The natural state of a healthy body is one of vitality and ease; when in optimum health an individual is likely to feel relaxed, energized and empowered. In contrast, a body that is dealing with deep-seated and untreated stress can exhibit symptoms of discomfort, disease or pain.
Stress starts in the mind. When faced with pressure, demands or distress, most people fall into a habit of worrying and/or trying to control the situation. This resistance to life – this holding on in the mind – instigates unavoidable physiological reactions in the body. Cortisol and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream. This in turn creates tension in the spinal cord which subsequently spreads throughout the body’s nervous system. If unchecked, this reaction prevents an individual from coping effectively with new demands.
The body’s natural stress response is not designed to be a long-term process, however most people in modern society live in a constant, low-level state of stress. This means that the body is in ‘fight or flight’ mode at all times; it is in a perpetual state of retraction and tension. Without reprieve, this response becomes a long-term process and creates an unconscious and unhealthy pattern of stress in the mind and body.
Sadly, most people do not have the time, or do not feel safe enough, to confront the factors in their lives that are causing stress and so these patterns can go unchecked for a lifetime. Eventually, however, the underlying disease will manifest; often in an overt physical manner such as chronic illness, mental illness or nervous breakdown, but also often in more subtle ways such as addiction (including work-o-holism), obesity or social isolation.
Recognizing the symptoms of underlying stress is the first step in changing this pattern. Many people are aware that stress can cause tension and associated discomfort – headaches, backache or neck and shoulder issues. However, most individuals are unaware that the effects of stress extend far beyond these factors and they often miss other, vital signs that deep-seated stress is undermining their health and wellbeing.
Chronic stress can manifest itself both externally and internally. As well as commonly known symptoms such as tension and headaches, I encourage you to become aware of any of the following:
Poor posture or a feeling of stiffness: As stress increases in the body, it instinctively moves toward the defense posture (foetal position). The shoulders become rounded and forward, the back becomes hunched and the ear becomes positioned in front of the shoulder.
Shortness of breath: A hunched posture collapses the lungs and they are therefore unable to expand to their full size. Feeling like you are unable to take a full breath is also a mental defense system; a deep breath triggers emotional clarity, so if you are carrying suppressed or overwhelming emotions you will unconsciously breathe in shallow manner to avoid confronting your true emotional state.
Appetite: An enhanced appetite (overeating) or a lack of appetite are indicators of untreated chronic stress. It is especially important to note when food or alcohol are used as tools to ‘unwind’.
Digestive issues: An increase of peptic acid in the digestive system, caused by underlying stress, can create heartburn, diarrhea, constipation or chronic flatulence.
Low libido or lack of interest in sex: An ongoing fight or flight response will prevent the body from seeking and enjoying sexual contact.
Dullness, lack of creativity: A lack of vibrancy or creativity can arise when the body is in a chronic state of withdrawal and retraction.
Fatigue/low energy: This is symptomatic of extended stress; the body becomes fatigued from the constant state of fight or flight.
Depression, anxiety and heartache: A constant release of cortisol and adrenaline into the body can restrict an individual’s ability to feel safe and happy.
Withdrawing from the world or social circles: The defensive reaction of withdrawal and retraction within the body can extend to a need to withdraw from others.
It is possible to recognize and release stress from the body by following these simple steps:
1. Tap into your body: Take some moments to sit comfortably and quietly, in nature if possible. Breathe deeply and feel into the body. Notice and acknowledge any areas of tension or feelings that arise regarding situations in your life (past or present).
2. Practice a simple breathing exercise: Breathe in for a count of five, hold the breath for a count of five and exhale for a count of five. Repeat until your body feels light and energized.
3. Movement and stretching: Moving the body releases tension. Engage your body in gentle and joyful movement such as dance, yoga, walking or tai chi.
4. Honor your emotions: Develop a greater self-awareness; learn to listen to your emotions and have the courage to speak your truth.
It is encouraging to remember that the body has an innate ability to heal, regenerate and restore itself to full vitality. Even in extreme cases, historical stress can be eliminated from the body using gentle and simple techniques such as Network Spinal Analysis.
Written by Dr. Amy Morris for MariaShriver.com.