The question: Ever since I was young, intense stress has always made me physically ill. My body tenses up, and my stomach ties itself up into knots. At its worst, I feel like I'm going to throw up any second. Usually, the moment the source of stress disappears, so does my physical pain. But now I have a million things going on that are here to stay: Amongst other things, the deadlines are piling up at work, I'm expecting a baby, and me and my husband are having trouble keeping up with the mortgage. I know these aren't unique problems, but I'm worried my physical reaction to stress will catch up with me soon enough. What's wrong with me, and how do I control it?
The answer: Medicine – and society in general, for that matter – is increasingly recognizing the intertwined nature of our physical and emotional health. Gone are the beliefs of traditional medicine that purported that we could somehow separate our physical state from our psychological, emotional and spiritual well-being.
Your experience is not an uncommon one: Most people who are dealing with chronic stressors experience some impact on how they feel physically. Research demonstrates the comorbidity rate between physical and emotional health conditions (those people with psychological conditions who will also experience impairing physical symptoms) to be in the range of 50 to 80 per cent, and vice-versa.
The way our stress reveals itself depends on myriad factors, including our childhood history; personality and genetic predispositions; how we observed our parents dealing with stress; and whether or not overt emotional displays were viewed as “acceptable” ways to communicate stress in our family.
Individual differences exist in the degree and intensity to which emotional issues manifest physically, but the most common physical symptoms are stomach/gastrointestinal problems (tension, nausea, constipation, diarrhea), pain (headaches, back pain, chest tightness), appetite changes and sleep problems.
Your worry should not be that your physical reaction to stress will catch up with you – it should be how to manage it, as it’s clear that you are already experiencing significant impacts as a result. The fact that you are pregnant is an important consideration – not only do maternal stress levels have the potential to negatively impact fetus development, but your stressors will only be exacerbated following the birth of your baby.
You need to seek support to improve your stress-management strategies. The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, by Drs. Martha Davis, Elizabeth Eshelman and Matthew McKay, is an excellent self-help book that provides evidence-based stress-reduction strategies.
I also suggest seeking the assistance of a psychologist specializing in cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on your symptoms by helping you manage and change the cognitive contributors to your stress; develop strategies to tackle primary stressors in your life (financial or work-related, for example); and learn behavioural strategies, like breathing and relaxation, to target the physiological manifestation of your stress.
Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV’s The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra .
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