Meena's Musings

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Physical Effects of Stress

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With the push of a button, I would be rolled into the MRI machine so the doctors could “see” why I was having difficulty breathing.  Six months into a marriage that should not have happened (which I realized later), in a new country (I moved to MI from Toronto due to marriage) and away from everyone I knew, studying for my CPA exam and working; I couldn’t breathe fully.  The harder I tried to take that full deep breath, the harder it became.  It was like I was being choked (I was feeling choked emotionally but I didn’t connect the dots at that time).  The doctor asked me nothing about my life situation or whether I was under any stress and pushed me straight into the MRI machine. Nothing was found and I continued to struggle with my breath.

Not sure when the breathing corrected itself but I developed another problem. I felt someone was hammering on my head with great force unstoppably.  As I write this, I realize it was migraine or sinus headache and emotionally I felt I was being hammered on my head. The doctor gave me antibiotics and never asked me about my life or whether I was under any stress.  The headache went away but my gums started to bleed significantly enough that I had to go see a dentist.  He told me that I was grinding my teeth at night time and gave me a mouth guard.  He also had to burn my gums as they were highly inflamed.  The dentist asked me nothing about my life situation or whether I was under any stress.  Unable to understand what I was feeling created tension that transferred to my gums.  

Pregnancy was no different.  Everything that could go wrong did.  I was advised on bed rest off and on throughout my pregnancy and had to undergo an emergency C- section to deliver my baby boy 3 months prematurely.  It was a miracle that both my child and I survived.  After a year of growing my premature baby literally ounce by ounce, I returned back to work against my own wish to stay home and raise my son.  I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel; the stiffness in my fingers made normal daily functions painful.  Not sure how that went away and then I developed restless leg syndrome.  The cause, I was told, was flat arches in my feet.  I had to get orthotics, which did not help and the doctor recommended steroid shots which I refused.  Again, the doctor never asked me about my life or if I was experiencing any stress. The only time I felt relief was when I was walking or running.  This, perhaps, should have been a clue to walk or rather run away from my situation.

Not only was I disconnected from my body, I was unconscious of it. Being very athletic all my life, I thought nothing of it and took it all in stride. My mind overrode everything because I was used to handling and toughing it out on my own and no one needed to worry about me.  The seven years of my marriage were full of confusion and struggle. My attitude of “I can do it all and fix it all” kept giving me new resolve to handle my circumstances. To top it off, my work was quite demanding, being a right hand to the CEO of an international company, which confused me even further. How could an intelligent and strong woman like myself could be in this situation?

I had no way of knowing if this type of stress was “normal” or “alarming”; actually, the word stress didn’t even come to mind, possibly because it was not as commonly used 30 years ago. I didn’t connect the dots of my experiences to the physical symptoms in my body, however, the inner confusion and unrest grew stronger with each passing day.  The fact that I experienced so many physical symptoms should have been a clue that this level of stress was not normal.  

Divorce was unheard of in my culture.  What will everyone think?  No one knew the state of my marriage. Finally, I sought the advice of an elder in my community who advised me that any marriage that stops the Spiritual growth of one or both people should not continue. This was the first time I ever heard that.

Luckily, also during this time, I was led to a Yoga class, which resonated with me and stirred me internally like a ray of light. The darkness and despair of my inner world started to shine brightly. I was no longer confused and became deeply aware of the situation I was living in. I vividly remember the moment when I looked around my home and felt like a stranger in it. How in the world did I end up here?  This wasn’t my life.  I woke up.

The time in between my decision to leave the marriage and move into my new home was extremely stressful to say the least.  My son and I were safe in our new home but the stress continued due to constant dealings with my son’s other parent. I developed a frozen shoulder, emotionally I felt there was no escaping the other parent.  The doctor scheduled me for surgery just like that. Luckily, I decided to not go through with the surgery and healed my shoulder with Yoga and physical therapy.  The well-meaning doctor also gave me a prescription for anxiety; “it would take the edge off” he said. Why would I want to take the edge off, I thought?  Given what I was going through, I thought it was okay for me to feel what I felt.  So, I threw the prescription away.   The next symptom was extreme stiffness in my upper back.  The Doctor said I was developing RA in my upper back. (I had endured so much in the last seven years but had to hold it all together, it was literally like I put a wall around my heart to keep it safe. No wonder I had stiffness in my upper back – right behind my heart)   

Fast forward 22 years, I breathe deeply and freely.  I rarely get sick. I have no symptoms of RA in my upper back, I have full mobility in my shoulders. I haven’t used orthotics in years, actually I don’t even know where they are.  I have created arches in my feet from Yoga therapy. I have no restless leg syndrome.  I run because I love to run and have no need to run from anything or anyone. I am on the computer quite a bit without ever experiencing stiffness in my fingers. I truly feel blessed to enjoy good health and live a very happy and fulfilled life.  What changed?   I no longer have stress in my life that I can’t manage.

