quan yin

The wound is the place where the light enters you. ~Rumi

Releasing trauma, stress and chronic illness patterns out of your body

Trauma, Stress and Your Health

stones and water

Stress and Illness

We know that excessive stress is not good for our health. But we tend to think that “excessive” is reserved for people like high flying executives and we are not really aware of how very pervasive and harmful stress can be in our lives. Stress and trauma can make us more prone to illnesses, aggravate illnesses we already have or actually cause illnesses. This vulnerability to illness occurs because stress and trauma alter the functioning of our nervous and endocrine systems in a way that results in reduced immune defenses, increase inflammation response, reduced energy and increased exposure to hormones like cortisol that can become toxic to the body in the long term.

Stress related illnesses develop over time, from either an exaggerated stress response (too much stress response to what should have been small stressors) or from a lack of capacity to shut down the stress response.

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Stress Response in the Wild and in Humans

The stress response is a beautifully efficient mechanism that evolved in animals to prepare their bodies for fight, flight or freeze, and thus protect their lives.  The stressor stimulates the brain, which in turn stimulates the pituitary gland, which sends a message to our adrenals to release adrenaline and cortisol amongst other hormones.  These hormones help us face a life threatening situation by basically taking energy from our energy “retirement savings account” to face an emergency.

In the wild, this response is required sparingly- the once a day appearance of a predator, for instance.  The problem is that our brain usually responds with the same physiological mechanism to psychological stressors than to physical stressors that actually threaten our lives.  We react in the same way to a tiger attack, to running late in traffic, to having a problem with our boss or spouse, to a tight deadline or to being in the slow cashier line at the supermarket, using this very expensive mechanism dozens if not hundreds of time a day.  So instead of withdrawing from our energy “retirement savings account” for true and rare emergencies, we are actually expending that account for our normal everyday live- and we all know how that turned out for the economy. 

We also are not aware of many events everyday events that cause the stress response and are adding to this enormous energy expense : low blood sugar (due to skipping meals, infrequent meals, dieting or the sugar crash after a sugary treat), lack of sleep, environmental toxins, infections, surgery, dental procedures are all interpreted by the body as major threats to survival. 

The issue is not only how frequently the stress response is started, but what happens after it.  In the wild, animals fight, flee or after freeze (playing dead) they exhibit a behavior called prancing- running or other intense physical activity.  The physical activity helps rid the body from the stress hormones and get back to balance. And then animals rest, rebuilding their tissues and energy storages.  In contrast, humans do not find in their best interest to fight or flee the boss, or spouse etc, and during times of stress is precisely when we feel we do not have the time to go and exercise- we do not dissipate the stress hormones and seldom take the time to restore our energy.

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Cortisol, Stress and Your Health

Two key hormones are released during the stress response.  Adrenaline, the one most commonly known, focus the energy on the parts of our body that will be involved in fight or flight and away from other areas: increases heart beat, blood irrigation to muscles, accelerates breathing and inhibits digestion and blood flow to the organs.

A lesser known hormone, cortisol, is in charge of providing the extra energy. It does this by increasing the production of blood sugar from our tissues, by stimulating the transformation of protein from our muscles, fat from our fat cells and complex sugars from our livers into glucose.  It also inhibits the use of our energy to build and repair muscle and fat cells by reducing our response to insulin, and reduces our immune response- a luxury when we are under physical threat.   Finally cortisol increases our appetite, especially for fatty, salty and sugary foods. All this results in the availability of more energy to protect ourselves and is highly functional as a short term response.

If the stress is of short duration and the stress response is completed by fight, flight, prancing or exercise, cortisol soon dissipates and the body goes back to normal. But if the stress becomes chronic, or if the stress response is not completed, the elevated levels of stress hormones induce even more stress and secretion of cortisol, and its levels become elevated for the long term.  While cortisol is highly beneficial for the body when it is in balance, too much or too little cortisol can lead to serious health problems.

