The Mind and Body Connection: Understanding the Impacts of Physical Pain & Emotional Pain
Picture this: It's your first day of a new job that you have been anxiously waiting for. You aced the interview and are confident in your abilities; however, the first day of any new adventure always brings some feelings of nervousness and doubt. Will I be good enough for this role? Will my skills measure up to those of my new co-workers? Will I be able to keep up with the demands of learning the new skills required of me? These thoughts swirl through your mind, almost as if you're listening to a broken record. But this morning, as you begin your drive to your new job and as these thoughts continue to swirl and take on momentum in your mind, you begin to feel this odd sensation...your palms are sweaty and your chest is feeling a little tighter than normal. Your eyes are darting from one stimulus to the next, making you grip your steering wheel a little bit tighter. You shift in your seat and try to shake this feeling, but for some reason, your body is becoming more tense the closer you get to reaching your destination. You finally arrive and put your car in park. You turn off the ignition and open the drivers-side door. You step out of the car and notice that your joints and limbs feel sore and tense. The feeling is almost similar to the body aches you often feel when fighting a nasty cold or seasonal flu. From head to toe, your body just hurts...but why? You may know the familiar thoughts that come from this anxiety you are feeling about your first day, but your body has never reacted this way, or perhaps, you just never realized it until this moment.
Just like the road pictured above, our mind twists and turns quickly and without warning when we are faced with a fear of the unknown. When faced with an anxiety-provoking stimulus, such as beginning your first day at a new job, starting at a new school or a new grade, or facing an uncertain or frightening unknown, our body and mind work together to formulate the stress response. The stress response is our body and mind's way of connecting the dots and letting us know that we're feeling nervous or that we should be on high alert. Often, we call this the fight or flight response; our body's evolutionary way of addressing or negating the sense of fear or panic that comes when faced with an uncertain event or situation. This stress response prepares our body to either run away for safety, or fight the lion in front of us. Either way, our body and mind must be connected in order to ensure the stress response is accomplished and we address the situation with enough caution that we get out alive. Although we aren't evading scary creatures who want to kill and eat us, our stressors in the modern world revolve around financial instabilities, relationship struggles, communication breakdowns, loss of jobs, or poor performances on tests or exams. Our body responds to these negative experiences as stress responses and our body reacts as if we are in a state of pain.
From a biological sense, our body responds to stress by engaging the fight or flight system. Some common symptoms of this might include: stomach pain, nausea, or digestive trouble; headache or migraine; insomnia or other sleep issues (waking up frequently, for example); weakness or fatigue; rapid breathing or shortness of breath; pounding heart or increased heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; and muscle tension or pain. The hormones Adrenalin and Cortisol are responsible for increased heartbeat and breathing, which can help when facing a threat. But these hormones also affect digestion and blood sugar as well. If you’re often stressed or anxious, frequently releasing these hormones can have long-term health effects and your may notice that some aspects of your health decrease over time. Digestion, for example, is one system in particular that is greatly effected by continuous anxiety and stress. When stressed, the digestive system stops or slows down to ensure blood flow and body energy is used to pump blood to the heart and lungs, so the body can take in more oxygen. Unfortunately, when the body is continuously in a state of stress, the digestive system begins to slow down more often, causing it to work in a more "lazy" fashion, if you want to put it simply. Thus, it is important to pay attention to how your body displays stress and what systems are affected the most. For some, it may very well be the digestive system, other's it may be the nervous system. Either way, a tool such as journalling or noting could help to understand and identify your stress responses to gauge how anxiety and stress affect you.
If you feel as though your body and mind are taking on anxiety and stress in a way that feels uncomfortable, challenging, and burdening; perhaps its time to seek out some support. Therapy is very helpful for physical and emotional symptoms of stress and anxiety. A trained mental health therapist (i.e. Registered Psychotherapist or Psychologist) can teach you skills to manage these symptoms and address stress and anxiety in a way that is less physically and emotionally draining. In my practice, I work with individuals, families, couples, and groups to understand how stress affects the various aspects of their lives and develop unique coping tools to get them through these stressors, without letting it affect them in such profound ways. Some common treatment approaches that are the most used in my practice involve Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Mindfulness-Based Strategies. There is no cure for anxiety, nor can we get rid of stress altogether. It is; however, possible to work with our anxiety and stress to better understand what it is trying to tell us and how it is encouraging us to grow. So rather than running for the hills and hoping the stress will magically disappear, the goal is that we will be welcoming to the panic and stress that comes into our lives and allow it to help us grow rather than make us feel small and unworthy. As a psychotherapist, I work with my clients to help them better understand their stress and accept it into their lives as an opportunity for growth as an individual. By changing the way we view stress, it will in turn change the way our body reacts to it.
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