It is because of what I experienced and went through that I am deeply immersed in Spirituality and healing and it is my life’s work and purpose.

Stress can manifest in different ways for different people.  For me, it manifested as physical symptoms.  For many of my clients, it manifests as anxiety, depression or other such disorders. Some experience aches and pains all over the body while others experience rage and disconnect from who they are.  Stress worsens all pre-existing physical ailments and blocks pathways to healing.  All of my physical symptoms and diagnosis resulted from stress, one hundred percent.

 

What is stress?

Stress can be defined in many ways.  Here is my understanding and perspective of it.

When the inner pressure of our life is bigger than the capacity of our nervous system to handle that pressure, it results in unmetabolized experiences that begin to permeate to the physical body. Our experiences entail our mental and emotional responses which are all energetic. These energetic experiences get stored in our tissues and create the breeding ground for disease.

Our ability to handle stress is directly related to the state of our nervous system, that’s why different people can respond to the same challenge in a very different way.  Our current pandemic is a fine example of this.  Same pandemic is creating very different experiences all over the globe.  Some people are flourishing during this time while others are at the verge of nervous breakdown. Whether the stress is “normal” or “alarming” is a function of one’s state of their nervous system. Our past traumas (the experiences we have not metabolized) burden our nervous system weakening it and making even the “normal” stress “alarming”.  Stress is disease in the making, the hidden culprit that we can’t afford to ignore.

 

Root Cause of Stress

This is kind of like chicken and egg scenario.  What comes first?  Our psychological world is complex and the answer may be different for different people.  From my stories, we can now understand the effect of stress on our physical health.  The question is what creates stress?  In other words, what creates this surplus of inner pressure?

In our daily lives, we experience a myriad of things via our senses and these things may have nothing to do with us directly.  We don’t sit and take time to chew each experience and metabolize it. We move on to the next thing simply doing what we need to do.  An example is listening to the pandemic tragedies on the news; we feel bad or scared and we may turn the news off or distract ourselves with something pleasant. But the experience has already been registered in our subconscious mind via our body.

Our body is the subconscious mind and like an antenna picks up not only our inner experiences but the external experiences of the collective as well. By sleeping, we may metabolize some of our daily experiences but living in highly charged times like now, it’s not possible to digest all of our experiences with sleep alone.  The unmetabolized and unresolved experiences create a constant pressure on our nervous system weakening it and now we are less able to handle or metabolize the news.  We become extra sensitive and stay away from such news. (Which I highly recommend doing; we don’t deliberately subject ourselves to more than we can handle)

That’s why meditation practices and Self- care practices are a necessity during this time; to metabolize our subconscious experiences and to free our nervous system making it now more resilient.  It’s this inner resilience that allows us to experience equanimity in the face of chaos and upheaval.  We can’t control all stressors but we can always culture and nourish our nervous system so we can handle that which we have no control over.

Drawing from my stories, other causes of stress come from living a life that is not in alignment with who you are, feeling and shouldering the burden of other people’s thoughts and beliefs, weak nervous system from past traumas and years of neglect and overdoing.  Because we have accepted stress to be part of our normal lives, we chalk all stress to be “normal” and don’t know when it becomes “alarming”.

The impact of stress does not show up in the body right away for everyone, it’s slow building, a disease in the making.  For many, by the time the impact becomes physical, it already may have weakened the heart, immunity and other functions of their body. To treat the physical symptoms then without “seeing” the causative factors is a poor and naïve way of treating any disease.

 

Signs of Stress

As I mentioned earlier, most of the stress is subconscious or hidden.  But we can raise the level of our awareness by tuning into the following.

