Chronic Stress, emotional stress, health, childhood stress, social stress, trauma

And its many faces

"You cannot stop the waves ... but you can learn to surf" ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

Most people only connect the term 'stress' with the nervous tension felt when we have too much to do. This is why I often hear the cry of...

"But I'm not stressed!"

when I mention that health issues may be caused by chronic stress. However, 'stress' covers a much broader range of experiences than this.

Definition of Stress

  1. a : physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation

    b :  a state resulting from a stress; especially :  one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium

Research shows that chronic stress is a major element in many chronic health conditions. It is estimated that stress is responsible for up to 90% of GP visits [1].

There is now a wealth of research that shows how negative emotions, such as anger, fear, shame, guilt, sadness, create a stress response that impacts the body. This results in changes in immune function, neuro-transmitters and, ultimately, health if the stress is chronic.

unique perspective, stress, experience

Stress is very different for different people. What is stressful for one person might be nothing at all for another. Each of us has a unique view of the world which is largely determined by our past experiences. These shape and colour how we see and respond to the world. [2]

Rubin's vase (to the right) is an example of how something can be seen in several different ways - both of which are correct. Do you see faces or a vase?


However, we all have the same fundamental needs - to be loved, to be safe, to have purpose and be free [3]. If these needs are not met, we experience negative emotions. Factors that universally lead to stress are: uncertainty, a lack of information and a loss of control. [4]

Stress can roughly be split into 4 categories [5]:

  1. Current day to day stresses
  2. Past stresses
  3. Internal Stresses
  4. Modern Pace of Life

1) Current Day to Day Stresses

Life is full of daily stressors from work, family, friends or the person in the supermarket car park! We feel fear of losing a job, anger at a spouse, worry over our parent's health, guilt at shouting at the kids.

Often these are beyond our control and are a source of regular, unpredictable stress reactions.

Stress, busy, pressure, panic, work

Some are obvious such as the death of a loved one or relationship breakdown. Others are smaller so go unnoticed until they mount up; such as struggling to look after the kids, the house and go to work; arranging all the details of a holiday whilst trying to keep on top of your workload.

The high number of responsibilities that we have can often lead to a stress response without us even realising. Many of us just keep going and 'cope' with the stress but it's that extra pressure that can just be the final straw.

There is a tendency in today's society to feel like a 'failure' if seen to be not coping when everyone around you appears to be managing perfectly well. Even admitting to yourself that you are stressed can be difficult as it is somehow often seen as a 'weakness'.

Feel reassured in knowing that everybody has times when they feel they're drowning in the pressure of life. If you could take a look beneath the surface of most people, you'd see their legs paddling like crazy just trying to keep afloat!

It is helpful to examine your daily routine and see where the pressure lies. Try to achieve a better balance between work, play and relaxation. Ensuring you carry out self-care tasks is essential to reducing your stress response.

2) Past Stresses

Throughout our lives upsetting things happen to us. These can range from abuse, a traumatic accident, injury or loss of a loved one, to being bullied, criticised, not feeling loved or supported.

All these events create negative emotions and their own stress response. As all our memories are stored in our unconscious mind [6], these emotional 'tags' are also stored and continue to run in the background [7]. Often, we find that painful emotions can be repressed as a kind of self-protection mechanism - it may be just too upsetting or shameful to acknowledge these emotions to ourselves or society [8,9].

For example, in Western society we are expected to love our parents and as children we need their love and protection in order to survive. Feeling anger or hate towards a parent who we feel mistreated us would be difficult to admit to ourselves. We tend to repress this feeling to maintain safety as a child and continue this pattern into adulthood.

It has been found that repressed emotions are the most toxic when it comes to our health. [10]

Events that happen up to the age of 7 are taken on board without question [11]. Up to this age our brain works in such a way as to literally absorb any behaviours, values or opinions of those around us as a means of learning quickly how to deal with the world. We learn that these are 'correct' and the way things 'should' be done. This is why childhood experiences have such a huge impact on who we become as adults.

Experiences as children shape who we are today, how we perceive and respond to situations. If we are faced with similar situations as an adult, it can trigger the emotional response without the memory actually surfacing.

childhood trauma, past stress,

For example, someone who was criticised as a child may have low self esteem and take criticism very badly.

