How to turn off the stress response

In my last post ‘Could my personality be contributing to my chronic pain?’ I mentioned that, after recognising myself in many of the ‘Type T’ character traits, I started to ask myself what I was really feeling and what I wasn’t allowing to surface. I felt it was this repression of my emotions that was causing my body to remain in a stressed, over-adrenalized, anxious state and was responsible for my chronic lower back pain.

What is the stress response, also known as the ‘fight-flight response’?

The body has a natural way of protecting itself when faced with a threat or danger, though the ‘fight-flight response’. Walter Cannon (1871-1945), an American physiologist, first coined this phrase when he observed the common reactions of animals to danger. Once the danger was over, the animals returned to homeostasis – the body’s attempt to stabilize itself by internal corrective mechanisms when its equilibrium has been disturbed. When this is reached, ‘rest and repair’ can occur.

When the human brain perceives us to be in a danger, the hypothalamus in the brain stimulates the pituitary gland, which in turn signals the adrenal glands to produce what are commonly called “stress hormones.” The most familiar of these hormones are epinephrine (adrenalin), norepinephrine, and cortisol (a natural steroid similar to cortisone).

How does the body respond to the stress response?

Our pulse quickens, pupils dilate, digestion stops as the blood supply is sent to the muscles rather than the stomach and intestines, heart rate and blood pressure increase, muscles tense, thinking quickens, we have a surge of energy as fats are released into the bloodstream as emergency fuel, and the thyroid increases our metabolic rate.

The problem is that this stress response can be triggered by both real and imaginary threats. The brain doesn’t know the difference.

Nowadays, despite all our modern conveniences, our lives are often stressful – or at least we perceive them as stressful – and many people live in a perpetual state of fight of flight stress response. This means our bodies cannot rest and repair, and the relaxation response (the opposite of the stress response) is not activated.

What happens to our bodies when the stress response doesn’t switch off?

Eventually extended cortisol release results in:

Increased blood sugar levels, weight gain, bone loss, elevated blood pressure, digestive problems, adrenal fatigue, obesity, sleep deprivation, decreased sexual drive, anxiety and a weakened autoimmune system making the body more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections, and allergies.

Eventually serious physical problems develop as adaptive resources are depleted and the body goes into stress ‘overload’. The effects of this are:

Weight gain, autoimmune dysfunction, extended illnesses, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, thyroid depletion, inflammatory disorders, heightened allergies, coronary complications, and insomnia.

Worry and anger keep the body in this state of emergency, and so ‘feeling our feelings’ and expressing our thoughts becomes paramount.

Who suffers and who doesn’t?

Generally speaking, Type T personalities (as discussed in Part 1) suffer more as they are the most likely to repress their emotions. They don’t want to ‘rock the boat’ as they are often people pleasers and goodists. They can be fearful and anxious, often worrying about what others will think about them if they speak their mind.

Anxiety and fear activates the stress response as the brain cannot distinguish between a real or perceived threat. Our brain is just trying to protect us.

Non-Type T personalities suffer less as they are more able to express frustration, fear or anger in the moment, rather than repressing these feelings. They worry less about how people perceive them and so are more able to release their stress quickly and effectively.

Type T personalities tend to bottle up their thoughts and emotions. As a result, their minds and bodies very easily revert back to the stress response in an act of self-preservation.

Have you ever cried or ‘snapped’ because you or someone else spilt a drink on the floor? Was it really about the mess on the floor, or was it just the final straw – the one that broke the camel’s back? The reality is that you were already feeling stressed and it just took one small thing to tip you over the edge.

Type T personalities, who often repress their feelings, are much more likely to suffer from the aforementioned effects of being in stress overload. In my personal experience, this came in the form as chronic back pain, and prior to that, debilitating neck, shoulder and hip pain.

So how do we move from the stress reponse to the relaxation response?

  • Exercise

Exercise is a simple and effective way of calming the nervous system. It not only uses up the energy created in the body from the fight-flight response, it also breaks down stress hormones. Lower stress hormones mean a calmer body and mind. Just 5 minutes of intensive movement will start to break down excess stress hormones: Shake it out! Dance to your favourite tune, do a few star jumps, run up the stairs, dash around the garden. Most importantly, find something you enjoy. Doing an activity you loathe may only increase your stress through any resentment you feel towards it! I love running, but I know it’s not for everyone. Longer exercise obviously benefits your health and well-being, but 5-minute bursts are surprisingly effective. Exercise also increases endorphins, the feel-good hormones, so it’s a win-win situation!

  • Express yourself!

This is particularly helpful for those of us who find it challenging to express our thoughts and feelings openly, but that is certainly worth exploring too!

