to the idea that stress and disease are intimately connected.

Six months after this monumental revelation, I found myself reading an article in The Observer newspaper. While sipping my steaming hot mug of black coffee, I came across a piece entitled, Cancer Warning For Stressed-Out Men. I put my coffee down on the table and stared intently at the page. “Prostate cancer kills one man in Britain every hour and 10,000 each year—the equivalent of a Lockerbie air disaster every week.” Professor Roger Kirby, chair of Prostate Cancer UK, a cancer research charity, said that many of these cases could be related to intolerable stress at work. “The changes that induce cells to become cancerous are unknown, but lifestyle is critical and men are creating the lifestyles that are killing them,” said Kirby.

If people are to take seriously the idea that it is possible to reverse chronic health challenges by addressing the underpinning emotion and stress as they impact the body, we need to fully understand the role and impact of stress and emotion on the body.

Stress…The Science

There are two extremely important facts about stress that are frequently overlooked. First, stress is a set of objective, measurable, biochemical events that take place throughout the body and brain. Far more than the nervous agitated feeling that people often associate with being ‘stressed’, a body can be in a state of stress in the absence of conscious awareness. This essentially means that it is entirely possible for an individual to ‘think’ that they are perfectly happy and that all is well, while at the same time their body is registering the stress response in the form of elevated heart rate and blood pressure, amongst other things.

The second important point is that stress is not merely a psychological phenomenon. The stress response triggered in the body is exactly the same regardless of whether the ‘trigger’ is a physical injury, such as a car accident, an illness, such as a case of flu, or a build-up of emotional energy inside the body and brain. There are a whole host of potential ‘stressors’ ranging from ingested toxins, including drugs and alcohol, poor nutrition, excessive exercise, and lack of sleep, that all have the potential of kicking the body into a state of prolonged stress.

A long-term build-up of invisible stress, particularly emotional stress, locks the stress response ‘on’ causing a ‘re-wiring’ of neural pathways in brain regions – structural changes in neuron-neuron connections. Emotional stress is in most instances the biggest concern because it can remain undetected. Emotion itself is not the problem, quite the contrary, emotion is a useful feedback mechanism; however, it is entirely possible for us to tune-out of our emotional feedback and when this happens it gets backed up, blocked, and out of balance. Tangible stressors such as physical injuries and illnesses tend to be few and far between. Sleep disturbance, poor diet, overly strenuous exercise, and excessive alcohol intake can be identified and managed or rectified. Emotional stress, however, is different. Unlike other external stressors that can easily be identified, emotion is not directly caused or triggered by external events, rather it emerges from within us as a result of our interaction with the world around us and the meaning that we place upon it. Neuroscience tells us that our experience of reality comes from inside us and is fluid and flexible. Our overall feeling state comprises our emotion, our mood, and any other physical sensations that may be present. How then can we effectively manage or deal with our emotional feelings? The first step is to understand that our feeling state emerges from within us and can shift and move without there being any change in external circumstances. This is a radically different idea from the notion that what goes on ‘out there’ directly causes how we feel ‘in here’.

Human beings have an in-built resilience that enables us to bounce back. Understanding and allowing our emotional feelings and moving beyond the desire to block them, label them or control external circumstances them all facilitate this ability to bounce back quickly. Too often we see ourselves as broken and requiring major action to remedy the damage. The horrible irony in many instances is that these fixing strategies are the very things that keep our locked in the stress mode.

Excerpts from The Intelligent Body, (c) 2017 by Kyle L. Davies. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton.

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