Ways to Improve Your Stress Response: and the correlations to chronic illness

I was listening to a podcast a few weeks ago and the guest was talking about the physiology of our fight-flight-freeze response and how it can specifically relate to certain chronic illness. The guest used the following examples: lupus as being the fight response, and CFS/ME as being the freeze response. I had never thought of it this way and it made me interested in this topic. (The podcast is called Therapy Chat if anyone is interested but I can’t remember the specific episode number, sorry!). Fight-flight-freeze is also known as the stress response, which is a product of evolution that kept our species alive for a long time, however, if you ask many people with chronic illnesses (especially autoimmune diseases) you’ll have a lot of people tell you about chronic stress, trauma history, and attachment issues, all of which can dysregulate our stress response. Usually this occurs in childhood, and I can specifically remember 5 years where I had chronic stress (at school only, due to a traumatic friendship).

I’m going to try to explain the stress response in the easiest, most non-technical way possible (because honestly my eyes glaze over when I have to read about brain anatomy, and I’m guessing I’m not alone in that). So there are a few different parts of our autonomic nervous system, most notably the sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight) and our parasympathetic nervous system (freeze). There is also our vagus nerve which is really important in understanding the nervous system but I’ll leave polyvagal theory for another time. Sympathetic activates us to either fight or run away in order to survive, whereas the parasympathetic suppresses everything in order to keep our bodies alive when we can’t fight or flight. The problem is that when our stress response is chronically activated, it can impair our physical and mental health. I want to put a caveat here for the rest of this post, correlation does not mean causation, however, most theories do point to chronic stress as being causation (at least partially – biopsychosocial approach) for a lot of illnesses.

Image from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPWEhl7gbu4

I think it’s also important to talk about stress-related disorders, because they tend to also be diagnosed in people with autoimmune diseases. Examples include acute stress disorders (same symptoms as PTSD but only lasting between 3-30 days), posttraumatic stress disorder (which most people seem to have a basic understanding of), and adjustment disorders (occurs during major life changes). Attachment disorders can also contribute. One study I looked at found that people with a stress-related disorder were more likely to not only develop an autoimmune disease, but to actually be diagnosed with multiple ones, and had a higher rate of them if they were younger when having the stress-related disorder.

Let’s talk about chronic stress – when our stress response is activated for a long period of time (i.e., daily stress as opposed to one major stressor) – because a lot of research has been done in this area. Here is a bunch of things that chronic stress can do:

  • contribute to high blood pressure
  • contribute to anxiety, depression, OCD, anorexia nervosa, and substance use disorder (and withdrawal)
  • contribute to obesity (increase appetite, leading to weight gain)
  • suppress or dysregulate immune function (leading to inflammatory disorders and hyperactive immune systems such as in RA and lupus)
  • suppress the reproductive system
  • suppress growth in children (lots of studies of children in orphanages)
  • digestive problems
  • switch off disease-fighting white blood cells, increasing risk of cancer
  • worsen symptoms in lupus patients
  • contributes to malnutrition
  • contributes to poorly controlled diabetes
  • contributes to hyperthyroidism
Stress always worsens my UCTD symptoms.

So that’s a lot. I mentioned ME/CFS as the beginning of this post as well, which is associated with the physiological state of freeze, as examined by metabolic changes. Some research indicated that people with ME/CFS are “wired,” meaning a combination of both the fight/flight and freeze responses, leading them to feel wired and tired at once. I hope this gives you some understanding of what is going on with you if you have any of the illnesses mentioned in this post. Understanding is one thing, but what can we do to help ourselves, especially if we are in a chronic stress response? While there is no right answer, there are definitely things we can try (and a bunch have worked for me!)

  • Deep breathing (into the diaphragm) – for many people this lowers stress (it sometimes increases anxiety for me, so I personally find it more effective to do mindful breathing)
  • visualizations and guided imagery – try this one out.
  • Prayer – this is a mindful activity that many people find helpful
  • Yoga and Tai Chi – mindful movement can be very grounding – listen to this podcast episode about it.
  • Walking (and other forms of exercise) – for many people this lowers the stress response, for some people it can increase it due to heart rate increases
  • Journaling – you have to like to write/journal for this one but it can be helpful to get your thoughts out of your head
  • Biofeedback – this is a technique in which you can learn to control some of your bodily functions (i.e., heart rate)
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation – try this one out.
  • Massage – I personally find massages to be both relaxing and therapeutic
  • Acupuncture – there is research showing it helps with both stress and chronic pain
  • Social Support – from friends, family, colleagues, support groups (in person or online), and pets!
Furry friend social support.

