The Stress of Unavoidable Life Events

How Our Emotional and Mental State Affects Our Stress Levels - Part 1

Has there ever been a time in your life when you have been really worried about something? Maybe someone you love was very unwell, or maybe there was uncertainty at work and you were worried you might lose your income? Or maybe you were in a challenging relationship that was draining you of your emotional resources? I could list countless situations that might affect us at an emotional or mental level. And because the nature of being human, the same situation may impact on two individuals in a completely way.

So I’ll take a couple of examples and explore them.

The Bullied Child

Sadly this is becoming more common in childhood. But we also see similar situations in the workplace and in some relationships.

So what is the impact on a child? Imagine you are that child and waking up every day and dreading going to school. You know that you are being targeted and you know that it’s going to be hard to stay strong. You might be scared of what other people think? You might wonder how you are going to keep your lunch money so that you can eat? You might be fearing being ridiculed, laughed at or ever physically assaulted. You might feel isolated and helpless. You may even have thoughts of suicide, because this situation has no way out.

So what do these thoughts and feelings do to your body. Well you’re going to have stress hormones running your physiology such as cortisol and adrenaline. That means your body is going to be on red-alert. You will sub-consciously hold your muscles tight, so that if necessary you can run or fight (fight-flight response). The stress hormones are designed to keep you safe in a short-term life threatening situation, but when they hang around for longer they can affect your mood, your self-esteem, your feelings of self-worth. In other words they support feeling pretty rubbish. And the negative thoughts may also affect your posture. You may stoop, turn inwards and do everything you can “not to be noticed”. And if the bullying goes on for a long time, your body may start to down-regulate how your digestion works (kids can report this as “tummy ache” or changes to appetite), blood sugars can rise, and even blood pressure can go up. The immune system can also be affected, increasing the chance of catching colds and infections and generally being unwell.

Frustratingly, this physiological state may become the child’s baseline for life – creating an anxious, stressed out adult, who may also be susceptible to bullying either at work or home.

Death of a Loved One

This is something that all of us will have to deal with because it’s the one guarantee of life. But the circumstances of the loss can have lasting impact on some people.

How would it be if you were in your 30’s or 40’s and your partner was killed in an accident? What would the impact be on you? On your body? On your life? How would you deal with loss, the associated emotions and the physical reality of them no longer being in your life?

Again your body would be flooded with stress hormones. Most people are familiar with the “fight-flight” response, less are familiar with the “freeze” response. But both are mediated by similar pathways in the body. This is not an exact science – we all response differently in stressful times.

Some people block their emotions, so express to the point they wonder if they will ever stop. We are all different. But we all need to feel and express our emotions, and how you do it can impact on your immediate and long term health.     

What is important is to find your way of dealing with grief. And know that it will take time and even years in the future there may be moments when it hits you again.

What I have learnt from years of working with people who have suffered a bereavement is that they often say “I’m fine” when truly, they are not. What I feel in their bodies and what comes out of their mouths bears little resemblance. So if it’s a friend of yours, I’m not saying push them to share, but be aware that we all process in our own way.

And it if’s you – don’t be surprised if you get ill or injured. Just listen to your body and get the help you need. Don’t suffer in silence.

The Rest of the Time….

Life goes on. Life time events happen, we carry on living. It’s important to recognize that, and get the help you need so that an event doesn’t end having a lifetime marker on your body and your physiology that impacts on your quality of life.