The more consciousness you bring into your body the stronger the immune system becomes. It is as if every cell awakens and rejoices. The body loves your attention. It is also a potent form of self-healing. Most illnesses creep in when you are not present in the body. If the master is not present in the house, all kinds of shady characters will take up residence there. When you inhabit your body it will be hard for unwanted guests to enter.
Ekhart Tolle’s – The Power of Now
If you’ve been following me, you know I go on about stress constantly – it’s my mission to raise awareness of the impacts of stress on our health, happiness and healing. I’ve experienced first hand how much stress impacted my own life, I’ve seen it in my patients, and I want to prevent stress from having this disastrous, negative impact on you.
Stress is a major contributor to almost all physical illnesses that people experience, but it also plays a huge role in other areas of our lives, creating disconnection and impacting our mental, emotional and social wellbeing.
Most people don’t fully appreciate just how bad stress is for them, and, because stress is so normal in our modern times, many also don’t acknowledge just how much stress they are under.
Think of all the stress in your life – work pressures, family dynamics, worrying about finances, or health, or relationships, parenting or social activities, not to mention the stress you might feel if you watch the news. The lump sum of all these stressors is called your “allostatic load”. When you do an honest stocktake of just how much stress is ACTUALLY on your plate, you may just be experiencing far more stress than you realise.
All stress creates chemistry in your body.
It doesn’t matter if it’s financial stress or relationship stress, a physical stress like lack of sleep, or being told you have a terminal illness. The reaction in your body and mind is exactly the same. The chemistry of stress involves hormones, neurotransmitters and powerful inflammatory mediators. Stress is a full body, MAJOR physiological event in the body that affects EVERY organ, tissue, system and cell in your body. This is no small thing…
Stress is a full body, MAJOR physiological event in the body that affects EVERY organ, tissue, system and cell in your body.
Stress, often originating from our thoughts and perceptions, creates PHYSIOLOGICAL impacts in the body, and these in turn affect our mind making STRESS a major PSYCHOLOGICAL event as well.
This won’t be a surprise to you – we all know that when we are feeling stressed, we can have less motivation, have a ‘fuzzy’ brain, focus on the negative, and struggle to think positively.
And this is where disconnection comes into play…
When stressed, there is a generalised contraction in the body AND the mind.
In the body, we feel this contraction in our muscles, like a loaded spring, to get us ready to be fast and powerful in the well-known mobilisation survival state, fight or flight. Even if the stress is not a physical, environmental threat that you can fight or run from, the body still activates this stress response indiscriminately.
When the psyche perceives a threat – no matter what that threat is – all resources are liberated towards mobilisation. Run or fight!! The stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline flood your bloodstream causing blood supply and energetic activation of the most important systems involved in survival such as the cardiovascular system, to get the blood pumping to your muscles and brain, your musculoskeletal system for movement, and to specific parts of your brain to be sharp, alert and ready to react.
This makes sense for short term stressors, but most people are living with chronic, persistent stress and this constant state of fight or flight with its associated chemistry active to some degree in their bodies and minds.
This has a huge impact not only on our physical health but also influences our thoughts, behaviours and more broadly, our connection to our Self, others and all of life.
Hormones of Connection and Disconnection
Cortisol and Adrenaline are not the only hormones active when in the stress response. The hormone testosterone rises sharply to increase the intensity and aggressiveness of the response, with the unfortunate side effect of an equally sharp decrease in another hormone you may be familiar with called oxytocin. Oxytocin is also known as the “love chemical”. It’s involved in trust, kinship and attachment as well as generosity and jealousy. Oxytocin is crucial for connection. The more connection we have in our life, the more oxytocin is released, which then helps us to connect more, fuelling the connection process.
In times of survival though, when your psyche believes your life is on the line (it doesn’t care if it’s just a series of bills coming in all at once, or an upcoming presentation at work that you’re worried about), there’s no time for getting loved up and being generous…. We’ve got tigers to fight! So, oxytocin levels decrease along with the need to connect and be close to others. When we are stressed, safety becomes a priority and we can contract, retreat and avoid others in attempts to feel less vulnerable. Space and distance feels safe, so when stressed we can begin behaving in ways that push people away, and it’s often the people closest to us that we push away.
The Freeze response and disconnection
When we are bombarded with stress after stress, traumatic event after traumatic event for weeks, months and maybe even years and decades, that survival response becomes memorised, normalised and we can become almost addicted to the chemistry of stress. We get stuck in a pattern of behaviours, in response to stress, that push others away and create disconnection, and keep us in states of hypervigilance, that in turn perpetuates the stress we feel… and you can see how this easily becomes a cycle that defines many people’s lives as busy, stressful and disconnected!
With these persistent stressful lives so many live, the sympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for the fight or flight response, gets exhausted. We can no longer fight or flight anymore. When it all gets too much to cope with, we exit the fight or flight response feeling hopeless, and helpless, and we enter the next stage of the stress response, freeze.
In the freeze response, the sympathetic nervous system gives way to its opposing response, the para-sympathetic nervous system, that usually calms the stress response down, imparting an eerily calmer state more akin to giving up, succumbing to fate, a surrender. At this point in time, conservation of energy is the priority. Energy drains from the body into a state of chronic fatigue, and because of the impending pain and suffering the metaphorical tiger is about to inflict on us, psychologically and physiologically, we numb, we dissociate… we disconnect.
This disconnection when viewed through the eyes of Steven Porges’ Poly-Vagal Theory and evolutionary biology, has a powerful and purposeful functionality to it. It’s the body’s last chance at preservation and protection and it gives us insight into how deep one’s stress response is if experiencing these symptoms. This freeze response, according to Porges, emanates from a very old part of our nervous system that developed from an evolutionary point of view, 500 million years ago. It was our first survival response to predators. This part of the nervous system is called the Dorsal Vagal.
When acute, this numbness, disassociation and disconnection serves a powerful survival role. However when it’s chronic, and we feel a low level of this day in day out to the point of it now becoming our normal mode of operating, we find our self disconnected from our body and mind and the way these aspects of Self communicate to us.
When we can’t hear our body language, we can’t attend to its needs and this leads us down the path to more and more signs and symptoms, louder feedback mechanisms, illness and dis-ease.
So how can we begin to move back into our Self and our body? How do we re-establish the connection? Here are some ideas:
- Learn your body’s language. Our body speaks to us, constantly. It’s the signs and symptoms we moan and groan about. The ones we medicate to silence. We start to more fully inhabit our body – we sense our body again. We sense our body and all it holds- the emotions, feelings, and pain. As we open up our senses and listen in this new way, we reconnect to our body and we can react and respond to our body’s feedback and requests more appropriately naturally and organically caring for ourselves better. Here’s a link to my blog on this exact thing – HERE
- Be with the body – become mindful of the body. What does this look like? Spending time with our Self in quiet reflection and connection. This may be in meditation, a nourishing bath, or even gentle activities out in nature. A personal favourite of mine is meditation techniques that help us to feel back into the body.
- Surround yourself with people who are comfortable talking about these topics. Co-regulation is the most powerful antidote to stress and the disconnection that results. Who do you surround yourself with? Are they emotionally intelligent? Do you feel emotionally safe around them? The people we surround ourselves with impact us whether we know it or not, in beneficial and not so beneficial ways. If you want to bring different types of people to add to your support network, try joining a yoga hub, sports team, bushwalking group, meditation group, or sign up to workshops and classes in something that interests you.
For more information on stress and its impacts on your life, as well as practical tips and resources, sign up to my mailing list, follow my Instagram page, or subscribe to listen to the Your Hero’s Journey podcast.