How your Mind is Making you SICK
"The first step towards change is awareness. The second step is acceptance" ~ Nathaniel Branden
Its been proven time and time again that our minds and emotions are able to create changes in our bodies that can result in poor health. But how is this possible?
Ironically, it's one of the survival mechanisms designed to keep us safe that is actually doing us harm
The Fight or Flight Response, or Stress Response.
The Fight or Flight Response
This is an automatic reaction we have that kicks in when we perceive a threat to our safety. It is designed to help us deal with something physically or mentally terrifying very quickly by either fighting it or running away to safety.
We've all experienced this to a greater or lesser degree. Think of the time you stepped out in front of a bus by accident, had to face a threatening dog, almost pulled into another car on the motorway or had to do an important presentation. Do you remember the way your heart was pounding, all your muscles were tense, you were shaking like a leaf and you couldn't concentrate afterwards?
This was the Fight or Flight Response at it's finest!
How does the Fight or Flight Response Happen?
Acute Stress Response
When danger is sensed, either real or imagined, the brain starts a chain of chemical reactions. These unconsciously flood our bodies in order to make the rapid changes needed.
First of all, our sympathetic nervous system switches on. Our pulse and blood pressure go up, our breathing rate increases. Our pupils dilate to let in more light. Other parts of the body - our digestive system, our hands and feet - get blood and oxygen diverted away from them (thus cold feet and butterflies) as they're not essential in an emergency.
All this allows us to make a quick response and perform at our best.
If the stress is present for longer, another physical mechanism kicks in.
This is the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal system or HPA axis. This acts by releasing 'stress' chemicals such as cortisol. These have wide ranging effects on the brain, our nervous, immune and hormonal systems. The activation of this system is again, in the short term, helpful.
Cortisol helps us to distinguish between sensations - thus the "heightened awareness" people often report in extreme situations (good or bad). It also releases adrenaline giving us an intense burst of energy.
When the Fight or Flight Response becomes a Problem
The Fight or Flight Response is an incredible system designed to help us deal with short term threats.
Unfortunately, what can happen is that we get the same response even if the threat is only perceived rather than real.
If someone has a fear of spiders, they may have a slight stress response and feel a bit 'edgy'. They might panic a little and their heart beats faster. Or their bodies may go into a full blown Stress Response known as a panic attack. The person has palpitations, is sweating, feels pure terror and an overwhelming desire to get away. Fast. A person can have a fight or flight response just by seeing or thinking of a spider, even if there is no real threat of it harming them.
We get a stress response to all negative emotions including anger, guilt, fear and sadness. If something is worrying or upsetting us, we will have a stress reaction that disappears once the worry is gone. However, this may last weeks, months or years.
Some of the symptoms you may experience are:
- Increased heart rate - palpitations
- Increased lung action - breathlessness, tight chest
- Digestive system is slowed or stops - unable to digest foods, food intolerances, diarrhoea
- Blood vessels in non-essential body parts are constricted - cold hands and feet, reasoning part of brain restricted (brain fog)
- Increased blood flow to the autonomic nervous system - migraines
- Energy sources released - high blood sugars, restlessness
- Saliva production inhibited - dry mouth
- Pupils dilate - sensitivity to light
- Inhibition of sexual function - impotence
- Increased muscle tension leading to reduced blood flow - shaking, pain in any part of the body caused by low oxygen levels in muscle, nerve and tendon tissue
- Heightened sensory awareness - oversensitive to touch, noise, light, smell, taste
Fortunately, most of us don't turn green and grow 3 times bigger like the Hulk, so that's one less thing to worry about!
Chronic Stress Response
While short bursts of stress are good, stress over a long period (known as chronic stress) has been shown to be bad for our health. When stress hormones are added to healthy cells in a laboratory, the cells stop growing or die. 
When our brains developed, our main threats would have been attacks from predators or similar life threatening events. We either reacted fast - or died. When one of our ancestors was being threatened by a lion they would go into a 'fight or flight' reaction. These episodes of stress were relatively short-lived. Once the situation had passed, the body would return to a relaxed state.
