Written by: Christina Cowger, M.A.
Undeniably the mind and body are connected and are more and more being understood as one bidirectional system. Therefore when anxiety, stress and trauma impact the mind they also directly influence a cascade of biological systems within the body.
Our bodies are adaptive and responsive to the messages that we receive, interpret and respond to. The sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) is responsible for causing most of the physical symptoms associated with anxiety. It is key to survival from threats of danger. Once this system of our body is activated, it often stays active until some sort of influence from the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to calm us down. If this does not happen then this “alarm” system stays active and can have a dramatic influence on hormones (cortisol), adrenaline, anxiety and depression.
There is a multitude of literature and research on the many biological systems of the body that respond to stress. One significant example is the observations of the nervous systems of children who have been abused. Children who have experienced abuse tend to be in a state of hyper-arousal. Their bodies are charged with fight-or-flight hormones (Cozolino, 2002).
Not surprisingly, it is more common that adults from traumatic backgrounds suffer from anxiety disorders, depression and relational issues. A study by Joyce et al. (2007) found that childhood abuse was associated with high cortisol levels in depressed adult survivors. The sense of danger, even if it is not current, lives on in the biological and emotional body.
It is clear that the caregiver shapes the development of the infants coping responses to stress and sets patterns for future relationships. Children who experience “glitches” in healthy early caregiver attachment often struggle with future relational challenges. Often this disrupted early attachment, even without overt trauma, can influence relational patterns (love addiction, love avoidance, codependency). This supports why it becomes crucial to work on the psychological and emotional levels to recognize and address “triggers” or as Eckhart Tolle coined “pain body”. Research supports that cognitive-behavioral type approaches and experiential therapy can positively interrupt these patterns.
Beyond talk therapy, experiential approaches can yield dramatic results. These approaches foster a sense of “the here and now”. Experiential therapy is considered a significant tool for emotional trauma. This approach goes beyond words and accesses parts of stored memory that are not linked to the left-brain language centers of the brain. Since trauma “memory” roots in the brains nonverbal regions, not easily accessible to the frontal lobe (executive functioning, reasoning, etc.), it makes good sense that experiential type approaches can have profound effects on anxiety, depression and attachment wounds in people with a history of trauma.
It is important to also understand that perceived threats can cause biological reactions similar to the literal bear-chasing-us-in-the-woods type event. Our adrenaline response kicks in when our body thinks it needs to run from that proverbial bear in the woods. Therefore, a therapeutic approaches that help individuals identify and repair skewed perceptions as well as those creating a “felt” sense of safety can have profound impact on a mis-wired “alarm system”.
Lifestyle changes can also have a profound effect on the stress response. Breathing techniques, having community, being creative, walking, nature, noticing your senses (smell, sound, color), and healthy eating, at regular intervals, are some examples of positive messages/re-enforcement to our mind-bodies. When we run on caffeine and no food we are telling our body to kick up adrenaline to keep us going. This is an example of a biological stressor that can have long term affects on our level of anxiety and ability to handle stress.
Managing our response to perceived stressors has been shown to have a more profound impact on our bodies then the actual hardships we may encounter. This concept is supported by a study published in The Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine that reported that perceived stress is more destructive to your immune system response than actual stress. Another reminder that while we may not have control over what stressors come our way in life, we do have a level of influence on our psychological resiliency, which is the ability to stay calm (mind-body) in the face of stress and maintain healthy relationships.