Although stress and trauma are typically viewed as phenomena that are purely psychological, the mind-body connection is much stronger than you think. Maybe you’ve experienced this acutely, in a high-stress situation when you noticed your heart was racing, your stomach was upset, or you had a splitting headache, for example. Sure, stress can cause immediate acute effects like this, but if your stress is chronic or if you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the physical effects can last far longer.
Not only can stress and trauma throw a wrench into your mental health, but it can also impact your physical health — your body simply cannot function optimally when it’s in a heightened state of stress.
Here’s what you need to know about stress and trauma’s effect on your physical health and whether they might be the root cause of your illness.
Fight-or-Flight Versus Rest-and-Digest
Your body’s nervous system consists of the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the “fight-or-flight response,” and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest-and-digest system.”
Stress and trauma put your body into fight-or-flight mode, and when your body is in this state, it’s not able to rest and digest, the time when your body can tend to itself and make sure all organs and bodily functions are in healthy working order.
The fight-or-flight response, however, is an evolutionary adaptation to keep us safe from external threats and still serves this purpose much of the time. However, the response can also be triggered by stress and trauma, even when there isn’t imminent danger or an immediate threat –– but your brain thinks it is.
While your body is just trying to protect you, negative effects can occur when your body spends too much time in flight-or-flight mode. Functional medicine doctor Linda Goggin, MD, says that when you face big stressors and you stay in fight-or-flight mode, levels of cortisol (the primary stress hormone) go up –– which can weaken or damage other bodily processes. Basically, your body is trying to keep you alive from a perceived (or real) threat, but as it does so, other body processes are deprioritized.
While cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone in your body that’s necessary for much of your functioning, too much of it can be a bad thing. Dr. Goggin says this can lead to chronic illness, even deadly ones like heart disease.
Chronic stress and long-term exposure to high levels of cortisol increase your risk of developing the following symptoms and health conditions:
- Anxiety disorders
- Cognitive impairment of concentration and/or memory
- GI issues
- Headaches and migraines
- Heart disease and heart attacks
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Mood disorders such as depression
- Muscle pain
- Muscle tension
- Reproductive system issues
- Trouble with sleep
- Weight gain
If you suffer from any of these symptoms or conditions, it’s very possible that chronic stress may be the root cause of your illness.
PTSD and Chronic Illness
Chronic stress isn’t the only culprit that could be messing with your health. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also have detrimental effects on your health, says Dr. Goggin. PTSD can develop after you experience a traumatic life event.
Some common examples include:
- Car accidents
- Military combat
- Natural disasters
- Sexual abuse, assault, or trauma
- The unexpected death of a loved one
Additionally, it’s very common for those with PTSD to have co-occurring mental health conditions. It’s estimated that a whopping 90% of PTSD victims have at least one other mental health condition. The most common conditions associated with PTSD are depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. PTSD alone is enough to contribute to physical health problems, but with additional strain on your brain the chances of developing chronic illness are even higher.
Research has shown that there’s a link between PTSD and the following symptoms and health conditions:
- Angina pectoris (chest pain)
- Chronic pain
- GI disorders
- Heart disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Stomach ulcers
- Tachycardia (rapid heartbeat)
Dr. Goggin also points to newer research by Dr. Robert Naviaux, who is a pioneer in the field of cell danger response, or CDR. “Huge traumatic events can flip a switch and put us into what we call the cell danger response,” explains Dr. Goggin. “That makes it so our body's not functioning [optimally] or our cells are not talking to each other properly. They're not giving off an accurate signal.”
If PTSD persists, Naviaux’s research argues that the associated CDR negatively affects metabolism, gut microbiome, and organ systems, resulting in chronic disease.
Early Life Stress and Trauma as a Trigger
Chronic stress and trauma compound over the course of a lifetime, and negative events that happened in childhood can play a role in developing illness. Functional medicine doctor Tejal Joseph, MD, says that adverse childhood experiences (sometimes referred to as ACEs) that occur before the age of 17 have been shown to increase the likelihood of health issues later in life.
A few examples of ACEs include:
- Being neglected
- Experiencing or witnessing violence or abuse
- Having a family member with substance abuse problems or mental health problems
- Having separated parents
Dr. Joseph says ACEs can set up a child for heightened fight-or-flight responses, hypervigilance, and being in a state of overdrive, exposing them to toxic stress early on in life. The more ACEs you experience, the greater the chances of being negatively impacted years or even decades down the road.
Several health conditions linked to ACEs include:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Heart disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Furthermore, research has found that the psychological distress a mother may have endured during pregnancy can have an effect on the development of a fetus and child, resulting in health consequences that may be present throughout an entire lifetime.
There’s also the possibility that the effects of trauma can be related to factors before you were even born, says Dr. Goggin. This is known as intergenerational trauma. In this case, trauma is believed to be passed down from generation to generation.
Even in cases where stress is completely out of our control, before being born for instance, the consequences can have a long-lasting impact long into your adulthood.
Coping with Stress and Trauma
Getting stress and trauma symptoms under control is crucial to better mental and physical health.
Dr. Goggin says it’s important to revisit the basics, such as sleep and diet, since these are critical to good physical and mental health. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep (seven to nine hours per night) and eating a healthy, balanced diet that’s rich in nutrients and low in damaging inflammatory foods.
You may also want to add activities into your daily life that can reduce stress. Dr. Goggin suggests meditation, mindfulness, and joyful movement.
A functional medicine doctor can help provide an individualized plan as to what lifestyle changes will be beneficial for dealing with your stress, trauma, and overall health.
Of course, mental health treatments like therapy can be extremely helpful for learning how to cope with stress and trauma. A mental health professional can help you unpack trauma, learn new ways to regulate your emotions, handle stress, and more. These are invaluable tools that you can carry with you throughout your life.
Countless factors affect your mental and physical health, and stress and trauma are just two that may be the root cause of your illness. Other factors such as chronic inflammation, hormone imbalances, and exposure to toxins are just a few examples that can play into your holistic health and well-being.
A functional medicine doctor can assess all aspects of your health throughout your entire life to determine the root cause of your current symptoms or illnesses.
If you’re ready to tackle the root cause of your symptoms, it’s time to get serious about your health and embark on the path toward making more positive changes.
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