Someone who lived with domestic violence as a child is likely to strive hard to be perfect to keep everyone happy and not cause any arguments. Situations in their future where loved ones or themselves are perceived as being threatened are likely to cause a big stress reaction and they may feel compelled to offer the protection they couldn't provide as a child.

These reactions are automatic and are a conditioned response we learned as children to help us survive. The original source often doesn't even surface in our consciousness [9,12]. However, the stressor is still present, showing itself in the form of emotional upset or physical symptoms.

Once these original upsets are identified and dealt with, it is possible to be free from the stress response they trigger.

3) Internal Stresses

We each create our own stress on top of that which is thrown at us from the outside. Our personalities are built up from our childhood experiences and dictate how we respond to a situation.

The personality traits below are likely to cause stress to a person by putting themselves under additional pressure. [8]

High Expectations of yourself         Need to be good and/or likedInternal stress, personality, life experience

Conscientious         Self Critical         Perfectionist

        Low Self Esteem         Analytical         Overly Responsible

Resentful        Feeling Anxious          Reliable         Competitive

         Driven          Non-confrontational         Like to be in Control

Strong Drive to be Helpful         People Pleaser

A perfectionist will put extra pressure on themselves to do everything to the highest standard.

An overly responsible person will put tasks upon themselves and blame themselves if things don't go well.

An overly critical person will find fault wherever they go thus creating excess conflict through making complaints and confrontation.

Although you cannot change who you are, once you are aware that this is causing a problem, it is possible to change how you react to things by being more allowing, taking a step back and maybe trying to see things from another perspective.

4) Excess Stimulation

This involves the constant bombardment our senses have from TV, radio, social media, mobile phones. Everything is in a hurry, everything is expected instantly.

Stress, socal media, pace of life, distractions

Our minds rarely get a chance to switch off or to process much of the emotions we have to deal with day to day.

There's little wonder people struggle to sleep. This is the only chance many of us give our minds to think and sort through events of the day without other distractions. Consequently, we find ourselves lying awake with a chaos of thoughts, fears and memories flooding through our minds or having vivid dreams that wake us in the night.

Consider the days before TV. People were still busy but would entertain themselves by singing, telling stories, watching the flames of the fire or maybe just gazing up at the stars. Life was slower, there was more social interaction and more quiet time to digest the days events.

Today we almost tend to avoid thinking about the day as we absorb ourselves in TV or the internet.

Allowing ourselves quiet time to digest and reflect on the day, to notice the world around us, is really important to help us connect with ourselves and the world around us. It leaves us calmer and in a better position to deal with whatever life throws at us.

Each and every one of us is experiencing a whole range of these stresses at any one time.

But that's not the whole picture.

Other factors also play an important part in the mind-body process. Our beliefs, expectations, behaviours and neural wiring can either exacerbate or inhibit stress reactions and their symptoms.

Stress management

I'll explore these further in my next blog. In the mean time - keep surfing!

Chiron Fatigue Treatment

Connecting the Mind and Body for Health


[1]Miller LH & Dell Smith A, The Stress Solution. Pocket Books, 1995, 12

[2] Oldfield G, Chronic Pain: Your Key to Recovery. Author House, 2014, 86

[3] Centre for Non Violent Communication

[4] Mate G, When the Body Says No. John Wiley & Sons, 2003, 34

[5] Oldfield G, Chronic Pain: Your Key to Recovery. Author House, 2014, 88

[6] Le Doux J, The Emotional Brain: the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. Touchstone Books, Simon & Schuter, 1996

[7] Ruden R A, When the Past is Always Present. Routledge, 2011

[8] Sarno J E, The Divided Mind. Duckworth Overlook, 2006

[9] Schubiner H, Unlearn your Pain. Mind Body Publishing, 2012, 23

[10] Mate G, When the Body Says No. John Wiley & Sons, 2003

[11] Lipton B H, The Honeymoon Effect. Hay House, 2013, 80

[12] Sarno J E, The Divided Mind. Duckworth Overlook, 2006, 108

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