How would you know if buried stress adversely affects your health?

Most of us know what feelings we have each day, right? Happiness, relief, sadness, shock, frustration, anger. But what about the underlying stuff that’s elusive, that’s deep in the body and denied access to the surface by an overactive mind?

An overactive mind can cause its own problems. These three-pound organs of nerve endings can put us into a stress response by creating habits, like:

  • Looking for something to worry about
  • Focusing on the negative
  • Rerunning old conversations, or rehearsing ones yet to occur
  • Counting stuff for no purpose
  • Constantly chattering in our head, drowning out our feelings
  • Catastrophizing for no reason (worrying about impending car crashes, attacks by wild animals, disaster lurking around the next corner)

These are some things I’ve experienced, and it takes a conscious awareness to quiet the mind and learn to just “be.”

I should point out that I’m only an expert on my own experiences, and not an accredited counsellor. But the way I determined that I suffer from emotional diabetes was deliberate, and I now know I have more knowledge about my own body and its responses than the professionals do. I am also my body’s greatest advocate.

A counsellor once said to me, “Use your brain for something that is useful and not to put yourself in a stress response.” Those are wise words, yet suggest a course of action that’s difficult to do.

I was diagnosed with diabetes almost 20 years ago after routine mid-life blood tests. I felt well, had no symptoms of anything. Yet the A1C blood test was at 9%, a sign that I had been diabetic for some time. Some research indicates that diabetes lurks under the surface for 15 or more years before diagnosis. So I may well have been diabetic for all my adult life. How crazy is that?

Later, bestselling author Gabor Maté asked me, “Did your doctor ever ask you about childhood neglect or trauma?” I said no. The idea seemed preposterous, but I really didn’t understand what emotional neglect even was. Maté asked me about my childhood, and one of the things I divulged, with a laugh, was how Mom would threaten to hit me with the wooden spoon.

“How did that feel to you as a child, that your mother would want to hit you?” he asked.

And then my adult self remembered the terror I felt as a child. It’s confusing when a child’s main support would threaten to hurt the child. That’s not love. That’s not compassion. It’s the actions of a frustrated parent.

Maybe you experienced something similar. It may seem preposterous that one of your parents used threats of violence to bring you in line, but do you remember the fear you felt back then? You may laugh about it now but I hope you have come to realize that parenting can damage a child’s psyche when violence is used as a threat.

My parents raised me to suppress anger, sadness and grief because they themselves did the same. This creates a dynamic that sets the stage for the onset of depression, anxiety and a host of autoimmune illnesses. (I’m not an expert — check the research.)

One seemingly great way to suppress our uncomfortable feelings are intoxicants. I drank alcohol for years, and only quit for good three years ago. Those bad emotions are still elusive, but I’m coaxing them back into my consciousness.

One of my mentors, Brené Brown, says “You cannot numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.”

I think this is true. Alcohol helps us to reinforce those unfortunate lessons we learned from parents. Our emotions hide in the body, creating migraines and ulcers and lingering sadness.

So back to the topic. How do you know if your body’s buried stress is affecting your health? For me, it was a Dexcom glucose meter that rang with an alarm every time my body underwent a seismic emotional event. These are things I cannot otherwise feel. I have to reflect on what just happened that made my fight-or-flight hormone, cortisol, jump into action. You’ll see in an earlier post of a recent time, relaxing on a lake, that prompted an unexpected glucose spike.

For you, it may be a sudden headache, an urge to drink alcohol or use drugs, a pain in the gut — or your mind going back to the distant past — to realize your body is trying to tell you something.

The Adverse Childhood Event study has a quiz you might want to look at. Each question points to a different kind of trauma. Whatever your score is, don’t worry. Just be aware that your health may be telling you (or tell you in the future) that these childhood traumas may surface in the form of illness.

By the way, Gabor Maté’s new book The Myth of Normal was released this week. You might want to check it out. I found his earlier book, When the Body Says No, to be life-changing.

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