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  • Writer's pictureAbi Sims

When Your Body Yells at You: Understanding the Stress Disease Response in Trauma

We've all been there: days that feel like weeks, trying to manage our workload while raising children or caring for our families, fighting through seasonal sicknesses and doing our best just to get by, on top of maybe having the very occasional time to delve into hobbies we genuinely enjoy doing for fun...but are rarely able to do because we're prioritized ourselves last on the totem pole of importance.

While the work grind and 'hustle culture' has been an acceptable way to live life for decades, we're discovering how taxing and harmful it is to constantly live in a state of stress. When we're stressed, our nervous system begins operating from a place of hyperarousal, which means we enter into one of the 4F trauma responses (fight, flight, fawn, and/or freeze). Hyperarousal is a heightened state of alertness and physiological activation.

Our bodies are always communicating with us. When we're feeling anxious, we might experience a stomach ache or heart palpitations. When we're frustrated or angry, we might experience a pulsating headache or tension in the neck. When we're feeling sad, we might experience a deep ache in our chest. For many, it's typical to feel the physical symptom first before the emotion that's causing the symptom due to living in a state of disconnect from our bodies. Instead of listening to our bodies when we feel something wrong, we keep pushing through, and maybe take an Advil to relieve the pain or some Peptobismal to relieve the indigestion.

But these bandaids of relief come at a major cost.

Our longterm health.

Health Effects of Prolonged Stress/Hyperarousal

When someone remains in a prolonged state of stress, there are potential consequences that affect us physically, psychologically, and behaviorally.

  • Cardiovascular Issues: Chronic hyperarousal can lead to increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and changes in blood flow patterns, which can contribute to the development of cardiovascular disorders like hypertension, heart disease, and strokes.

  • Suppression of the Immune System: Prolonged activation of the stress response suppressed the immune system, making people more susceptible to infections, autoimmune disorders, and delayed wound healing. Have you ever gotten sick immediately after recovering from a stressful life event? This is why!

  • Gastrointestinal Issues: Hyperarousal disrupts digestive processes, leading to symptoms like abdominal pain, indigestion, diarrhea, or constipation. Long-term stress has also been linked to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

  • Sleep Disturbances: Chronic hyperarousal interferes with the body's ability to relax and get restorative sleep, leading to insomnia, fragmented sleep patterns, and sleep disorders like sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome.

  • Anxiety Disorders: Anxiety disorders, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder are closely associated to a nervous system remaining in prolonged hyperarousal. Persistent feelings of apprehension, worry, and hypervigilance tend to characterize these conditions.

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder & Complex Trauma (PTSD): People who have experienced trauma may develop PTSD or C-PTSD (complex trauma) characterized by intrusive thoughts, flashbacks (emotional flashbacks for C-PTSD), and intense physiological reactions to trauma-related stimuli. Hyperarsoual is a core symptom of PTSD and C-PTSD, contributing to heightened emotional distress and reactivity.

  • Depression: Chronic stress can increase the risk of developing depression. The dysregulation of stress hormones, like cortisol, may contribute to alterations in mood regulation and neurobiological processes associated with depression.

  • Cognitive Impairment: Prolonged hyperarousal can impair cognitive function, including attention, concentration, memory, and decision-making abilities. Chronic stress may lead to structural and functional changes in the brain, particularly in regions involved in learning and memory (the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex).

  • Impaired Coping Skills: Chronic stress can compromise your ability to cope effectively with stressors, leading to maladaptive coping strategies, like substance abuse, avoidance behaviors, or aggression.

  • Social Withdrawal: Hyperarousal is associated with anxiety or irritability that could lead you to withdraw from social interactions, causing isolation from sources of connection and support.

  • Work & Relationship Dysfunction: Prolonged stress and hyperarousal strains relationships, impairs work performance, and undermines overall quality of life. Difficulties in communication, emotional regulation, and problem-solving are common, contributing to interpersonal conflict and overall dissatisfaction.

Heath Effects: One Step Further

The relationship between hyperarousal and chronic illnesses, like cancer, is complex and multifaceted, and it involves various behavioral, biological, and psychological factors. Research does suggest that chronic stress and hyperarousal can contribute to the development of the progression of certain types of cancer and chronic illnesses.

Our mind and body work as one. Psychological factors, like stress, emotions, and beliefs, play a significant role in the development and progression of disease. Chronic stress and emotional repression can contribute to inflammation, immune dysregulation, and neuroendocrine imbalances.

  • Immune System Dysregulation: Chronic stress and hyperarousal dysregulate the immune system, leading to decreased immune function and a decreased ability for your body to protect itself against cancerous cells. Stress-induced alterations in immune cell activity and the body's inflammatory response creates an environment conducive to tumor growth and metastasis. Studies have shown that stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can suppress immune cell function, inhibit cell death in cancer cells, and promote the formation of new blood vessels to support tumor growth.

  • Inflammation & Oxidative Stress: Chronic stress and hyperarousal are associated with increased inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which are involved in cancer development and progression. Inflammatory processes and oxidative damage can contribute to DNA mutations, instability of genomes, and alterations in cellular function.

  • Epigenetic Modifications: Emerging, exciting evidence suggests that chronic stress and hyperarousal can induce epigenetic changes, which are alternations in gene expression patterns that don't involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence. Stress-induced epigenetic modifications may influence gene regulation in ways that promote cancer and metastasis.

Listening to Our Bodies When They Talk

Gabor Mate, a renowned Canadian physician and author, has extensively explored the connection between trauma and disease in his work. He emphasizes that our early-life experiences have a profound impact on us, and that adverse childhood events and chronic stress play a major role on physical and mental health outcomes.

Through Mate's research, we're able to physically see how unresolved trauma lies at the root of many chronic health conditions, including autoimmune diseases, addiction, mental illness, and cancer. Trauma, whether experienced in childhood or adulthood, can dysregulate the body's stress response systems, leading to long-term physiological and psychological consequences.

To heal, Mate advocates for a holistic approach that addresses the underlying emotional, psychological, and social factors contributing to illness. Rather than solely focusing on managing symptoms, he emphasizes the importance of understanding the root causes of disease and promoting self-awareness, self-compassion, and relational healing. Mindfulness, authenticity, and connection to others in health relationships helps us explore the motional and relational dimensions of an illness, uncovering unconscious patterns of behavior and developing healthier coping strategies that foster resilience and well-being along the way.

To learn more about the stress-disease connection and Gabor Mate's work, click here.


At Root Counseling, we care about the whole person and are dedicated to helping clients connect back to their mind & body so they can heal. To schedule a session with one of our therapists, you can click here.

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