The Physical Consequences of Thought
Do stories arise from your physical sensations?
I’d like you to bring your attention to the physical sensations that are constantly arising within your body. I want you to feel the
itches, the squeezes or cramps, all the sensations of pressure, the fluttering or burning sensations. I want you to note whether you’re hungry, tired, or in pain and if so, where. Just pay attention to your body for a moment.
Set your timer again for a quick two minutes. Close your eyes and notice your physical sensations.
Your body is alive with activity and there are always multiple sensations that are occurring without you even being aware of them. When you bring your awareness to your body, you can quickly appreciate the constant physical activity that is present.
Normally your brain receives these many superficial and perfectly normal physical sensations and in effect, filters them out so that they don’t reach your conscious awareness. In other words, they just don’t bother you. However, there are some individuals, like my patient Larry for example, whose filtering mechanisms are not as effective, or who have a heightened awareness of normal or mildly abnormal sensations and may be extra-aware of them on a regular basis. This is known as hypervigilance and often leads to anxiety and exhaustion.
Completely normal sensations encourage Larry to believe that there is something physically wrong with him. His interpretation of these normal sensations, in other words, the story he tells himself in response to these sensations, gives rise to the emotion of anxiety. The anxiety in turn, encourages Larry to focus even more on the physical sensations, thereby providing additional causes for concern. Larry often gets caught in this loop of his own making without even knowing it, but the end result is genuine physical harm resulting from the ongoing stress and anxiety.
Often, you create stories from the physical sensations you experience. As I mentioned earlier, my patient Mika has Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which is a functional gastrointestinal disorder. In response to the abdominal pain, Mika believed that she had bowel cancer at first, which is another example of thinking of the worst possible outcome! Naturally, her stress levels went through the roof in response to this thought, which then further aggravated her condition. When she finally came in to see me she was quite convinced that she was on her deathbed and it took a lot of reassurance to persuade her that she was not.
Frequently, people with chest pain may believe that they’re having a heart attack. People with mild headaches may believe that they’re having a stroke. All of these stories create emotional responses. People don’t just experience physical sensations. They usually experience sensations through the filters of their own reactive stories and emotions. These stories and their accompanying emotions can be more painful than the original physical sensation itself!
Here’s another adventure.
Set your timer for a two-minute peak into your mind. Close your eyes and focus on the physical sensations arising in your body once again. This time, see if there are any stories emerging about, or from, the sensations that you’re experiencing. Are there any thoughts of anxiety, curiosity or concern that develop because of the sensations? Return to the book when you’re done.
Can you recall any previous events where you had some troubling concerns over a physical sensation that you were experiencing? Were you worried that there was something medically serious going on?
So now you’ve seen that physical sensations can trigger your own story production line to kick into gear, which can then trigger your emotions. Now I’d like to re-examine the idea, presented in chapter one, that your body also responds to thoughts and emotions by producing physical sensations.
Do physical sensations arise from your thoughts?
Dr. Hans Selyé, a pioneering researcher in the field of biological stress, was instrumental in defining something he called the “stress response.” This response demonstrates how there is an intimate connection between the mind and the body.
Your body responds to a perceived threat by initiating a series of physiological events that researchers call an alarm reaction. This is your body’s first step in dealing with something that your mind tells you is dangerous. Your brain activates a specific branch of your nervous system, called the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn causes your hypothalamus and pituitary glands to release certain substances. These substances stimulate the adrenal glands to release adrenalin and cortisol. Both adrenalin and cortisol race through your body to prepare you to either fight or run away.
This “fight or flight response” results in your heart beating faster, your blood vessels constricting causing your blood pressure to go up, your lungs expanding, your pupils dilating, and your muscles energizing. You’re instantly more alert. Once the perceived threat is over your body returns to normal.
However, with chronic stress, that is to say if you think the danger never seems to go away and there is always one threat or another, your body enters a Stage of Resistance. Your body starts to adapt to the chronic stress by increasing the production of several hormones such as cortisol, growth hormone, aldosterone and thyroid hormone. These hormones begin to use up your energy reserves, keeping you on alert.
