Identifying Stress

STRESS! That ubiquitous word. The root of all disease. “Are you stressed?” The word takes your shoulders up to your ears as soon as you hear it. Even the sound of the word is harsh. When I hear that word I think, I’ve got to DO something about this stress, I must get rid of it. Putting that kind of stress on yourself to get rid of stress can be, well, stressful. Want to lower the risk of cancer? Don’t stress. Want to get rid of your headaches? Reduce stress. Want to stop having gastrointestinal woes? Manage your stress. Want to fall asleep, insomniac? I would, if I could stop stressing long enough about how I’m stressing which is causing my insomnia.

When I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 14 I was told that I had to reduce stress. So, what did that mean to me back then- um, don’t bother going through adolescence? Don’t bother going to high school or trying to get into college? Clearly, I was not able to slow down life at that point, did not completely understand that the doctors were actually telling me to manage my stress and even if I had understood the advice, I was not self aware enough to change my stressful circumstances.

So many diseases supposedly are caused by this fiend, this stress, that causes problems in the gut, inflammation, headaches, backaches, muscle aches and insomnia. But what is it really? In the case of insomnia, thinking about not being able to fall asleep most definitely makes it harder to do so. But in the cases of other disease, is it really all in our head?

Much of this blog will look at the role that mindfulness plays in our physical state. Indeed, themindfulgut was born out of the idea that our mind and our gut are deeply connected and interdependent, so much so that we can often heal our bodies just by calming our minds. Even the most conventional gastroenterologist will tell you that the stress you have in your mind will most certainly contribute to your GI troubles.

Yet there is another kind of stress that is more tangible- it is the physical stress that we put on our body, that may or may not have born out of stress but has transformed into an actual physical problem. This often happens without our knowledge. This is not to say that our mind cannot help our bodies change, simply that there might be physical obstacles that might be hindering our mind’s ability to change our body. Indeed, all the yoga in the world might not be able to cure all of one’s physical ailments.

What I found was that the times in my life where my colitis flared, it wasn’t in my worst emotional states- it was when I put stress on my body physically. In college, I flared after I abused my body by binge drinking. In law school, I got sick from eating greasy and fatty food late at night while studying. Then the worst of it came during both of my pregnancies and the subsequent years spent nursing when my colitis and psoriasis flared out of control. The great physical stress of pregnancy and the depletion of nutrients from nursing are a huge stressor on the body- and one not mentioned in the What to Expect books.

Physical stress can stem from, among other things, an excess of stored toxins in the body, muscle tightness or tissue blockages left unattended over the course of many years. Often times, detoxing our bodies by eliminating known stressors such as gluten, dairy and animal fats helps to rid the body of accumulated toxins. Other ways to remove physical stress and obstacles are Massage, Myofascial Release and craniosacral therapy. By being mindful and paying attention to what physical obstacles we might have, and what irritants are harmful, we can start to understand what is aggravating our system. Once we address our physical obstacles and work out whatever these blockages are, we will see the deep benefits of relaxing and calming the mind. We can then go deeper, enabling us to function and heal more efficiently.