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Stress: How It Affects the Mind and Causes Pain

By Dr. Mark Wiley, The Healthy Back Institute


Stress is one of the leading causes of illness in the United States. Indeed, nearly 66% of all signs and symptoms presented in doctors' offices in the United States are stress-induced.

The effects of stress include a nail biting, anxiety, a racing mind, obsessive thoughts, compulsive behavior, unending worry, muscle tension and spasm, poor appetite or too great an appetite, digestive disorders, constipation, insomnia, poor blood flow, belabored breathing, neck pain, shoulder tension and back pain. Prolonged stress also leads to the possible onset or continuation of bad habits such as dependence on alcohol, drugs, pain killers, food and caffeine.

Any one of these things by itself can trigger any number of different types of illnesses. But when these forces of antagonism are combined (as they generally are when triggered by stress), the health problems can become chronic and insufferable.

The sections that follow discuss the causes and effects of stress, the mind/body equation, and how stress can be short-circuited and its triggers prevented from taking control of your body.

The Physiology of Stress

Stress is an interesting phenomenon. It means different things to different people. What we each individually consider to be stressful is largely a matter of our perception. Indeed, our perceptions are realities, and so what we think is posing a threat is actually doing so by virtue of our established belief system. Moreover, there are many kinds of stressors—physical (the response to being frightened), emotional (loss of a loved one), psychological (obsessive thoughts), spiritual (loss of faith) and psychosomatic (the need for attention).

Physiologically, stress is responsible for initiating the fight or flight response in the face of perceived danger. This means that when we are confronted with a danger, our body automatically prepares us to deal with the coming stressful situation by focusing our attention, pumping more blood into our muscles to ready them for action and by sending adrenaline through our system. It is precisely this response that helps protect the body and return it again to homeostasis. However, too much stress or stress left unresolved for too long can lead to biological damage.

You see, at the onset of perceived danger the body is quickly jolted into fight or flight mode, which means stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into the bloodstream. However, at the conclusion of the danger episode, the body does not as automatically calm down and return to homeostasis. In fact, it takes a great deal of time for the body to return to so-called normal conditions. But often this cannot happen, because another stressor may present itself (e.g., sitting in traffic, standing in line at the bank, missing a deadline) and this will send our body into "code red" mode all over again.

The effects of such prolonged or recurring stress is that it keeps the autonomic nervous system from balancing, which can lead to problems with the gastrointestinal tract, the digestive system, the respiratory system, the neuroendocrine system and can lead to depression, anxiety, muscle tension and insomnia. All of these are known triggers of various mental and physical (mind/body) illnesses and diseases.

Stress and the Mind/Body Connection

Illnesses that have no apparent definable biological cause (such as fibromyalgia, chronic headaches, insomnia) yet do contain a mental/emotional/psychological component, are clinically termed "psychosomatic." In the early days of this term's use a stigma was affixed to it that the health problems of its sufferers were "just in the mind" or "not real." But this couldn't be further from the truth, for even though the related body symptom (in our case, headache pain) may have no underlying biological cause, the symptom is still felt in its very real manifestation by the one suffering it.

Perhaps a better term to use—and one that is central to the theme of Natural health Sciences—is mind/body. For psychosomatic illnesses are those which concurrently manifest both physical and mental components. Psychosomatic illnesses, then, are those directly related to emotional disharmony and the stresses of life and our lifestyle choices, and can be viewed as a cause and effect relationship. The pain and suffering is the direct effect of an unresolved emotional situation that manifests itself as stress, anxiety and headache.

The Chinese character yin/yang represents this relationship well. It is a circle composed of two fish-tale spheres—one black, the other white, and each containing color from the other. In pragmatic terms, this symbolizes the truth that there is no symptom without its underlying cause, just as there can be no light without dark and no sense of what is right without first identifying what is wrong. The cause and effect pattern in those who suffer chronic headaches is circular. Let's take a look at how this vicious circle of cause and effect can take hold in the body and transform vitality into illness.

If we are late for work and are stuck in traffic, the traffic jam and the passing time can be stressors. If we are breaking up with a significant other, than the confrontation and unknown future can be stressors. If we are on a diet and sneak a piece of cake, the action of cheating can be a stressor.

Try to remember feelings you may have experienced when you were forced to do something you really did not want to do—either by someone else or through your own sense of obligation. For whatever moral, emotional or psychological reason you did not want to perform this task—let's say, firing an employee or breaking up with a significant other—you were pressured to do so in a timely manner. If you procrastinated or obsessed over it until the final moment, then did not express your negative emotions in an acceptable way after it was accomplished (instead holding them inside), the repressed anger, rage, resentment, frustration and/or hatred manifests itself as stress and tension in the body, as muscle spasms and rise in blood pressure, as acid in the stomach and as headache.

Another example of the vicious cause and effect cycle is readily seen in our workforce, wherein productivity and the meeting of deadlines and bottom-line expectations lead us down a harrowing headache path. Consider the average day in the life of a corporate worker: Wakes up early, skips breakfast and rushes to the office; begins harboring stress and anxiety while watching the clock sitting in traffic; sits all days at the computer and on the phone; takes breaks not to stretch and take deep breaths of fresh air, but to artificially stimulate the body to work harder through taking a cigarette and coffee break; then back to work pushing productivity in an attempt to meet expectations wherein stress and tensions rise and take hold of the body; after work, to relax, office co-workers are joined for happy hour, wherein the body is nourished with more caffeine, cigarettes and now alcohol. Round and round, day after day, until the body rebels and "tells" you something is very wrong by way of an ulcer, gastrointestinal disorder or chronic pain in some manifestation.

A Cyclic Back Pain Example...

The mind/body (psychosomatic) back pain can be expressed as follows: some external problem or dilemma was not properly dealt with and this leads to stress; stress can manifest as muscle tension and spasm which can lead to vertebral misalignment; vertebral misalignment is not only annoying which leads not only to more tension in the body and pinched nerves (which cause referred pain) but to further stress; further stress leads to decrease in liver function, which leads to body heat rising, dehydration and tightening of the tendons which leads to insomnia, which leads to anxiety, a racing mind, shortness of breath, with leads to taking analgesics, sleeping pills and to consuming caffeine to stay awake in the morning, but also comfort foods (such as wine, chocolate) to reduce the stress and anxiety, which leads blood sugar levels to rise, serotonin levels to drop, leading to the release of insulin in order to lower blood sugar, which leads to a back and forth dilation and constriction of blood vessels, which manifest as rebound headaches, referred pain, actual mayofascial pain and... severe pain in the low back, mid back, neck and shoulders.

Just imagine, all of that from a so-called "make believe" diagnosis called psychosomatic. It is my hope that you can now see what traditional healers have known all along: that the mind and body, physical and emotional states are interconnected as intricately as the world-wide-web, and equally interdependent in terms of illness, pain and healing.


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All material herein is provided for information only and may not be construed as personal medical advice. No action should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being. The publisher is not a licensed medical care provider. The information is provided with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in the practice of medicine or any other health-care profession and does not enter into a health-care practitioner/patient relationship with its readers. The publisher is not responsible for errors or omissions.

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