Ashley Hutchinson, Special to Valley News
Stress is a complex topic. I could probably spend multiple weeks exploring the biological, psychological and social implications that stress has on the modern-day human.
What people are learning about stress in research these days is that it may likely be one of most common triggers for physical health conditions as well. This idea leads credence to what health care providers have been observing for the past 30 years in their patients. There is absolutely no separating the mind and body, and they work together in an infinite loop. The mind’s health impact’s the body’s health. The body’s health impact’s the mind’s health. Together, your mind and body make you wholeheartedly, you.
Stress is simply how your body, specifically the sympathetic nervous system, responds to a situation deemed as demanding, overwhelming or as a potential threat to your safety. Trauma is a type of very intense stress, for example, that is a result of stress exceeding one’s ability to cope with an event or situation that you individually perceive as traumatic or stressful. Many people hear the word trauma and mind goes to vivid and horrific visuals. But how many people think of trauma and visualize job loss? Arguing with their spouse? Struggling with financial debt? Memories of being rejected by others? All of these situations may be individually interpreted as, you guessed it, trauma.
Most people hear the word trauma and visualize war, abuse or starvation. Americans struggle with the meaning of trauma and stress because they have collectively buried stress deep down and have neglected their mental health since, well, forever. Interestingly enough, the sympathetic nervous system and your brain do not look at a clock or calendar to understand what their functions are. These are social constructs that people have devised to tell time.
What it means is that unmanaged stressors or traumas can be relived in the body, if the brain and the sympathetic nervous system are triggered to flip on the sympathetic nervous systems’ fight, flight or freeze, switch. When a person is in the sympathetic nervous system, the body starts to respond to the sympathetic nervous systems’ demands by pumping them full of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to respond to the potential threat.
Unmanaged stress may lead to an increased risk in developing major health issues including, but not limited to, cardiac disease, autoimmune disorders, obesity and sleep disorders just to name a few. While it may sound scary, heck, even traumatizing to read, please know that harmful stress can absolutely be managed. Therapy, acceptance, exercise, working a 12-step program, connecting with your higher power, learning to say “no,” creating boundaries and healing emotional wounds are all powerful ways to manage stress and cope with trauma. Find what works for you.
Your sympathetic nervous system has a companion by the name of the parasympathetic nervous system, of which its job is to relax you, keep you calm and allow your body to rest. Utilizing the coping skills I mentioned above all have the ability to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, giving you peace and relaxation. Not all adaptive, positive and health coping skills work the same for everyone. Seek out your emotional refuge, find your favorite coping skill and practice them often, develop insight as to when are becoming too stressed, treat your body with kindness and know when to reach out to others for help when you need it the most.
This article is not a replacement for mental health care treatment. If you are currently experiencing a mental health care crisis, call 911 or get to your closest emergency room.
Ashley Hutchinson is a Temecula Valley clinical therapist, social worker and an alumna of the Loma Linda University School of Behavioral Health.