In the modern world, the threats are often more subtle than for our ancestors but can be constant. Missing a train, relationship problems, traffic jams, financial worries can all trigger the fight or flight response. This results in us being in a low level state of stress almost constantly.
Any past traumas and emotional upsets that have not been laid to rest may still be bubbling away in our sub-conscious mind. As the stress response is automatic, we're often not even aware of the emotion that has triggered it. It's been shown that our bodies react to emotional triggers before we're even aware of the trigger [2-4]
Add these to the stress 'pot' and you've got a recipe for poor health.
Chronic Stress and Neurotransmitters
The stress response is controlled by neurotransmitters in our brains. These are the brain chemicals that carry signals from one nerve cell to the next. Neurotransmitters literally control every system in our bodies whether directly or indirectly.
Research has shown that exposure to stress
over a prolonged period can result in:
- Raised Cortisol levels
- Low Dopamine levels
- Low Seratonin levels
- Raised Glutamate levels
- Low GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) levels
Raised Cortisol can lead to:
- Increased sensitivity to pain
- Poor sleep
- Weight gain
- Raised blood sugar
- Reduced immune system functioning or
- Adrenal fatigue resulting in an over-active immune system
Low Dopamine results in:
- Unco-ordinated movements and poor balance
- Anxiety, guilt, depression and unstable emotions
- Poor motivation and taking little pleasure in things
- Increased sensitivity to pain
- Poor attention and learning ability
- Disturbed sleep
Low Seratonin can lead to:
- Unstable mood
- Changes in apetite
- Increased sensitivity to pain
- Poor concentration
- Poor sleep
Raised Glutamate may result in:
- Inability to focus
- Increased sensitivity to pain
- Difficulty concentrating and remembering things
Low GABA levels leads to:
- Increased sensitivity to pain
Chronic Stress and your Health
It has long been known that chronic stress is a trigger in psychological problems such as anxiety and depression. However, it is becoming increasingly accepted by researchers and medics that chronic stress also has a big part to play in many physical illnesses. [10- 26, 27]
It's easy to see how the altered neurochemicals and physical changes caused by chronic stress could play a key role in conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome or ME. People with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome have generally been found to have low oxygen levels in muscles tissue, low dopamine, seratonin and GABA levels, high cortisol and glutamate. All of these can be caused by a chronic stress response.
There are many other chronic conditions that chronic stress plays a significant role in such as IBS, colitis, food intolerances, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune conditions, chronic pain conditions and allergies.
All of these are on the increase, despite modern medicine's efforts to treat them with medication or even surgery.
We need to treat the cause of the conditions not just patch over the symptoms.
Despite this obvious link, large scale research into potential treatments for these conditions continue to search for the 'miracle drug' that will cure them. But with the enormous sway of the pharmaceutical industry behind it then there's really no wonder. If people learned they could heal themselves without the aid of drugs this would be disastrous for the pharma giants.
As people have been told all their lives that they need medication to heal, this is an intrinsic part of our society's belief system. It's also a quick fix which requires little time or effort from either the patient or our ever-stretched doctors.
Seek help for anxiety? You'll likely be given medication to try to replace the depleted neurotransmitters.
- Can't sleep? You'll be prescribed sleeping tablets to fool your brain into thinking it does have enough GABA.
- Experiencing pain? Try some pain killers.
Not surprisingly, many treatments for chronic conditions don't work and chronic illness is becoming increasingly common. If the underlying cause of the problem is not treated then you will not get better!
It would be like seeing a patient with a nail through his hand and treating it with pain killers, anti-biotics and a plaster without first removing the nail to allow the hand to heal.
The underlying cause?
Our emotional reactions triggering the stress response!
This is something we can all learn to deal with more effectively - it is very simple and does not have to cost anything except time and commitment.
Clinical trials into treating these conditions by reducing the stress response are small scale and generally independently funded. However, there is a wealth of recovery stories that verify that people can, and do, recover simply by learning how to reduce their stress response effectively.
In my next blog I will explain the many different causes of stress we encounter that contribute to the chronic illness epidemic.