Hopefully that gives you a few ideas for how to lower your stress response. Keep making the most of it!

What Should We Know From the Collective Trauma Summit?

I attended a few sessions from the virtual Collective Trauma Summit last month. I’m always looking to further my knowledge and professional development, especially as I start to practice as a psychotherapist. There is an overlap between trauma and chronic illness, which I think can also be important for us to understand. And by us, I don’t just mean healthcare professionals, but also persons with lived experience. Why do I think it’s important? Because I’ve seen a lot of people (mostly online in support groups) wonder about the whys. Does knowing why actually help? I think that can be a difficult question to answer. For some people yes, for others no, and some fall into the “kind of” realm. Regardless, there was some information that I gathered that can be helpful to us all. So, without further ado, here it is:

Application of Polyvagal Theory for Safety and Connection with Others – Stephen Porges and Deb Dana
For those of you not familiar with polyvagal theory or the vagus nerve, I don’t do a great job explaining it, but check out this YouTube link featuring Stephen Porges explaining it, and for more on the vagus nerve, check out this podcast episode with Melanie Weller. This session of the summit spoke a lot about embodiment. We can learn to coregulate each other – connection is essential for humans. Learning to both sit still to feel our bodies (without a narrative) and how to come back to our bodies is important for healing – but also a slow process and should only be done with a trained professional. Building an awareness of what’s happening in our bodies, as well as what we are thinking and feeling is important. Trauma can be passed down intergenerationally through our nervous systems. They also have a Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) that sounds super interesting and I’m going to probably learn more about. If you’re in therapy, it can be good to find out whether your therapist is “polyvagal-informed” because of the amount of research backing the theory.

How Our Nervous System and Real Connection Are the New Frontiers to Healing Trauma – Daniel J. Siegel
This session also focused a lot on embodiment, which I’m a huge fan of anyway (especially for chronic illness/pain). Dr. Siegel talked about resonance between people (again, connection is important) and also the ideas of intraconnectedness (wholeness of everything) and interconnectedness (with others through our bodies). As a species we tend to be disconnected from nature (and thus why we have some many environmental issues). He talked about how integration is health – not just at an individual level but also at a collective level, and what trauma does is impair that integration. He suggested that the plane of possibility is achieved through connectedness (with each other and nature), open-awareness, and love (compassion). Self-compassion and developing awareness is something I talk about a lot both on the blog and the podcast (and I have a few meditations for both on my meditation channel), again because of the amount of research supporting them for both physical and mental health.

Returning to Ourselves After Trauma – Gabor Mate
Okay, we all know by now that I’m a huge fan of Dr. Mate’s work, so of course I attended this session. He gave some interesting statistics that I’m going to share with you. (1) Women with severe PTSD have double the risk of ovarian cancer; (2) Indigenous people have 3 times the risk of rheumatoid arthritis than non-indigenous people; and (3) with Covid-19 with see that indigenous people, POC, and the elderly are most at risk because they are the most oppressed and traumatized. In other words, we’re looking at the sociological issues of disease which are often ignored. He also talked about embodiment in his session. In this case he referenced how we often are split between an intellectual awareness of things and an embodied awareness, which can be a traumatic imprint (in other words, the body remembers). Again, we should be asking ourselves “what does this feel like inside my body” instead of just “what do I know intellectually.”

So, what can we do with all of this information now that we have it. For one, if you don’t see a mental health professional to help you with your struggles with the mental health components of illness, that might be something you want to look into. Alternatively there is a lot of self-help out there (including by all of these healthcare professionals who have written many books on these subjects) and do things like build awareness, self-compassion, and embodied experiences (again, I offer these on my meditation channel but you can also find them by others various places online). Healing is possible. Healing is slow. Take care and keep making the most of it everyone!

Self-compassion, awareness, embodiment, nature.

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