If you’re here to read about body talking of the sexual variety, this ain’t that. Instead I’m talking about the “what is my body trying to tell me?” variety. Specifically when it comes to gut feelings, storing stress and holding onto trauma. All three of which my body has been SCREAMING at me about for the last little while.
Since my last post when I was freezing my eggs in December, my mind and my body have been through an emotional assault. While the stories are a little too raw to share, it has made me assess what I’ve always known – that my body’s physical and emotional wellbeing is intrinsically linked. And more specifically, it’s made me want to understand exactly how that works; what are the inner workings of my body and mind when it feels like it’s under attack.
Who knew physically manifesting our intuition while sounding so magical could feel so nauseating? According to the BBC “the quality of someone’s gut instincts may depend on their overall emotional intelligence (EI)” – I wonder if they feel different as you become more adept at feeling them?
Even when it’s a “good” gut feeling, like I know I’m making the right decision about something, there’s still a weird pit of belly rumble about it. Or am I the only one who feels like there’s something in my stomach that doesn’t belong there whenever it occurs?
Admittedly, not everyone feels the gut feelings the same way, some people can’t articulate if it’s an emotional feeling or a physical feeling but, in this instance, to say “the mind lives in the body” isn’t just referencing the location of the brain.
Stress affects all systems of the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.
The Mayo Clinic explains that stress creates “a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, [which causes] a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues… It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.”
It’s like a full on attack on your bodily functions. All from stress. And there are now numerous studies into what where your body stores tension says about the source and reason of the stress, like this one from Psychology Today and this one from Organic Authority.
It is believed that experiencing trauma can cause physical, emotional, and psychological pain, and that traumatic stress can change the brain’s delicate chemical balance and structure. Depending on the type of stress and severity, the impact on people can vary from increased anxiety all the way to diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The American Psychological Association says “it’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic.” Unlike our skin, nerve cells in our brain don’t spontaneously regenerate after injury.
Within the brain, emotional trauma over-activates the amygdala, which helps us process emotions and regulates how we respond to fear and create emotional memories. An overactive amygdala means we may not be able to tell the difference between a threat being in our past or being current, and results in us being on high alert constantly.
The hippocampus, responsible for storing and retrieving memories and differentiating between past and present experiences, can also decrease in volume, making it hard for us to distinguish between the past and present.
Additionally, the prefrontal cortex can be diminished by traumatic stress. This is the part of the brain which helps us reason, regulate emotions, control impulses, and problem solve. In turn this can make it difficult to learn new information, solve problems and manage our emotions. So traumatic stress can make logical thinking difficult, which in turn, can make us feel incapable of controlling our fear. It’s like a really fun vicious cycle…
Effects can include anxiety, insomnia, chronic stress, heightened fear, increased irritation, an inability to calm down, irritability, flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, memory issues, poor concentration, trouble making decisions, difficulty learning new things.
The way I explain the effects of trauma for myself is this – my trauma has taken up space in my body, it’s rented space in my brain, in my nervous system, in every extremity. It lives there. And while I’ve diminished its square footage, it’s still there and I accept that it may never be fully evicted.
My goal is not necessarily to be trauma free, after all we cannot make those things that happened to us magically not have happened, however it is possible to make a life with the effects; understanding my triggers, having access to emotional supporting from myself or others, ensuring (psychological) safe spaces are non-negotiables and removing any form of guilt or shame I once had about my experiences and their effects on me.
So when I say that experiencing all three of these at the same time – gut feelings about a relationship, work stress and revisiting past trauma – was an assault on my body, I’m not exaggerating. And we often really don’t do ourselves and our bodies justice when we’re experiencing any of these sensations because they truly take a toll on us both physically and mentally, and yet we often feel like we need to struggle on.
In the past two weeks I took time off work to deal with trauma. It was actually my boss who put it to me like that, and the relief that gave me, and the benefit of having guilt free time off work was invaluable to me being able to process and begin to find some semblance of myself again. I know we don’t all have understanding bosses, or even the luxury of feeling like we can take time off, but the need is critical for our physical and psychological well being.
And the need to remove any shame or guilt around taking time to heal from emotional wounds.. don’t get me started on that.
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