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Our Body’s Response to Stress and Trauma: Ensuring Your Health

October 10 was World Mental Health Day. To bring more recognition to the importance (and relevance) of mental health in our day-to-day lives, it’s important to focus on the impact mental health has on our overall health and well-being.

World renowned trauma specialist, Bessel van der Kolk, has an entire book (The Body Keeps the Score) on how unresolved trauma manifests as physical responses. In essence, our bodies hold onto that shit! Over time, the things we fail to unpack become so heavy that our bodies begin to fail. Chronic illness, insomnia, migraines, inflammation, the list goes on and on. In my practice I’ve had countless clients make comments like “I feel like I can breath better” or “I feel like a weight has been lifted off me” after we’ve processed through some of their traumatic experiences. YES!!! Absolutely! When we unpack the shit sandwich that has happened TO us, we are creating space so that when the next disaster strikes our box isn’t busting!!

I describe the “events” that happen to us as things we often choose to shove into Pandora’s box. However, every box (or container) has a definitive size, shape, and capacity. I’m sure most, if not all, of you have heard about trying to shove 10 pounds of shit into a 5 pound bucket. Same concept with Pandora’s box!

All these atrocities we compartmentalize and shove aside because we can’t deal with it then eventually get so high that we can’t shove anymore into it the container (in this case…Pandora’s box). Doesn’t matter if we sit on it, have someone else try and zip it or clasp it shut, or duct tape the hell out it to reinforce the seams…eventually that shit gets to be so much the container busts open.

If you think that shits going to wait until the perfect time HA…nope…worst time ever usually. Murphy’s law or something like that. What I’m saying is, you can’t be like an ostrich and keep your head in the sand. You need to take time to unpack that box to make room for whatever life is bound to throw at you. This helps build our resilience for when stress starts to pile up.

The amount of stress that the population is under in our fast paced lifestyle means we are more prone to illness. Our bodies get worn down and we are more susceptible to illness (and the last several years have been über centered on illness). Add in divides over political beliefs, moral and ethical beliefs, navigating the lack of access to child care due to shut downs, trying to work from home (or in some cases as an “essential worker” going into work), home schooling, adapting technology to fit your specific needs, staff shortages, “quiet quitting,” and the list goes on and on.

When our system is stressed out we go into “flight, flight, freeze.”  Our body essentially enters survival mode. It’s what ensure our ancestors survived getting eaten by a predator (our predators have just changed over time). Typically, we find it harder to sleep and I don’t know about you but when I don’t sleep I’m all kinds of clumsy. I can’t focus, I’m a space cadet, I’ve got the thousand mile stare going on and nothing is sticking that you’re throwing out. Add in the crucial necessity to make SMART snap decisions to save lives and it’s no shock that looking back you can see careless and senseless mistakes that had my brain been operating at an optimal level, never would have happened. Studies have shown that lack of sleep renders and individual as cognitively impaired as those who are under the influence of an intoxicating substance. Laymen’s terms…your body responds as if you’re drunk! Fine motor skills??? Out the door! Decision making??? Nope, that’s diminished too. How about performance levels??? Oh yeah, those are in the toilet!

Physically speaking, your immune system can’t fight off anything and you continue to get sick repeatedly. You’re constantly in the doctor’s office, financially you might be struggling because of deductibles, co-pays, and medication coverage. Plus, you’re taking sick days, comp days, personal days, and vacation days because you can’t work. Your relationship sucks because you’re irritable. Constantly snapping at everyone close to you and you’re probably not communicating other than in grunts and hand gestures. Oh and that’s not even addressing the increase likelihood of complaints at work!

What might this look like? Below is a chart from the Mayo Clinic that breaks it down into what it looks like for our body, our mood, and our behavior. I’m sure you can think of others to add to this list.

Next week we’ll talk about balance. What you can do to identify areas that might be out of balance, discuss methods to creating balance, and evaluating goals.

  • van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.

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