Think of stress not as your reaction to something stressful but as your body’s natural reaction to anything physical or emotional that your nervous system deems threatening to your life or livelihood. Stress is a natural, normal experience regulated by your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), the part of your nervous system that functions without your conscious control. It is important to understand how your body’s stress response system works so that you can develop strategies to de-activate your nervous system.
The Threat Response System—Fight or Flight
When we are under a perceived physical or emotional threat, the sympathetic nervous system becomes activated. Sometimes when we orient ourselves to the threat, we realize that it’s not really a threat at all, in which case our sympathetic nervous system begins to deactivate, and our body begins to settle.
“Fight or flight” prepares our body by shutting down certain processes like digestion and charging our limbs with a surge of energy.
If the threat is perceived as a real threat, then our sympathetic nervous system becomes further activated triggering “fight or flight”, preparing our body by shutting down certain processes like digestion and charging our limbs with a surge of energy to escape the threat. When this happens, our survival response is to run (flight) or to defend ourselves (fight).
Escaping the threat, our nervous system celebrates, releasing the rest of the energy with which our body was charged in some form of a “happy dance”. As we sense the danger is behind us, our sympathetic nervous system deactivates, and our parasympathetic nervous system comes online. The parasympathetic nervous system restores the state of ease in which the body thrives known as “rest and digest”. While the sympathetic nervous system can get activated instantly, the parasympathetic nervous system gradually takes hold of the body, needing time to allow all of the bodily processes affected by the fight-or-flight response to resume functioning the way they function in times of safety and peace.
In reaction to highly stressful, especially life-threatening situations, if neither fight nor flight appears as though it will lead to succeed in helping us to escape the threat, the parasympathetic nervous system will generate a “freeze” response. A freeze state, akin to “playing dead”, numbs us to the sensations and emotions that would otherwise be overwhelming, overly stimulating.
Because the fight or flight response is not able to be fully enacted in a freeze state, all of the energy generated to charge us up for fight or flight becomes bound or locked in the body.
There is a tremendous amount of energy that becomes bound in a freeze response. Think of the sympathetic nervous-system activation as putting your gas pedal to the metal while driving. Now, think of the freeze response as slamming the brakes WHILE your gas pedal is pushed all the way down. Because the fight or flight response is not able to be fully enacted in a freeze state, all of the energy generated by the sympathetic nervous system becomes bound or locked in your body. The longer the freeze response lasts, the more likely one is to experience symptoms of trauma. It’s important to understand how trauma relates to functional medical problems.
Where the energy becomes bound or locked in your body is specific to how your nervous system functions and how your body experienced the threatening situation. For some people this energy is experienced as anxiety or panic. Functional medical problems indicate that your body has been experiencing a freeze response in reaction to something you haven’t completely registered, addressed, or resolved consciously. As long as you are caught in the cycle of exposure to this threat, your body keeps experiencing or re-experiencing the freeze response, and the symptoms continue. Having to live with something so threatening and unrelenting over time becomes a pattern of chronic stress in the body.
Functional Medical Problems Involve Layers of Stress
As your body experiences further symptoms, your body experiences further stress because of the functional medical problem. The physical and emotional pain and discomfort of the symptoms of functional medical disorders are in and of themselves stressors. The loss of our ability to do what we want or go where we want when we want with whom we want can be another stressor. The pressure we put on ourselves to maintain jobs and to fulfill responsibilities while not feeling well can also be a stressor. In other words, a functional medical problem is layered on top of stress, and then there’s stress layered on top of the functional medical problem.
As symptoms come more frequently and with greater intensity, they become more threatening to not just your body, day-to-day functioning, and your responsibilities but your relationships, job, and livelihood. This means that your sympathetic nervous system is activated to an even greater degree and for longer periods of time, perhaps chronically. Even if the parasympathetic nervous system has an opportunity to work its magic in its “rest and digest” state, it’s likely not to happen; when you’re actually finally feeling better after being chronically symptomatic and stressed, the body no longer trusts that it’s “safe” enough to settle at all. This is how chronic stress results from functional medical problems.
Learning to Unhook from Chronic Stress
When you have a functional medical problem, then you are undoubtedly experiencing high levels of stress, probably far greater than you realize. When I was most acutely symptomatic with IBS, if you had asked me, “Are you stressed?” I would have said no in a heartbeat. But in fact I was highly stressed and anxious. I just didn’t know it because I’d been living that way for so many years. This is the predicament for many people with functional medical problems, especially functional gastrointestinal problems.
From your body’s perspective, functional medical problems are not really problems but wake-up calls.
We cannot be aware of everything all of the time. Our brains would be overwhelmed by all of the incoming data. We have selective attention. We pay attention to that which we are tuned into or that which demands our attention. The rest is background noise, closeted, buried, or shut down completely. Functional medical problems are physiological problems that seize our attention immediately because they bring symptoms like pain and discomfort.
From your body’s perspective, functional medical problems are not really problems but wake-up calls. The good news is that your body is capable of finding ease again, but you have to work with it, not against it, which is the opposite of what stress elicits.