Stress as a cause of illness has been accepted by the most prestigious of institutions. Both Harvard Health and the Mayo Clinic are now on the record that an overactive stress response can increase risk for everything from heart disease to GI issues to insomnia to cognitive decline.
The stress response is the modern version of the “fight or flight” response we developed as cave-people roaming the earth long, long ago — it’s the brain-body process that keeps us on “high alert” for threats that could harm us, and mobilizes our bodies to fight the threat, or flee the threat, to preserve the species.
The problem is that our modern brains can’t tell the difference between real “tigers” and “emotional tigers” — the same kinds of physiological responses occur in our bodies … and if we don’t learn to self-regulate our stress-response, we can develop chronic pain.
So what are the 5 signs you may be suffering from a stress related illness?
1) They Can’t Find Anything WRONG! This is actually the title of a book by my friend Dr. David Clarke that I highly recommend. Dr. Clarke is a well-respected physician and educator who, over the course of his career, successfully treated 7,000 patients with stress-related illnesses. One of the common themes with his patients is test after diagnostic test turns up “negative” — because these tests don’t measure stress and its effects on the body.
2) Your Pain Moves Around: In my personal experience with persistent back pain, I found that the pain would move around to different locations in my back. Sometimes it was my low back, sometimes the sides of my back, sometimes my mid or upper back. I recall one episode when I was up at the crack of dawn to leave for a business trip and the whole right side of my back seized up leaving me writhing in pain on my bathroom floor. Does your pain “move around”?
3) You Experience Tension Elsewhere in the Body: Those of us blessed with the “perfect-storm” of Type A personalities, lots of emotion, and lots of stressors in life (on the flip-side it’s what makes us driven to achieve and succeed), tend to experience tension in several places. Examples would be headaches, stomach issues (“nervous stomach”), tightness in the chest, and many more. These are all signs that you may be suffering from stress.
4) You’re Not the Best Sleeper: When your mind is on overdrive, and your body is on high-alert facing down the “emotional tigers” of your day-to-day life — Sleep doesn’t come easily. According to NPR, 60 million Americans will be afflicted with a sleep disorder this year(!). If you find it hard to quiet down from your day and fall asleep easily, it’s a sign your parasympathetic nervous system (otherwise known as the “rest & digest” response) needs some attention.
5) You Have Trouble Concentrating: You have to try extra hard to really focus on the task at hand, or what your beautiful little child is trying to tell you when you come home from work, or the point your colleague at work is trying to make during the meeting … you get the picture. What may be going on? When your brain and body are in the stress response, you are focused on “survival” not the subtleties of what may be happening in any given moment.
If these signs resonate with you it’s actually good news. Why? You can take action to boost your parasympathetic nervous system through a range of techniques from meditation to deep breathing to negative writing.
Jon Slavet is an executive and advisor to high growth consumer companies. He is also the GM of We Work.