Prolonged elevated cortisol destroys muscle mass, which causes a reduction on our metabolism.  Low metabolism united with increased appetite directed to fatty and sugary foods leads to obesity.  A long term suppression of immune system function makes us more susceptible to infections of all kinds. We become resistant to insulin, which can lead to diabetes. The continued destruction of tissues can lead to bone loss and reduced synthesis of neurotransmitter and brain tissue shrinkage, leading to memory, concentration problems, depression and anxiety. The increased cholesterol and triglyceride levels and elevated blood pressure are factors promoting heart disease.

After years of chronic stress, the adrenal glads cannot continue producing hormones at the same pace and then cortisol levels fall below normal, a condition called adrenal exhaustion.  People suffer from extreme fatigue that is not easily repaired through rest.  The immune system over functions and causes inflammation all over the body.  Scientists are staring to find links between chronic inflammation and illnesses like chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.  An overactive immune system is also the cause of autoimmune illnesses such as lupus.

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Trauma and Stress

Trauma increases exponentially our susceptibility to stress.  Trauma, particularly childhood trauma, can dramatically increase the number of stimulus that our bodies perceive as stressors.  A car backfiring can lead to high stress and anxiety in a war veteran.  A knife or a dark alley can bring a panic attack to an assault victim.  A loud noise, being late, a person waiting behind a door can cause strong stress reactions to a survivor of childhood abuse that connect this common occurrences to recurrent episodes of abuse.  Most trauma survivors develop hyperalertness, so they become extremely sensitive to what happens in their environment and easily triggered into a stress response.

There is a second and very powerful mechanism through which trauma increases our vulnerability to stress.  This process is called kindling- like the wood that burns easily.  With repeated stimulation to certain areas of the brain, as it occurs with repeated or intense traumas, certain neural pathways in the brain become sensitized and start firing spontaneously, without the need for external stimulus.  One center in the brain that is particularly susceptible to kindling is the amygdala, the center of the limbic system of the brain in charge of assessment and mobilization of emotions.  Kindling explains why PTSD symptoms can be triggered in the absence of external stimulus, and why even after years of therapy and/or meditation practice, traumatized individuals still revert to trauma symptoms during their sleep or when they lower their level of conscious awareness.

The increase in the number of stimulus perceived as stressful, hyperalertness and kindling lead to an exponential increase in the number of stress responses in traumatized individuals, making them particularly susceptible to the health consequences of altered cortisol levels.

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Stress and Trauma Related Illnesses

Medical research finds that many conditions-such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, insomnia, headaches, ulcers, depression, anxiety, poor memory and lower resistance to anxiety- are associated to our modern lifestyle and related to high stress levels. Though more research needs to be done to clarify the causal links between stress, trauma and illness, there enough evidence about physiological mechanisms to form some strong hypothesis.

Stress is a very important contributing factor in the development of obesity and diabetes. Elevated cortisol leads to loss of muscle mass and a thus a reduction in metabolic rate (our basic energy expenditure).  It also makes us hungrier and crave foods high in fat and sugars. This leads to the accumulation of fat, particularly abdominal fat, which research finds is closely associated to the development of diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and heart disease. Elevated cortisol also increases the level of sugar in the blood and reduces our cells sensitivity to insulin- the pancreas gets exhausted trying to produce more and more insulin to compensate these effects, till it gives out over time and cannot produce enough insulin, leading to the onset of diabetes.

Trauma leading to chronic stress that results in adrenal exhaustion seems to be a very important contributing factor to an important segment of chronic fatigue cases.  A recent study carried at Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, found that exposure to childhood trauma was associated to a six fold increase in the risk of having chronic fatigue.  The study also found that cortisol levels were decreased in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome that who experienced childhood trauma, but not in those with chronic fatigue syndrome that were not subjected to abuse. Sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect were most closely associated with chronic fatigue syndrome.  The authors suggest that early life stress may cause a biological susceptibility to chronic fatigue syndrome. Other studies have found that childhood sexual, physical and psychological abuse are powerful predictors of chonic pain, particularly chronic pelvic, abdominal, low back, orofacial and myofascial pain.

