30-50% of the population has a chronic pain condition. And it is likely to increase as the world population ages (https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/6/6/e010364 accessed 22/04/2022). That equates to just under 28 million adults in the UK alone!
Most people who eventually seek help for Stress Illness, do so first because of chronic pain and physical symptoms. It is still more acceptable to get support for a biologically caused condition than for anything which may have psychological or social roots. Yet, Stress Illness/TMS/PPD is essentially biopsychosocial in nature and thus requires a holistic healing approach.
This article is the third in the series which will build to become a comprehensive guide to Stress Illness. It will talk about stress-related illnesses, illnesses caused by stress and anxiety, but its primary purpose is to inform the reader about Stress Illness (SI), which is also known as Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS) or Psychophysiological Disorder (PPD).
In this series of articles, you’ll learn everything you need to know about Stress Illness. Each article will address a different aspect and build to create a useful reference for those wishing to understand more about the complexities of Stress Illnesses. The previous article addressed 'The 5 Guiding Principles in Stress Illness Recovery'.
This will be created over several weeks through a series of articles. It will use information from my personal and many years of clinical experience, plus the current research on Stress Illness and Chronic Pain, from Neuropsychology, Pain Psychology, Neurobiology, Cognitive and Behavioural Psychology, and many more.
As an Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist, Mindfulness Teacher, and Stress Illness Recovery Expert, I believe that there is ‘no pain without the brain’. By reprograming their minds entrepreneurs can overcome their physical symptoms, so they can build the business of their dreams and a future of emotional, physical, and financial freedom because until I did it, I never thought it was possible either!
This article will focus on the physical symptoms of Stress Illness, the various forms it takes, how to identify those symptoms as possible Stress Illnesses, and why there are such a variety of symptoms.
Physical symptoms of Stress Illness
Many of the physical symptoms of Stress Illness are also symptoms seen in the fight/flight response. However, they are often heightened, and more intense versions.
Here is a list of many of the symptoms, syndromes, and conditions that can be considered Stress Illness:
· Abdominal pain
· Allergies/hay fever
· Anxiety symptoms or panic attacks
· Back, neck, or other aches and pains
· Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
· Constipation or diarrhoea
· Eating disorders
· Food intolerances
· Frequent infections e.g. bladder, thrush, chest, ear
· Hiatus hernia or heartburn/reflux
· Hyperventilation or shortness of breath
· IBS/colitis/spastic colon
· Irritable Bladder
· Low BP
· Numbness, itching, burning, tingling
· Obsessive Compulsive Disorders
· Palpitations, rapid heart rate
· Panic Disorder
· Pelvic Pain
· Post-Natal Depression/Illness
· Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
· Raynaud’s disease
· Restless leg Syndrome
· Repetitive cough
· Repetitive Strain Injury
· Stomach – ulcers, reflux, heartburn, etc
· Swallowing difficulties or gagging
· Tension headache
· Ulcer symptoms
· Undiagnosed chest pain
Could my physical symptoms be Stress Illness?
Stress Illness/TMS/PPD cannot be determined by medical testing. Although there can be obvious signs of physical symptoms these are not caused by a biological disease or injury (cancer, autoimmune condition, fracture, or infection). The symptoms and pain experienced are very real, however.
The symptoms move about. some days they feel contained in one area, and others they can be in a different one.
They are symmetrical. The pain or itch, burning, rash, etc. can appear on both sides of the body in the same place. (This doesn’t happen in biological illnesses).
They disappear suddenly. You may notice that on occasion the symptom may not be there.
It might be when there is something major to concentrate on, or whilst you are doing a task you enjoy. You might notice that for a moment the symptom had stopped.
They happen at set times or in certain places. This indicates a type of learned response. Your mind tells your body to create the symptom in response to that event or place.
They started at, or just after a particularly stressful event/time in your life. Like the point above, this can be due to a conditioned reaction. We have learned that we felt unsafe at that time in our life, so now we continue to do what we can to seek safety.
They sometimes start getting worse when you think about them. This is common once we have become aware of the connection to past stressful events. Just thinking about the physical symptom then causes the connection in our mind to leap to the stressful time (usually outside of our awareness), then the body produces more symptoms to try to keep us safe again.
These can be such a variety of symptoms, as seen above, it is useful in our own recovery to understand why this is.
Why is there such a wide variety of Stress Illness symptoms?
Stress illness affects all systems in the body. It can develop from either a one-off trauma (an event where there is too much sensory information to process psychologically at the time) or chronic stress (the excessive psychological processing of sensory information over time).
This causes the autonomic nervous system to become sensitive to potential threats. (Essentially, we become automatically hypervigilant to threats and thus remain on high alert. Ready to fight or run at any moment). The more traumas and stressors we face over time, the more sensitive the system can become. As the pathways in the brain are used more frequently, the symptoms are activated in the body more readily.
Bodily systems involved in Stress Illness symptoms
Our body is constantly surveying our external and internal worlds. When chronic stress is perceived the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal Axis (HPA-Axis) is the system that supplies cortisol which is released into the bloodstream. The cortisol releases glucose stored in the liver. Increasing sugar in the blood to provide the constant flow of energy needed to address the stressor(s).
Cortisol increases all functions that are necessary for immediate survival and reduces those that are not. Thus, the energy in the limbs is increased to enable us to run away or fight an enemy. The anti-inflammatory effects reduce learning and memory retrieval but increase memory consolidation (so we can remember things with higher emotional intensity, but struggle with those everyday tasks). It reduces the desire and ability for intercourse. (www.simplypsychology.org/hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal-axis.html accessed 02/05/2022)
Essentially all the systems designed to keep us safe when faced with a threat, are switched on a lot easier in Stress Illness. Essentially the brain is triggering the physical symptoms much like a false alarm.
No wonder you're exhausted, confused, fed-up, and in pain!
There is no pain without the brain!
There is another way. It doesn't have to always be this way. As the pathways in the brain have learned to activate the physical symptoms in response to false alerts, we can retrain the brain to only activate when needed. So with motivation and the right skills (using a scientific biopsychosocial approach), you can consciously rewire your brain to recover from Stress Illness.
The physical symptoms of Stress Illness are varied but are mostly an extreme version of those seen in the fight/flight response controlled by the HPA-Axis. Therefore treatment involves finding ways to reduce the sensitivity of the threat response and bring the whole mind-body system under more conscious control.
To see if your chronic pain or fluctuating symptoms are a type of Stress illness and are reversible
In the next article, The possible causes and pathways of Stress Illness, how Stress Illness is affected, and how it affects our emotional well-being will be covered.