Some Observations on the Physical Effects of Stress by a Counsellor – Christine Bennett
The effects of stress are very often listed in leaflets, books and websites under headings such as “Emotional/Psychological”, “Behavioural” and “Physical”. Often, the physical effects are explained as being the result of adrenaline being released into the body by the autonomic nervous system to enable us to deal with a threat to our wellbeing by reacting by “flight” or “fight”- but this is only part of the picture.
We all have had those moments in life when that rush of adrenaline serves the same useful purpose that it did for our cave dwelling ancestors long ago; we are able to rush out of the path of a speeding car more quickly than we thought we were ever able to or we even find strength from nowhere that allows us to fight off a would be mugger or lift a heavy item that must be moved to save a life. Most of the time though, our stresses in life are very much modern-day stresses; too many things to do at once in too little time, with all, or many, of those things involving mental rather than physical effort. A certain amount of anxiety leading to some adrenaline release is helpful if, for example, it helps us to finally settle down to revising for an exam or to prepare for a job interview, but too much and for too long is not a good thing at all.
If adrenaline cannot be used to effectively sort out the stress immediately and finally by the physical actions of flight and flight, the range of changes it creates in the body have no practical use. These, instead, create those physical effects that appear in lists in books and articles about stress. The list of ways that adrenaline can affect us physically includes low energy, headaches, nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, aches and pains, tense muscles, chest pain and rapid heartbeat, insomnia, frequent cold and infections, loss of sexual desire and/or ability, shaking, ringing in the ears, cold or sweaty hands and feet, excess sweating, dry mouth and difficulty swallowing, clenched jaw and teeth grinding. It’s quite a list!
It’s worth mentioning at this point that in addition to the “flight” and “flight” responses that we learned about in biology at school there is also “freeze”. This sometimes occurs if we see a situation as hopeless, nothing can be done to escape the situation and we “freeze” in the same way as a rabbit caught in the headlights.
Going back to the physical effects, they correspond directly to the changes in the body caused by adrenaline that fit us for fight or flight reactions. This seems like a reasonable explanation as we read about the physical effects of stress while in a relatively non-stressed state on our sofa with a cup of tea or coffee to hand. We can see the logical link between physical symptoms and the actions of the autonomic nervous system.
However, during of great stress, it might be very difficult for an individual to link his or her physical symptoms, which can be surprisingly severe, to stress. Instead the symptoms are likely to become further causes of stress; “Not only am I being made redundant and my child has health problems but I’m having palpitations- I’m heading for a heart attack too!”
Remember, a ‘bad patch’ is sometimes not one where one big horrible thing is happening, but one where lots of stresses are in operation all at the same time. If there is only one big difficulty then all efforts can be put into addressing it. The person understands clearly what his or her problem is and may seek help and support in various ways, including arranging counselling sessions. Lots of problems together, even if smaller, can create much more of a challenge.
For example, teachers accessing counselling may have health or personal life difficulties that are not the worst that can be imagined but they come on top of a working life that is extremely demanding of time, professional skills and emotional energy. The new problem is the “last straw” for someone who has been ‘just managing’, perhaps for a very long time.
Let’s look at some of the theory behind counselling that is helpful in understanding the effects of stress.
However, many people who seek counselling have a whole range of issues, big and small, appearing as figures in their perceptual field. This seems to be a much more difficult situation to be in and, as each individual problem is not seen as a big one, the physical effects of stress can seem inexplicable to some people.
Also, there are aspects of the overall perceptual field that we are not of. Psychodynamic talk of denial, a mental defence mechanism in which some aspects of present or past experience are denied to the conscious mind. This is one of many mental defence mechanisms theorised by Sigmund Freud. In denial, experiences that would be too distressing are just not seen or remembered and therefore the person is protected from them. A stronger version is repression; sometimes people who have been abused in childhood have no clear recollection of it, only a bad feeling triggered by some physical locations or situations. . In both cases, the mind ensures that the person is protected from something that would cause them great distress.
Psychodynamic counsellors believe that denied experiences will resurface in way in behaviour or in the physical self, through the “mind-body connection” and person-centred counsellors believe that the mind and body work together, with physiological processes reflecting psychological ones.
Person-centred counsellors believe that some aspects of the perceptual field are not available to the client as they do not fit with the person’s self-concept. These denied experiences are not seen as helpful however, as is the case in mental defence mechanisms, because the denied and distorted experiences help form a less healthy self-concept that is not based on a true experience of life. For example, a mother who sees herself as always loving and patient may deny that there are times when she dislikes her child or feels angry with him. Dislike and anger are not part of her self-concept so she does not accept her feelings. She does not think about them or talk about them so cannot resolve them by understanding that they were reasonable feelings or by explaining and apologising to her child. Instead she convinces herself that the child was naughty, as this would be an acceptable situation in which to shout at the child. Her relationship with her child will therefore be influenced.
Individuals come to counselling with various emotional “presenting issues” and accompanying physical symptoms of stress. They describe the experiences and problems that they are acutely aware of in their counselling and, as the sessions progress, come to mention other experiences that were not seen as important. Some of these “unimportant” experiences can be quite surprising in that others would find them difficult to ignore, for example, the death of an elderly parent or being the victim of a crime of violence.
What these clients often do remark on however, well before these neglected major life experiences are mentioned (and eventually accepted as having an influence on mental well-being), are “lumpy” or “knotty” feelings in the chest, itchy skin, existing skin problems becoming worse, existing medical conditions becoming worse, and headaches. The individual may appear pale and tired looking and there is often a big contrast between the physical appearance of the client at the start of a series of counselling sessions and his or her appearance at the end. Not only is the person often dressing with much more care and paying more attention to hair and nails by the end of a series of counselling sessions, but there is a spring to the step and a happier, more relaxed facial expression.
Responses to stress can be labelled as “anxiety” and anxiety can be seen as a psychiatric condition when it becomes persistent or occurs frequently, therefore interfering with everyday life. Again, there are physical symptoms which include those already listed and more.
The more frightening of these include difficulty swallowing, numbness, tingling sensations, hot flushes and cold chills, palpitations, shortness of breath, choking sensations and lumps in the throat. Imagine how the anxiety would get worse because of the physical symptoms.
Top Tips for Recognising Stress
There are a great many books and ebooks about stress symptoms, dealing with stress and the mind body connection from Amazon but free resources are available from:
Public Health England- One You
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP)
Christine Bennett is a practicing counsellor and counselling supervisor, based in the North West of England. She has a particular interest in person-centred counselling and trauma. Her wide background experience includes seventeen years’ experience as an external quality assurer and chief quality assurer and over twenty years’ experience in further education, delivering counselling, psychology and mental health courses. She is an RMN and holds an MSc. in Counselling Studies. Christine also provides CPD workshops in the North West.