The clinical syndromes of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue have remarkable similarities to the symptom complex of late PTSD, suggesting that similar physiological mechanisms of stress and trauma might be at work. All present low levels of cortisol excretion in urine, blunted cortisol daily rhythms, exaggerated response of the stress controlling hormone secreted by the pituitary (ACTH) to the hypothalamic control hormone (CRH) and b blunted cortisol response to increased ACTH- in other words, the body cannot secrete enough cortisol, and tries to compensate by fabricating more and more of the hormone that is supposed to help release more cortisol. Research has also found that hypervigilance to a wide variety of external and internal sensations is widespread in fibromyalgia patients, hypervigilance is of course a key trauma symptom.

Medical research has shown that gastric and duodenal ulcers are much more common in people that are under chronic stress, anxious, or depressed. Chronically increased stress hormones shut down digestion, including the production of protective measures such as the mucus lining the stomach and the bicarbonate that modulates the acidic gastric juices. The problem is when a person experiences periods of high stress followed by low stress because the protective mechanisms are shut down our system is more vulnerable to damage of the lining, thus the ulcers. The stress hormones also suppress the immune system, which makes us more vulnerable to Heliobacter pylori which causes ulcers in 80% of the people exposed to them.. When the digestive system is shut down and then low stress comes and we are hungry again, the system will not produce enough enzymes to digest food, leading to gas, constipation and bloating.  These are many of the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Many of the symptoms of IBS are either caused or exacerbated by stress. Getting stress and cortisol levels under control can help control and even reverse these problems.

In the stress response adrenaline raises blood pressure.  When stress and high blood pressure are sustained, they damage the lining of blood vessels, which makes them “sticky” and cholesterol and fats start depositing there, forming plaque and increasing even more the blood pressure.  Cortisol, in its role of producing energy for the stress response increases the level of cholesterol and fat in circulation, contributing to the faster growth of plate. These may be some of the underlying mechanisms behind the fact that people that experience high anxiety, worry and anger increase their risk of cardiovascular disease three to six times compared to controls.

Exposure to stress can reduce natural killer cells (NK cells) by as much as 50%.  These are the immune cells that detect virus and cancer cells.  Studies have found that stress levels can predict a reduced ability of NK cells to destroy cancer cells. Animal studies have shown that cortisol can increase blood irrigation to tumors and their growth.  Stress thus can facilitate the growth of tumors and hinder the body’s ability to battle cancer.

When stress is sustained for years, as occurs with many trauma survivors, we reach the condition of adrenal exhaustion and levels of cortisol drop below normal. One of cortisol functions is to suppress excessive immune function. Autoimmune diseases can be understood as conditions where the immune system becomes overactive and attacks out joints (as in rheumatoid arthritis), our nerve cells (as in multiple sclerosis) or our connective tissue (as in lupus). 

While more research is still needed to elucidate the mechanisms by which stress can lead to disease, and while many factors are at play in each of the conditions mentioned, it is clear that bringing the stress response back to healthy levels is a very important step in recovering our capacity for full health. 

Exercise, relaxation, meditation, yoga and breathing techniques are all well known and effective methods to controls stress.  But many of us experience that not too long after exercise, meditation, or massage, or when we fall asleep, our quickly bodies fall in the same mental patterns of muscular tension, mental worry and emotional stress. In that case, it is necessary to use tools that operate across the bodymind and that really can address the unconscious and those part of your brain that control the physiological responses so that we can fully bring back to normal the stress response.  Energy Psychology, PSYCH-K™ , BodyTalk and Reconnective Healing™ are very powerful tools that can reset your stress response and release trauma and stress illness patterns from your body.

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