  1. Contrast

We are not aware of the stress we are under if that’s how we live all the time. We learn by contrast. How do you feel currently?  Do you experience joy? Do you find yourself envying happy people and realizing you have not been happy like that for a while?  Can you recall the last time when you felt truly joyful and happy?  When we are not truly happy, we also begin to rationalize or justify our current state of joyless existence. How we feel is in our heart, we know it.  It’s when we begin to use the mind to override what we already know in our heart.

One such example for me was when I witnessed how my brother-in-law treated my sister.  She had become upset when he said or did something insensitive; to which he profusely apologized and did everything possible to make her feel better.  This provided a painful contrast to what I experienced in my marriage.

Another example is when I went away to a 3-day retreat by myself.  Being a single parent of a young boy, my life revolved around him, cooking only what he ate and eating his leftovers.  On the retreat a simple thing like sitting down and ordering what I wanted to eat for lunch provided a profound contrast to the fact that I hadn’t done that in a very long time. I felt human and returned home changed and started to take better care of me; the person I had forgotten in trying to handle it all.

  1. Carrying others on your shoulders

The largest burden we carry is the burden of other people’s thoughts and opinions.  Are you constantly trying to explain yourself or avoiding certain people in your life?  Are there invisible people always with you, criticizing, monitoring and evaluating your behavior every step of the way?   Are you always trying to meet the expectation of others and keep coming up short?  Do you catch yourself doing a lot of things in your life just to avoid criticism, interference or other negative confrontation from others?

For some of my clients, it’s the critical mother or mother-in-law who is always sitting on their shoulders; for others, it’s the difficult spouse who questions everything and challenges every decision they make.  Living with someone constantly breathing down your neck not only zaps our life force but can create “alarming” stress that no one should have to endure.  This is where the inner healing work can transform our life.

  1. Physical Health

How healthy do you feel?  Are you able to do all that you desire to do?  Has your physical activity reduced due to limitations in the body?  Are you experiencing aches and pains or other symptoms that the doctors can’t see in X-rays or blood reports?  How is your appetite?  How do you sleep?

Our physical body mirrors our inner state of being as you saw in my stories. Body does not lie; it’s important to tune in to the body and the physical symptoms.  One client broke into boils from the unexpressed or unrecognized anger that was brewing inside.  Yes, it was inflammation but what caused that amount of inflammation?  Emotions get embedded into our organs; anger gravitates towards the liver, heating the blood and creating inflammation.  Stress is energy that needs to be freed; the root cause of all disease is trapped energy.

  1. Mental/Emotional Health

Our mental and emotional challenges are a result of the stress our nervous system can’t handle. Do you feel anxious?  Do you have bouts of depression?  Does it take a lot out of you to function during the day?  Do you cry often or get angry often?  Do you watch excessive amount of TV, over engage in social media, use food or other substances for comfort? Do you react to every circumstance or are you able to respond?  Do you get easily agitated even with the slightest change in your life?  Do you get upset when others don’t agree with you?

These are some of the questions you may ask to assess the state of your nervous system, as weakness in the nervous system reduces our ability to cope with changes in our environment, opposing views points and we tend to spiral downward.  Continuous exposure to stress breaks down our nervous system literally – hence the name nervous breakdown, signaling the stress that has become “alarming”.

  1. Being in a state of confusion and conflict

Feeling confused, unclear or torn is a sign that there is an inner struggle.  The fear of our own feelings keeps us rationalizing our current predicaments.  This is a coping mechanism very brilliantly built in to keep us safe.  This constant state of conflict keeps us away from knowing let alone fulfilling our purpose.  When so much of our energy is vested in enduring the conflict, there isn’t much left to ponder upon our purpose or to fulfill it.  It zaps our creativity and can literally suck the life out of us.

For some of my clients, it makes them obsess over the past traumas without healing them, over focus or over attach to random things and topics just to avoid what they are feeling, or unreal dreaming about the future. They become disconnected from the body and the present moment and all the while denying the stress that they are under. “No, I am not stressed” yet it shows up on their face, their energy and their way of living.  The disconnect from our present reality is a clue to the stress we are experiencing.    

As you can see, there is much to say about stress but I hope that in sharing my stories, I have made one thing very clear; that stress has a direct physical affect on our body. I hope that you may look deeper into your physical symptoms and ailments and get to the root cause so you may enjoy a stress free and joyous life.

 

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