There is no doubt that stress responses in our body can cause or exacerbate symptoms of illness. There is also little doubt that over 90% of people displaying symptoms of chronic illness have experienced or are experiencing life-challenges that trigger stress responses in the Hypothalamus/Pituitary/Adrenal (HPA) axis plus, often the HP Thyroid and HP Ovarian axes as well.
Many erudite and helpful books are available to help us work through responses to emotional stress and trauma and reduce their impact on our health. Websites, courses, blogs, podcasts and videos are all readily accessible to help us in our quest for peace and wellness. Self-help practices such as meditation, visualisation, Yoga and many others help us to find our core strength and peace so that we can reduce symptoms, increase energy and live better.
All these resources are most valuable and have helped, and are helping many thousands of people around the world. Recognising physiological stress responses and being active in reducing these to healthy levels is a major step forward in improving our health.
But almost all these helpful resources focus on emotional stress and trauma caused by perceptions, relationships, circumstances and experiences. This begs the question, are there other triggers for the stress response?
Yes, there are and it would be negligent to ignore non-emotional/mental events that trigger the stress response, and neglect to develop strategies for reversing those.
One of the most powerful triggers for the stress response is toxins. These maybe inappropriate foods, food additives, chemicals in common household goods, cleaning and disinfecting products used in public spaces, the ubiquitous hand sanitisers so in vogue these days, industrial chemicals in the air, water or dust, agrichemicals such as fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides, medications either necessary or mandated, or out-gassing from a wide range of sources (paint, fabric, etc).
Most practitioners focus on the physical presence of these toxins and treat by avoidance where possible, removal of the offending product from the body and repairing damage. This is good medicine (Western or Complementary) and necessary for our health. However, our body responds to each toxin as if it is an enemy attacking us (as it is) and triggers a stress response (fight/flight/freeze).
If we are to truly recover from the effects of our toxic load, we will need to recognise and treat the stress response as well, and this requires different strategies from treating emotional/mental stress. The toxic load and resultant stress response may have created widespread dysregulation in many neural pathways and this could need herbal, homeopathic or supplemental intervention to correct, or rehabilitation strategies (structured exercises or activities).
Conversely, to resolve the stress response, the toxins must be removed from our cells or all our emotional recovery strategies will be in vain.
Another powerful trigger of stress response is infection. Most of us experience acute infections from time to time, treat it appropriately, rest for a few days and recover without any lingering damage. However, chronic infections pose a very different and much more serious challenge.
Chronic infections (persistent or unresolved, long-term infections) challenge our immune system, draining energy from other functions, cause long-term inflammation, often with pain and sleep disturbances, and reduce our quality of life. It is natural that our body will trigger a stress response to this “enemy” occupying our cells.
Developing stress-reducing activities will, of course, be of help in coping with the illness, but will not resolve the stress response. We need to eliminate the infection to be truly well and an enormous challenge for those affected is that many chronic “stealth infections” (Borrelia, Bartonella, Babesia, Mycoplasma among others) are very difficult to diagnose, and are often ignored or denied by practitioners and medical authorities alike. Even when identified and treated, these infections are very debilitating and may take years to eliminate, a process that evokes continuous stress response that requires ongoing treatment strategies to help.
In order to resolve the stress response for these unfortunate patients, we must identify the infection, repair the immune system and deal effectively with the identified pathogen.
Injury poses another stress trigger that may be difficult to resolve, depending on the seriousness of the injury. A “simple” injury such as a cut, uncomplicated break or similar may resolve quickly while the patient is well cared for so their stress response also resolves well.
Serious injury such as concussive head injury, severe limb or back injury or surgery for serious disorders such as cancer will trigger a significant stress response that may be very difficult to alleviate until the injury has healed. In cases where the injury takes years to heal, or may not be fully healed, stress-relieving strategies are very valuable, but we cannot claim that these will “heal the illness” as the injury is still present and affecting many aspects of the patient’s life.
The resources and strategies promoted to help us relieve stress are all very valuable but we cannot ignore the fact that our stress response is often triggered by many physical/health challenges that must be removed, repaired and resolved before we can claim to have healed stress.
John Coleman ND, June 2022