Any form of stress, whether it’s trauma from accidents, domestic violence, combat, assault, or childhood abuse, causes the brain and the body to change. Even stress from areas not commonly thought of as qualifying for a trauma response, such as long-term tension from relationships or work-related strain and frustrations, can cause the brain and body to become exhausted in ways similar to trauma.
When we’re under chronic stress, neural pathways in the body and brain become accustomed to high levels of tension and symptoms arise, such as poor memory, increased anxiety, fear or panic; strong emotional reactions, and difficulties with thinking, making decisions, and learning new tasks. Too much stress causes the brain to freeze and its growth to stop.
Depending on what has caused the stress, symptoms can continue even when the source of the problem is no longer present. For example, people whose work life is difficult or unsupportive can continue to feel work-related pressures and stresses when they aren’t at work, perhaps over the weekend or even years later. Or, someone with a childhood history of abuse, or an adult who had relationship violence in the past, can suddenly find themselves struggling with the same physical, mental, and emotional symptoms they thought were behind them.
During a traumatic event the innermost, or ‘reptilian’ part of the brain shifts the body into a reactive, survival mode. The sympathetic nervous system floods the body with stress hormones and the body protectively prepares to fight, flight, or freeze. The goal of counseling for stress, whether or not it rises to the level of PTSD, is to teach the brain (and therefore the body) that it can ‘rewire’ itself away from the stress response, and grow neural connections for a calmer response instead.
How do we rewire the brain/body/ to move away from the dysregulation of stress and build resilient responses? We literally take the nervous system back to school by teaching the brain and the body how it can choose a calmer, more regulated response rather than the dysregulation of distress, no matter if it’s old stress or something more recent. When we can control stress, brain growth returns.
Suggestions for Healing
In addition to psychotherapy for gaining insight into what's causing your stress and the impact it has on your body, below are some suggestions I make and strategies I offer in therapy:
* Psychotherapy helps you to reflect on where current feelings of strain and tension are coming from, and better understand how past experiences might be contributing to the symptoms. This combination of past and present empowers you to make different choices, so you might change the habits, people, and circumstances that are causing the stress. Interestingly, this process also supports memory and has a positive impact on emotions.
* Imagery, meditation, and hypnosis helps heal stress responses. These modalities allow the brain to practice experiencing a calm state so that new responses, a reduction in symptoms, and resiliency are possible.
* Aerobic exercise, which has been called miracle grow for the brain, pumps more blood to the brain and helps it manage stress and depression by making cell growth and neural connections stronger.
* Weight training improves cognitive functioning by helping with decision-making, resolving conflicts, and sharpening focus.
* As with exercise, mindfulness meditation supports memory while quieting the noise from the amygdala, the emotion center in the brain. 5 minutes a day of breath meditation (following your breath) helps build a sense of determination and thickens the cerebral cortex. It's a powerful workout for the brain.
* Here is a quick breathing exercise that resets the amygdala: Breathe in for 4 counts; hold for 7 counts, then breath out for 8 counts.
You are unique, and your healing will be specific to you. There is no typical therapy or certainty for what will work, because each person requires different psychotherapy and modalities. All the same, research points out that when individuals commit themselves to practices of exploration and trying out options, over a period of time the symptoms of distress can be reduced and at times eliminated.
How Does Healing Happen?
While symptoms of stress, trauma, and depression cause symptoms that can seem disastrous and representative of permanent damage, the truth is that as long as there are no underlying medical conditions, all of these stress-related changes in the brain and body can be dramatically reduced if not eliminated. The brain can learn to relax again; memory can improve, and the body can return to an ease between reacting and restoring itself. The answer to achieving a state of peace and quiet so that healing is possible can be found in rewiring the body and brain, and changing the thoughts and beliefs we hold in the mind.
The mind, brain and body all naturally collaborate with each other, and the variety of healing practices specific to each are extensive. For example, EMDR, guided visualizations, and exposure therapies can teach the brain (and the body) to release trauma and stress responses while also changing your perspective. In addition, mindfulness, meditation, cognitive therapies such as CBT, and breath work all help the mind and body to work together so that both can return to balance.