Expressive writing, or journaling, is scientifically proven to help reduce stress. It helps us to put distance between ourselves and our thoughts. After all, our thoughts are just that – thoughts. They are not necessarily true and are often not. Thoughts lead to feelings, feelings lead to actions and actions lead to results. When we can separate from our negative, self-destructive thoughts we can then rationalise them and question them. Try journaling for 20 minutes a day. Write as though you were a 5-year-old having an enormous tantrum. Don’t hold back! Don’t mind your language or your spelling. Just let it flow. It will feel like the pressure valve has been released. Get it all out, then throw the paper away (or delete the file). This is for your eyes only, and your opportunity to get all your frustration, resentment, anger or sadness out, rather than put a lid on it, only for that lid to blow at some point when you, and those around you, are least expecting it.

Find something relaxing to do after this. Expressive writing can often bring up trauma from the past when we start to connect our present feelings to things that have happened to us in the past. It can be very draining, but that reservoir of emotions will only spill its banks if we don’t get out those thoughts and feelings somehow.

  • Know you are safe

The fear we feel is based on our own perception of a situation, otherwise we would all be scared of rollercoasters and spiders. Telling yourself you are safe stops the message to the brain that we need to activate the stress response. The more we say, ‘I can take care of myself’ instead of ‘I’ll never be able to cope’, or ‘I can handle this’ instead of ‘I can’t deal with this’ the more our confidence increases and our worry decreases.

If we want to feel safe, we need to believe we can handle life’s ups and downs. To start, try increasing your motivational self-talk and decreasing the negative self-talk. Louise Hay (1926-2017) was an American motivational speaker and the founder of Hay House, and is famous around the world for her positive affirmations, including:

All is well. Everything is working out for my highest good. Out of this situation only good will come. I am safe.

  • Be Present

We need the present to feel good and safe. Depression, nostalgia and regret live in the past, and anxiety and fear need a future (and are often fuelled by the past). Living in the present moment, the ‘Now’ as Eckhart Tolle refers to in his bestselling book ‘The Power of Now’, allows us to enjoy what we are experiencing as it happens, rather than worrying about what has happened, or what might happen. We spend so much of our time either living in the past or imagining the future. The future is not guaranteed, and so the present is all we ever have. Take a moment to breathe calmly and deeply and notice the sounds, smells and sights around you. Use all four senses by touching something to help you feel more grounded to the moment.

Thoughts will come and go. Allow them to pass by and acknowledge them without judgement. Notice them but don’t react to them or embody them. We have 50-70,000 thoughts a day. Most of them are repeated and many of them are not true. Don’t associate with your thoughts, and if you do question whether they are really true.

The acronym I created for doing this is CARE:

Catch the thoughts as they arise
Acknowledge them rather than repressing them
Reframe the thoughts by looking at them from a different, more positive perspective
Experience the change in your thought patterns

  • Have fun!

Learn how to distract yourself from things you find stressful: play your favourite music and sing to it – singing releases endorphins and improves sleep. Meet friends and family – this helps boost our mental health and improve our quality of life. Eat something you enjoy, watch a funny film, read a good book……..the list is endless!

And most of all, educate yourself on the mind body connection. It is your key to healing.

Could my personality be contributing to my chronic pain?

Almost a year ago, I developed lower back pain. At first I thought I had pulled a muscle ducking under a tree branch while out running with a friend. I took it easy for a few days and the pain seemed to subside. But then it came back, and with a vengeance. It remained with me on and off for a year and was often so severe that I had to hold onto pieces of furniture to support myself when rising from a chair or my bed, or when brushing my teeth.

I’m a runner and, when my pain first appeared, I was training for my first 50km ultra run. Thankfully I was able to complete this, and felt no pain during that special day (this became a very important piece of ‘evidence’ for me to refer back to once I began my healing journey).

Thereafter, the pain became more permanent and, like most people, I followed the traditional medical model of treatment: Xrays, MRIs, osteopaths, chiropractors and physiotherapists, but nobody was able to ‘heal’ me. It was only later on that I realised I was capable of healing myself.

I often left an appointment feeling worse than I’d felt going in. Each practitioner offered me a new nugget of negativity: I was diagnosed with hip arthritis, disc generation, flat back syndrome, lumbar sciatica, convex left inflection, discopathy of L4-L5 and L5-S1 with a trapped nerve and a 9mm pelvic imbalance, meaning that sexy wiggle wasn’t so sexy after all! The MRI showed arthritis in the lumbar region, some swelling at the vertebral endplates and a trapped nerve around L4-L5. It all sounded pretty scary, and I’ll admit to shedding tears in my car on a few occasions. I was advised to stop running by everyone I encountered, including my aerobics teacher at my once-weekly class. For a while, I listened to them. They were the experts after all, weren’t they?

