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Part 1 of this 2 part blog explores the relationship between chronic stress and chronic disease so that we can better understand the factors within our control to boost our wellbeing and improve our health. Rates of chronic disease like autoimmune conditions, diabetes, cancer, anxiety and depression, are soaring, and it’s estimated that over 70% of GP visits are stress-related.
As modern medicine struggles to find effective solutions to this huge challenge, many people are exploring complementary medicine for ways to boost their wellbeing and heal chronic conditions. These approaches focus on the whole person/system and address root causes of disease. Many chronic health issues share the same underlying causes, and treatments typically include a focus on lifestyle factors like nutrition and supplements to address gut and microbiome issues, plus sleep and exercise.
One of the root causes gaining more attention now is the impact of our toxic thoughts and feelings on our health. A principle of ancient healing traditions is that the body is designed to heal itself when it’s in a balanced state, and a failure to heal from a chronic condition is because we’re doing something that gets in the way, creating an imbalance. In this case, it seems, the problem is the mind itself.
The body is designed to heal itself - the problem is the mind!
So, what’s the connection between our thoughts and feelings and our health? Here are some pieces of the puzzle that we all need to understand so we can take better care of ourselves.
The relatively new scientific field called psychoneuroimmunology shows us that our thoughts have a measurable effect on our bodies. We have a thought and our brain triggers the release of chemicals in the body that matches that thought. Thinking anxious and fearful thoughts causes the release of cortisol and adrenaline, which engages our fight/flight/freeze or stress response, to keep us safe, while thoughts of love and pleasure trigger oxytocin and dopamine to surge through our bodies, supporting us to bond, grow and repair - our relaxation response. We feel this in our bodies as emotions, and in turn, the brain scans our bodily state to ensure our thoughts match those feelings, and this feedback loop keeps cycling.
This should be an adaptive state - we’re actually designed to spend most of our time in the relaxation response (managed by the parasympathetic nervous system), with short bursts of our fight/flight/freeze or stress response to deal with acute threats (managed by the sympathetic nervous system). The problem is we’re spending most of our time chronically stressed, and the body doesn’t get to clear all these stress chemicals, and we end up up with a build up of them. This is known as sympathetic-dominance.
Critically, the stress response:
In addition to the stress we’re consciously aware of from everyday challenges like problems with work, finances, and relationships, it’s also from our early life exposure to stress and trauma, and from negative beliefs and poor self-worth that we learned as children - which lurks in the domain of our subconscious mind, the part of our mind responsible for habits. Given that about 95% of our day is under the control of our subconscious mind, and that a large part of these thoughts and feelings are unhelpful, it’s no surprise that we feel chronically stressed and may not even know why.
Key to building resilience to stress is the vagus nerve, which is a communication superhighway between the brain and most of our organs, that helps coordinate the relaxation response. 80% of this communication is going from the body to the brain, so it makes sense that body-based activities that stimulate the vagus nerve, like singing, deep breathing, exercise and massage feel good and help relieve stress. It’s also a clue that we need to pay more attention to what our bodies are telling us.
The more we stimulate our vagus nerve and trigger our relaxation response, the higher our vagal tone. And we can assess our vagal tone through measuring our heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the interval between our heart beats. Higher HRV equals higher vagal tone, indicating a more resilient nervous system.
The bottom line is our chronically stressed lives are throwing our bodies out of balance, and a body that’s out of balance cannot flourish, let alone heal itself.
In Part 2 we’ll explore some effective approaches you can take to help balance your mind and body, promote wellbeing and support healing. Subscribe to our blog to receive email updates!
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Certified i4 Neuroleader Practitioner
Maggie Buchanan is an Organisation Development Consultant & Executive Leadership Coach who helps organisations build brain-friendly cultures and leadership to achieve high performance and wellbeing.