In the second part of her article examining the link between our emotions and the physical pain we may experience, Tone discusses the role of stress and how it manifests itself as physical pain.
She explains how the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) controls how our bodies behave when under stress or pressure. Further reading and references are listed at the end of this blog.
Stress and inactivity
Interestingly, when we are stressed, we are often overwhelmed by external pressures upon us and therefore find it hard to practice what we actually need, ie. self-care. We often work for too many hours a day trying to catch us and don’t allow ourselves time to rest, relax and recuperate. This may lead to working too many hours at your desk, forgetting to give yourself time to get up and move around to loosen and stretch your body; or working 7 days a week and not giving your mind and body a well-earned rest. Thus the body never gets a break, and slowly breaks down its defences and resilience.
How does the emotion link to the physical?
In the old days we would say that someone had a psychosomatic illness. It was said ‘it was all in their minds’, and it was kind of belittled, and thought of as a weakness. Little did we know then that our brains do connect with our bodies much more than we understood, and that our bodies in turn talk to our brain the whole time. This brain-body connection is real and in normal circumstances acts as a warning sign that something is out of balance. But when we are out of alignment we stop listening to our bodies. Our body might start to whisper to us to begin with, then tell us normally that we are out of alignment, to finally scream and shout, and this is where we often get in a crisis.
What happens to our bodies when we are stressed or under pressure?
We have a very clever autonomic nervous system which is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. They balance the body beautifully when both systems are working in synergy.
The sympathetic nervous system is our driver that also helps us to mobilise energy to potentially run away from danger. It is an evolutionary warning system that was designed to keep us away from prey, and to enable us to run away from danger. But sadly today our danger is not being preyed upon by dangerous animals but deadlines, shopping lists and a life which is too full and too demanding on us! We feel we have to perform the whole time. Sitting still reading a book is sadly not deemed a good enough use of time anymore….
The same neurological response system still occurs but the difference is that we no longer have a physical response to getting the stress out of our system ie running away or fighting. Instead we are more likely to be sitting at our desks which can result in stress hormones consequently building up and creating tension as well as inflammation in our bodies. This inflammation leads to a tension in our soft tissues, which renders it more fragile.
The parasympathetic nervous system on the other hand, is our calming and regulating nervous system and this is where we rest, digest and relax. Normally they should work in tandem with each other and go up and down as needed. But in a chronic stressful situation your sympathetic system can be in ‘hyperdrive’ mode all the time whilst you are totally unaware of it and not able to calm it down. Your body is subconsciously vigilant to danger and therefore in preparatory mode the whole time.
Simply put, your nervous system is a kind of regulator for your stress and your brain keeps a look out for danger and the body can remember and keep the score.
We then do things faster and less mindfully and can hurt ourselves easier. Holding tension in your body can make it more fragile.
There are also intricate actions going on in our brains with regards to stress, anxiety and tension and we have added a few articles below for those who would like to know more.
References and further reading:
- The Body keeps the score: Mind, Brain and Body in Transformation of Trauma by Bessel Van der Volk (author)
- Work related stress awareness: https://www.system-concepts.com/insights/work-related-stress-awareness/
- Stress and Musculoskeletal Disorders: The Psychological Side of MSK (peerwell.co)
- The impact of anxiety on chronic musculoskeletal pain and the role of astrocyte activation : PAIN (lww.com)