“How can stress actually cause pain?” I hear you cry.
Ok, maybe not you personally, but I get asked really quite often, so I thought a short (ish), simple (hopefully) review of stress would be of value.
Isn’t Stress All In Your Head?
Ok, a little more detail.
We use the word stress very casually in day to day life, to describe a wide variety of (usually unpleasant) experiences. People say they feel stressed because there was traffic and they were late to work, or their dinner guests showed up early, or their in-laws came for the weekend, and we understand the idea they are trying to convey. We can picture a stressful scene and imagine our feelings. But does anything actually happen in our bodies when we are stressed?
Yes. In fact, stress is a very complicated physiological state.
At the most basic level a stressor is anything our brain perceives as a potential threat to our continued health and well-being.
The textbook example here is a lion.
Imagine you are walking down the street and you realize a lion is stalking you. As your conscious brain begins to compose an angry Facebook post about the poor quality of fences at the local zoo, a number of physical reactions begin to happen in your body.
Your brain releases a hormone that tells your body that you are in danger. Various glands hear the announcement and release hormones that raise your blood sugar and blood pressure and increase your heart rate and breathing so that your muscles will have enough energy to run faster than you ever have before, (or try and fight off the lion, or tense all your muscles to make it harder to bite you, whichever your lizard brain decides will give you the best chance of surviving this encounter.)
In order to maximize the amount of energy available for the muscles, your body also ‘turns off’ a number of systems that are very important in daily life, but not immediately essential. These include your digestion, the parts of your immune system that are responsible for fighting viruses and preventing cancer, and some of your higher brain function. All very important and useful, but only if you survive the next few minutes.
Assuming that you escaped the lion, once the immediate danger is over there is an even more complicated chain of hormonal reactions that are responsible for switching your body back over to normal, everyday function.
In order for this to work properly your brain need to understand that you are now safe, and have enough down time to run through the whole process.
If we spend our days going from stressful event to stressful event our bodies may never fully switch over to normal functioning, and we can suffer from problems relating to any and all of the systems that are over activated or deactivated when dealing with danger. Muscle pain, digestive problems, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, heart disease and asthma as well as a number of mental issues and sleep disturbance can all be caused, or made worse, by chronic stress.
In summery, stress is a physical phenomenon that has wide ranging effects on the body and brain, and can totally cause migraines.
Whew! Still with me?
Of course, at this point you probably want to know why our body’s mechanism for coping with dinner guests showing up before the table is set is the same as for being caught in a stampede of wildebeest? The short list of stressful situations from earlier in this post doesn’t include any examples of actual physical danger and you (almost certainly) run into very few hungry lions over the course of your day.
The problem is our Inner Monkey. We are descended from a long, long line of humans who would probably have starved to death if their family/clan/tribe rejected them. Therefore our instincts tend to react to social situations as if they are a matter of life and death.
For hunter gatherers or subsistence farmers having good relationships with their friends and family can be the difference between survival and starvation if they get sick.
When you get caught in traffic on the way to work, somewhere deep inside this chain of thought can get set off:
Late too often -> eventually fired -> no job -> never hired by anyone again -> starve to death
(By the way, meditation and therapy are both good ways to develop the ability to overcome the out of control monkey instincts 🙂 )
Tim Urban wrote eloquently about this issue in his post about the Social Survival Mammoth. I highly recommend reading it.
For more about the affects of extreme stress on the body and brain, you can also check out this post from the archives: Psychological First Aid
If you found this post helpful, please leave a note and let me know. Or if you didn’t, tell me what subjects you could use more information about.
And if there are any lion tamers among this blogs readers, please tell me, just because that would be cool 🙂
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Hi! I’m Havva Mahler, a practitioner of Chinese medicine: acupuncture, Chinese herbs, tuina, reflexology, sotai and massage and a lifestyle, motivation and nutritional consultant. You can normally find me at my clinic in Be’er Sheva or Sderot, or reading something about health and/or motivation. You can find out more about me here. Get in touch with me here. And sign up to get the next blog post delivered straight to your inbox here.