Updated: Dec 9, 2019
We all have stresses in our lives, from family expectations to work pressures; from conflicts with others to worrying if we have enough money to pay our bills. Additionally we all experience traumas in our lives whether it is physical or emotional; large or small. Stress and trauma are just part of the equation in our lives that both cause positive responses in our bodies as well as horrifically negative ones. Understanding what stress and trauma does to the body, how to release it from the body and how to keep it at bay will improve the wellness of your mind, body and spirit.
Typical Stress Response
Our nervous system governs our ability to manage our stresses and traumatic events. It is responsible for regulating our survival response (fight, flight, fright/freeze). It is also responsible for basic automatic biological processes like breathing, heart beats and food digestion. Our nervous system also helps to regulate the neuroplasticity in our brains impacting our ability to cope.
A healthy person, with balanced nervous system and good neuroplasticity in the brain will have the ability to process the stresses and traumas in their lives. A typical HEALTHY stress response will look something like this:
They wake up;
The stresses build up throughout the day;
They reach a breaking point where the nervous system will kick in, choosing:
Fight = Standing up to the stress and facing it head on, processing and releasing it right there and then., OR
Flight = Choosing to walk away, removing themselves from the stress event., OR
Fright (Freeze) = This is a heighten response where the amygdala is flipped (this is where the "he's flipped his lid" phrase comes from) and the frontal cortex is no longer able to record or problem solve or process. This response is complete fear and freeze.
In all three of these stress responses, within a short period of time, the adrenaline, the heightened nervous system, the breathing and the heart rate all start to slow, calm and relax. In a short period of time, the stress response passes and the person calms down.
We are meant, built and programmed to come out of the typical stress response. It serves a purpose, but we are not meant to stay stuck there.
The stress in our lives is stored in our physical body unless we process it consciously. Our lives get so busy that most of us have a stress event hit us, but we don't have the time or capacity to process it so we just keep plugging along through our day hoping it will just get better. If we took the time to stop whatever we are doing and process that stress, it would prevent it from getting lodged in our bodies. Most of us don't have the time or the capacity or the will so we push it aside (or down inside) and carry on.
As our stress level in our body rises it can create physiological responses. Stress responses look like this:
Tension & migraine headaches,
Immune system issues
These physiological responses present as physical ailments, chronic illness and disease.
Trauma is an "event" that occurs that then leads to an increase in our stress levels. Trauma can be physical or emotional in nature.
There is the unexpected traumas that happens in your life, that stop you in your tracks like having a car accident. Then there is the long term stresses that build slowly in the body over time like long term family conflicts.
Then there are the early childhood traumas (occurs between 0 - 6 years old) like neglect and emotional abuse.
Repetitive trauma leads to repetitive stress in our bodies. As it continues to build up, it becomes "Toxic Stress".
If you are experiencing any (not all) of the following, you may be living with toxic stress:
Tension in your muscles most of the time
Rigidity in your muscles most of the time
Mental or physical body shut down