Connecting the Mind and Body for Health
 Lipton B. The Honeymoon Effect: the science of creating heaven on earth. Hay House, 2013
 Ledoux J. The Emotional Brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, New York. 1996
 Whalen PJ., Rauch SL., Etcoff NL., McInerney SC., Lee MB., Jenike MA. MAsked presentations of emotional facial expressions modulate amygdala activity without explicit knowledge. Journal of Neuroscience. 1998; 18: 411-418
 Knight DC., Nguyen HT., Bandetti PA. Expression modulation of pain: A clinical perspective. Pain. 2003; 25: 15280-15283
 Morian S. & Sobhani ME. Epigenetics Effect of Chronic Stress on Dopamine Signaling and Depression. Genetics and Epigenetics. 2013; 5: 11-16
 Luczynski P., Moquin L. & Gratton A. Chronic Stress Alters the dendritic morphology of callosal neurons and the acute glutamate stress response in the rat medial prefrontal cortex. Stress. 2015; 18(6): 654-67
 Wein H. Stress and Disease: New Perspectives The NIH Word on Health. 2000
 Foerster BR., Petrou M., Eddan RA, et al. Reduced insular gamma-amminobutyric acid in fibromyalgia. Arthritis & Rheumatology. 2012; 64: 579-83
 Russell IJ, Orr MD, Littman B, et al. Elevated cerebrospinal fluid levels of substance P in patients with the fibromyalgia syndrome. Arthritis & Rheumatism. 1994; 37: 1593–601.
 Sarchielli P, Di Filippo M, Nardi K, Calabresi P. Sensitization, glutamate, and the link between migraine and fibromyalgia. Current Pain & Headache Reports. 2007; 11: 343–51.
 Hassett AL, Clauw DJ. The role of stress in rheumatic diseases. Arthritis Research & Therapy. 2010; 12: 123.
 Sarchielli P, Mancini ML, Floridi A, et al. Increased levels of neurotrophins are not specific for chronic migraine: evidence from primary fibromyalgia syndrome. Journal of Pain. 2007; 8: 737–45.
 Russell IJ, Vaeroy H, Javors M, Nyberg F. Cerebrospinal fluid biogenic amine metabolites in fibromyalgia/fibrositis syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis & Rheumatism. 1992; 35: 550– 6.
 Clauw D. The health consequences of the first Gulf war. BMJ. 2003; 327: 1357–8.
 Clauw DJ, Engel CC Jr, Aronowitz R, et al. Unexplained symptoms after terrorism and war: an expert consensus statement. Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine. 2003; 45:1040–8.
 Buskila D, Atzeni F, Sarzi-Puttini P. Etiology of fibromyalgia: The possible role of infection and vaccination. Autoimmune Review. 2008; 8: 41–3.
 Wolfe F, Hauser W, Hassett AL, Katz RS, Walitt BT. The development of fibromyalgia -I: Examination of rates and predictors in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Pain. 2010
 Yunus MB., Fibromyalgia and overlapping disorders: The unifying concept of central sensitivity syndromes. Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism. 2007; 36: 339-356
 Goldgerg RT., Pachas WN., Keith D. Relationship between traumatic events in childhood and chronic pain. Disability and Rehabilitation. 1999; 21: 23-30
 Van Houdenhove B., Neerinckex E., Lysens R., Vertommen H., van Houdenhove L., Onghena P., et al. Victimisation in chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia in tertiary care: A controlled study on prevalence and characteristics. Psychosomatics. 2001; 42: 21-28
 Cohen H., Neumann L., Haiman Y., Matar MA., Buskila D., Prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder in fibromyalgia patients: overlapping syndrome or post-traumatic fibromyalgia syndrome? 2002; 32: 38-50
 Celiker R., Borman P., Oktem F., Gokce-Kutsal Y., Basgoze O. Psychological disturbance in fibromyalgia: relation to pain severity. Clinical Rheumatology. 1997; 16: 179-184
 Quartana PJ., Burns JW. Painful consequences of anger suppression. Emotion. 2007; 7: 400-414
 Burns JW; Arousal of negative emotions and symptom-specific reactivity in chronic low back pain patients. Emotion. 2006; 6: 309-319