Real problems occur when your body can’t keep it all up any more and you enter the Stage of Exhaustion. In this stage you start to experience long-lasting injuries to multiple organs. The chronic overdrive of hormones leads to depression, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, cancer, gastrointestinal disease, headache, sleep disorders, an increased risk of infection, and muscle wasting with fatigue. The Stress Response that was initially your mind’s attempt at dealing with perceived danger, when left unchecked, ultimately causes chronic injury. Chronic stress can really hurt your body!
There is a definite, intimate connection between your mind and your body. I see this relationship all the time in my office. Patients come to see me with physical complaints. When I inquire as to whether or not there was anything different that was going on in their lives prior to the onset of their symptoms there is a very common response. They say that they were experiencing increased stress.
The stress might be from family, relationships, work, or financial issues. However, people often fail to draw a connection between their stress and their physical illnesses. When you understand that stress can cause real physical symptoms you can begin to direct your problem-solving energy toward the true cause of a problem. An important question to ask yourself if you’re experiencing physical symptoms is simply, “Could stress be part of this?”
Larry, as I mentioned before, has Crohn’s disease, and that means his own immune system attacks his small and/or large bowel and it becomes inflamed. He has to watch his diet, get enough sleep and generally do everything he can to take care of himself or his Crohn’s flares up. When he’s under too much stress, he gets headaches and stomach troubles at first. If he paid enough attention, he could work on his stress when these early warning bells told him to. If he doesn’t listen, often his Crohn’s disease is the next thing to act up and he pays the price.
My patient Mika first noticed her stress when she couldn’t sleep very well. Some nights she couldn’t get to sleep, others, she’d wake up after only a few hours and watch the time tick by through the night. Mika and her worries weren’t getting much rest. Her mother had contacted her from Thailand to say that her sister was very sick and needed expensive treatments. Mika, already supporting the family, tried to take on an additional part-time job but there were not enough hours in the day and the extra work began to take a toll on her marriage. Relationship conflicts became more frequent and she noticed that she was tired all the time. By the time her diarrhea started, she had been living under extreme stress for months.
Now back to you. Try this experiment. Think of a recent situation that was very stressful. As you start to think about it, allow yourself to feel the sensations in your body. What’s happening to your breathing? Is it shallow? Deep? Or does it stop at times? Are you sweating? Is your heart beating faster? Do you have scrunched up shoulders, or clenched fists? Are you frowning? Is your stomach in a knot?
Set your timer for two minutes. Close your eyes to focus and notice if there are any physical sensations in response to a stressful memory. Return to the book right after your two minutes are up. You don’t want to dwell in stress-ville any longer than you have to!
The physical changes that you can see on the outside in terms of body posture, expression and tension are paralleled by changes that you can’t see on the inside of your body.
Next think about a situation that gave you great pleasure. Where do you feel the sensation in your body? What’s its nature? What’s happening to your breath? Does your body feel tight or relaxed?
Set your timer for the usual two-minute exploration. Close your eyes and notice if there are any physical sensations in response to a pleasant memory.
We all have our own unique ways of expressing stress in our bodies. For some it can be a racing heart, sweating, headache, back spasm, restlessness, abdominal cramping, or diarrhea. What’s your characteristic physical pattern of dealing with stress? Take a moment to write down some of the things you notice about your body when you’re stressed.
Chronic stress can be deadly. There is a definite mind-body connection. Your thoughts can lead to stress and physical consequences. A more relaxed body can quiet your mind and of course a more relaxed mind can make you feel better. It’s encouraging to know that you can break the cycle of thoughts → stress → physical problems by learning how to better deal with your stress and turn off its damaging cascade of hormones. When you recognize the damaging effects of stress on your body, hopefully it will be motivating for you to genuinely commit to learning and practicing the stress-reduction techniques presented throughout the book.
- When you become aware of a physical sensation, take a moment and try to focus your attention on it. Allow yourself to fully experience it.
- Try to identify any stories arising in response to the sensation.
- Try to identify if there was a story or emotion present just prior to the physical sensation.
- Your body is constantly alive with sensations.
- Thoughts and emotions produce physical sensations.
- Physical sensations also lead to thoughts and emotions.
- There is a mind-body connection and recognizing your own symptoms of stress early will help you avoid its physical consequences.
- Less stress = Less pain!
- A calm mind leads to a calm body. A calm body leads to a calm mind.