Stressed Woman With Her Hands Covering Her Face - What Your Physical Symptoms Can Teach You About Hidden Stress

What Your Physical Symptoms Can Teach You About Hidden Stress

Over the next few weeks, I’m creating a series of posts describing how controlling and unhealthy relationships with partners who are narcissistically wounded and or emotionally immature can impact your health and your relationship with your body in challenging ways.

Today I’m focusing on stress and your physical health – the mind-body connection.

Practising Pilates – Back In 2021

While I aim to live in the present and express gratitude for each day, I’m glad we’ve got to the end of January!  This time of year, I can find challenging.  And I am not alone.  We are leaving behind one of the most stressful times of the year.

Where to start?

National Divorce Day is in January.  According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, divorce is the second most stressful life event closely followed by separation from a partner.  Then there’s the overspill of Christmas finances, tax returns, family tensions, disappointments, guilt about the New Year’s resolutions that have already been kicked to the curb and worry about weight, body, and health.

And this time of year can also be notoriously difficult when you are in a relationship with a controlling, narcissistic, or emotionally immature partner.  Inevitably there is some drama.

So have you left the stress behind?

According to Dr Gabor Mate, MD, and others in the field of trauma, perhaps not.

Mind-Body Health

We often forget that our mind and body are connected; we are one body.  What affects the brain affects the body.  Emotional health is a significant cause of physical illness Dr Mate has suggested, playing a pivotal role in anything from breast cancer to autoimmune conditions and many other chronic diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and arthritis. 

Dr Mate’s work is controversial, but I think it’s fascinating.  He is NOT suggesting that we replace clinical medical interventions with psychotherapy.  What he is inviting is some curiosity about the impact of long term stress on our bodies and the association with illness.

There’s a lot we already know about this.

Fibromyalgia also called fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), is a long-term condition that causes pain all over the body.  The condition is often triggered by a stressful event, including physical stress or emotional stress.  There is a scientific link between eczema and stress.

Emotional Stressors

One of the biggest things that make us stressed is the fear of abandonment or the absence of love.  We are relational beings born to be in connection with one another.

Other significant stressors are emotional uncertainty and the feeling of the loss of control.

These are some of the underlying the day to day realities of living in controlling relationships.  You feel stressed when you experience the silent treatment, threats to end the relationship or periods of sudden disappearance.  You feel stressed when you feel manipulated or obliged to attend to your partner’s needs, above all else.

The Reality of Stress

The stress response is triggered when there is an actual or perceived conscious or unconscious threat.  So you might not even realise that something is stressing you out.

Stress affects every part of your body from the brain, kidneys and muscles to the smallest blood vessels.  We need a healthy stress response mechanism to maintain balance in the body. Without that balance, the body cannot function when it’s under threat.

When we are stressed, the heart pumps faster, blood is diverted to serve only essential organs, the brain concentrates on the threat forgetting about anything else it doesn’t need to, and stored energy supplies are activated.

The body doesn’t try to do everything all at once.  That’s why when you are stressed, you may notice that you’re forgetful and cannot focus, or perhaps you’re losing weight because you’ve forgotten to eat or using a lot of energy.

The Body Says No!

Cortisol and adrenaline are a necessary part of the stress response and the body’s attempt to remain balanced.

But when we have too much of these hormones, it’s not good for the body.

High levels of cortisol inhibit the body’s capacity to heal wounds by suppressing the immune response.  Perhaps that bug that won’t shift turns into flu, and you have to stop.

Elevated levels of adrenaline raise blood pressure.  High blood pressure is linked to heart disease, kidney disease, and strokes.  Inevitably, if you experience any of these things, you will have to slow down or stop.

The body is designed to deal with acute stress. But it’s also meant to return to normal once what we’re stressed about has been resolved.  The problem is chronic stress.  When there is either an actual ongoing threat or perceived threat, the hormones keep flowing.  So if your partner keeps threatening to leave you and never does or if they have been physically abusive and you’re understandably conscious, they might do it again – that’s an undercurrent of stress in your life.

The likelihood is that it will be punctuated with periods of acute stress, i.e. arguments, conflict and drama.

Potentially without realising it, your stress response is triggered daily.

To Stressed To Feel

It’s perfectly understandable if you don’t realise you have been triggered.  It is not uncommon in such relationships for you to lose touch with your feelings.  You don’t know what you feel.  If you’re experiencing gaslighting, the likelihood is that you have become conditioned to override your feelings.  When you lose touch with your feelings, you lose touch with what is going on in your body, i.e. your body language.  Then you might not even recognise that you are stressed.

Stress becomes the new normal.

As a result, you don’t recognise the physical symptoms of stress.  When you don’t realise it, you can’t do anything about it.  There’s a sense of helplessness around the pressure which you cannot escape.

This sense of helplessness may also have its roots in your childhood.

The Stressed Inner Child

Often how you respond to stress as an adult mirrors what happened to you as a child.  This learnt response would be a mix of how you responded to stressful situations and how your parents responded to you.  So for example, if your parents had high expectations of you and you, in turn, wanted to please them and were conscious of what it would mean to disappoint this creates stress.

This is the internal stress caused by having to adjust your sense of self to fit in with or protect someone else.

When a parent is not able to hold a dream for their child without letting them know that they would honour the child’s ambition for themselves, which might be different, this is stressful.

In the same way, if your parent could not let you know that it was alright to make mistakes and show empathy and comfort you when you did, or that failures lead to growth you as a child would have had to find ways to deal with the resulting stress.

Maybe you learnt how to people please and put the needs of others first. Perhaps you struggle with saying no.  These are potential ways of coping with acute stress but lead to unrecognised chronic stress.

The Body Remembers Stress

The problem is, strategies such as people-pleasing deal with the situation in the present moment to suppress the stress.   But if that’s the default way of relating, then the body speaks up and lets you know it remembers that it’s holding all that stress.

Then you get backache. You haven’t noticed that your breathing is shallow.  You’re not aware that your posture’s changed.  When you’re stressed, your breathing patterns change your shoulders hunch up and cause strain and tension in the back.   Severe back pain makes you stop.

You don’t acknowledge your stress, and suddenly you experience a migraine.  A severe migraine makes you stop.

Stress is something that most people will experience at one point or another.  Besides stress, there will be other potential contributors to your physical health including your family history, hormone levels, diet, fatigue, environmental factors and even certain medications.

But the next time you have a physical symptom, as well as checking it out with your GP or medical clinician, notice what’s going on in your relationship.  How stressed are you?

If your body could speak, what might it be telling you?

Why are you at dis-ease?

Over To You

How is your physical health?  What score would you give it out of 10?   If you want a safe space to talk, figure out your feelings, understand your symptoms of stress, get in touch, and book your first counselling appointment.

Or call me today on 07535 864836.

Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.


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© Sandra Harewood 2020

About Sandra

Soul Centred couples counsellor Sandra Harewood specialises in working with couples and women with childhood wounding that impacts their adult relationships. Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore and discover creative solutions to their difficulties and create a great relationship. 

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