And if the stress involves danger or trauma, or continues over a significant period of time, our body may just “shut down” in some way.
It has been estimated that 75% or more of the time a patient visits a primary care physician the true reason is stress, psychological difficulty, or something related. In other words, most of the time the problem did not BEGIN with a physical problem or body dysfunction.
That doesn’t mean the physical symptoms aren’t real. It means that our entire being is connected together, and what affects one part affects all the others as well.
Short-term stress (sometimes “positive”) that can lead to physical symptoms includes:
- Change in a job – new job, losing a job, or significant job change
- Breakup of a romantic relationship
- Being a witness to or victim of a crime
- Death of someone close to you
- Getting married
- A child or parent moving out of or into the household
Long-term stress that can lead to physical symptoms includes:
- A history of child abuse – physical, sexual, or emotional
- Living with domestic violence
- Stressful job situation – poor relationships at work, working to many hours, no sense of control
- A troubled marriage – chronic conflict or infidelity
- Long-term caregiving of a sick family member
These are only some examples, of course. But when any of these stresses becomes significant, our body will likely react. Each of us has some physical vulnerability where our body most easily “breaks down.” Sometimes simply not getting enough sleep or eating poorly will trigger our vulnerable area. But the more stress we’re under, the more likely we are to experience our “stress reaction.”
Almost every body system is potentially vulnerable. Some examples of where stress may show up include:
- Headaches – migraines, tension, or others
- Pain syndromes – pelvic pain, fibromyalgia, or other generalized pain
- Respiratory – asthma, hyperventilation, worsening of COPD
- Gastrointestinal – nausea, indigestion, gas, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome
- Immune – chronic infections, autoimmune disorders (i.e. lupus), some cancers
- Metabolic – obesity, diabetes
- Cardiovascular – high blood pressure, heart disease
- Psychiatric – anxiety, depression, mental illness, addiction
All this is NOT to say that “it’s all in your head.” No – it’s in your body! But your body may well be expressing the results of short or long-term stress. Stress may not be the only “reason:” your genetics certainly play a role. You may or may not have done anything to “cause” the problem. But paying attention to what your body is saying can be helpful in moving forward.
So what can you do when your body is screaming?
- Pay attention! My own signal is generally migraine headaches. Yours may well be different. Learn the signals your body gives you, and don’t ignore them.
- Learn the triggers. Understanding what kinds of stress your body is responding to gives you an increased measure of control. You may or may not be able to change the thing that’s causing you stress, but just knowing what it is does help.
- Change what you can. If you’re working too many hours, make a change. If you’re struggling with a history of childhood trauma, get some help. If the stress is short-term, make some adjustments in other areas of your life while you attend to what is urgent.
Learn to value your body as a barometer, and pay attention to what it is telling you. If you don’t, you may very well get seriously sick and your body will FORCE you to take a break – perhaps permanently!
Take action while you still can.
Your turn: Where is your body’s vulnerability? What physical signals do you get when the stress builds up? What can you do about it? I’d love to hear from you.
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