Then I got fed up of not being able to run. After running for twenty years, I felt it had become part of my identity and who I was. It was a form of stress relief, gave me a sense of freedom and empowerment, was my only social activity and made me feel strong and motivated to cope with life’s challenges. Besides I didn’t suffer symptoms whilst I was running, something that should have been a significant clue that the cause wasn’t a physical one.

Acute pain or chronic pain?

The body naturally heals tears, breaks and other musculoskeletal injuries in around 12 weeks or 3 months. After this point, what started as acute pain becomes what is termed ‘chronic pain’. It was frightening for me to identify with this category. I later discovered how fear would fuel the pain fire.

A book that would change my life

After months of desperately searching for someone to ‘fix’ me, feeling frustrated and close to desperation, I came across a podcast that mentioned a book, credited with healing someone of their lower back pain. It was called, Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno, Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine and attending physician at the New York University Medical Center. I was filled with hope for the first time in months.

I read the book, and although I didn’t have a ‘book cure’ as some people have claimed to have experienced, Dr Sarno’s words completely resonated with me, and I saw myself on every page.

Dr Sarno explained that the terrible terms I had been diagnosed with were part of the normal ageing process. They were what he termed ‘normal abnormalities’. It shocked me to learn that the spine degenerates from the age of 20 and that if anyone my age (I’m 46) were to have an Xray or MRI they would almost certainly be found to have some form of degeneration in their spine too.

The fact that these ‘normal abnormalities’ could be present in the body without causing any pain was a revelation to me! This discovery became an important part of my journey towards becoming pain free. The second impactful discovery for me was the notion that certain personality traits made it more likely for some people to suffer from chronic pain.

According to Steve Ozanich, in his book ‘The Great Pain Deception’, there is a Type-T personality. The T stands for Tension and is taken from ‘Tension Myositis Syndrome’ (TMS), also known as tension myoneural syndrome or mind body syndrome – the name given by Dr. John Sarno to the numerous psychosomatic (relating to the interaction of mind and body) musculoskeletal and nerve symptoms and conditions, most notably back pain, but also tendonitis, fibromyalgia, plantar fasciitis, coccydynia (pain in the coccyx), gastric conditions, neck and shoulder pain and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Type-T personality traits

  • Perfectionism – Does every project or task you undertake need to be perfect and do you ignore your own needs and feelings to accomplish a task?
  • Goodism/People-pleasing – Do you put the needs and desires of others before your own? Do you play peacemaker in a dispute and do you keep your thoughts to yourself, even if you disagree strongly with someone?
  • Legalist – Unlike perfectionists who seek to do the right thing, legalists seek to be right. Responsibility and upholding their commitments are common among legalists. Legalists also hold themselves to extremely high standards that can breed feelings of unworthiness and self-hatred.
  • Stoic – Do you find it awkward or difficult to express your emotions? If people saw you express your emotions, do you think they would think of you negatively?
  • Anxiety and Fear – Do you think that if you are honest with people they will reject you? When your family members go somewhere, do you worry that something terrible might happen to them?
  • Low Self-Esteem – Do you feel that other people know more than you or are usually better at things than you are? Do you question your ability to do things?
  • Hostility and Aggression – Do you sometimes overreact to an issue or event or do you place your frustration onto something less severe and less difficult to talk about than an underlying issue? Do you have deep issues you avoid discussing that are associated with fear or shame?
  • Dependency – When making plans do you prefer if other people take the lead? People with this trait often choose careers that have security yet lack any sense of challenge or reward.

Source: TMS Wiki site https://www.tmswiki.org/ppd/TMS_Personality_Traits)

If you can relate to the above character traits, there is a strong chance you are repressing your true feelings, and that the subconscious resentment you have over this will be felt in the body as pain.

This was a turning point for me, as I realised that the pain I was experiencing was merely a very natural way of my body telling me ‘you’re repressing your feelings to please other people and I’m trying to let you know’.

According to the famous 13th century Persian poet Rumi:

For the first time for a very long time I started to ask myself what I was really feeling and what I wasn’t allowing to surface. It was this repression of my emotions that was causing my body to remain in a stressed, over-adrenalized, anxious state.

The brain cannot distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat, and my own unexpressed thoughts, desires and fears were manifesting as chronic pain in my body.

I needed to learn how to turn off this stress response.

Part 2 ‘How to Turn off the Stress Response’ to follow….