We never think Anxiety or our emotions cause body pain! But they do, here’s how!
“I’m as stiff as a board when I have to go in there and face them”. “I get tension headaches all the time from the stress”. “I feel weak at the knees”. “I get unexplained lower back pain”.
These are the type of things I hear in clinic all the time. The number of clients who I have seen who have unexplained physical complaints and body pain both astonishes me and at the same time doesn’t surprise me.
The surprising part to me is how often I hear it. So many clients have gone for physio, been rushed to the hospital or have been told after tests that nothing is wrong with them. Most people with panic attacks at first think they are legitimately dying during attacks.
The part that doesn’t surprise me is that there is so much confusion out there about body pain and the link to the mind. None of us are thought in school to associate what goes through our heads or our feelings with our bodies. But yet we are told to “suck it up”, “have a sniff upper lip” or to “stop belly aching” indicating some wisdom in our langauge that the body and feelings are linked.
I ask the reader now to stop to think about it: the body we have which carries us around day by day, sense it now. It takes the brunt of all of our stresses/anxieties, all of our pain and all of our fears. It is means through which we experience these phenomenon. It is where the damage is tolled.
The mind body:
We all may have heard the expression “I think therefore I am” coined by the philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes didn’t know what he was doing then, but he ended up creating (amongst other things) a divide in western medicine and thinking between the mind and the body.
I only have to think to be real. Feelings and the body don’t matter. They are weak and they certainly don’t affect one another. Statement like these and the beliefs attached to it have meant that we are poorly orientated in our society to the mind body connection. Religion with its sinful view of the body doesn’t help either.
Sure, we know that exercise is probably good for us mentally. But, we are slow to recognize how mental stress and pressure contributes to a sick and aching body and body pain.
Many clients I see end up with me as a last resort because the medical profession has told them that they are physically fine and “just” have anxiety. Yet they are not fine, they have headaches, back aches, chronic tensions, blurred vision and stiff necks.
This is because as I will discuss, stress, anxiety and emotional suppression erode the body. We don’t need to work a physically demanding job to work ourselves into an early grave! We supress and supress and supress until we fester with unexpressed emotions that rot us from the inside and keep us stuck.
Anxiety and Body Pain:
Anxiety is a sense of dread or panic that we can have because something is going wrong or making us uncomfortable.
Anxiety can be a reaction to certain people, situations, triggers and is really the manifestation of feelings that we cannot tolerate. When we feel any intolerable feeling, which could be embarrassment, our own lack of self-belief, shame, fear, loneliness, etc., we can’t handle them, so we start to panic.
How we panic is evolutionarily programmed in us as I’ve mentioned in other articles. All of us humans have a survival instinct that kicks in when the organism feels attacked. This is called the central nervous system.
The central nervous system is very good at telling us when it is time to run away from danger. So good in fact that it can be activated in micro seconds. When it is activated it sends signals from the brain to our entire body telling us it’s time to move. We enter fight or flight mode.
Our heart rate increases, our breathing deepens, our brain releases chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol to get us ready. Blood will run to our major extremities to get us ready to move. Our thinking will speed up and we can react at speeds much faster then normal.
The above response would be great if we were being chased by a wild animal or in a life and death situation. But with us humans we activate this system whenever we have unpleasant feelings, feel exposed or have uncertainty.
The problem here is that there is nowhere to run from these situations and in many cases the often-fallible images and stories we have in our head can ignite this system. When danger passes we have another system the para-sympathetic nervous system that calms us down with a counter cocktail of hormones.
This releases when danger passes, but anxiety about feelings and situations rarely tends to slow down and is always online. So now if we think about a motor left on at full speed all the time. What is going to happen to it eventually? That’s right, it is going to break down. The body is the same and body pain is just a sign of this wear and tear!
Emotions and the body:
We panic about our emotions when they break through our defences or are pulled up by triggers. But normally the body has ways of locking down our unwanted emotions.
If we think about it, where do we experience our emotions? In the body of course! We don’t tend to experience sadness in our brain, we experience it in our gut. We can have sad thoughts and feel sad. But we can also think about sad topics and not feel sad!
We feel Emotions in the body. Anger generally creeps up our back and into our fists. Sadness tends to mope around the tummy. Jealousy and shame tend to be emotions higher in the chest and sting a bit more.
When we are babies we automatically roll with our emotions and let the energy of them course through us. A baby has no filter. Yet as we grow up as children, we and especially boys are taught that certain emotions need to be curtailed.
It is not ok for us to cry, to get mad or to release it! We learn to hold it in. Ever heard the expression to “suck it up”? Our language contains many literal explanations of how our body is integral to how we feel.
If we have a zero tolerance for certain emotions, we let none of it through. If it was never okay to cry growing up, we learn to hold back the tears and continue to do so as an adult. The emotions are like a pulsing energy in us. Imagine the strain it places on the body to supress and to hold them back.
Most of us are not aware of it but we hold our guts, our backsides, our shoulders, our necks very tense to block the release of emotions. When we were small this had to become our default position and now we hold ourselves tight unconsciously the way a solider might automatically hold their back straight.
No Love for the body:
I think we all at some level know (or maybe we don’t) that emotional suppression is a bad idea. It leads to bottling it up, never getting over things, eventual out bursts and unbelievable stress on the body.
Anger held in the shoulders gives us tension headaches. Sadness and grief supressed in the tummy builds and builds. Uncomfortable emotions that bubble up get converted to anxiety because their mere presence is a threat to our survival.
Internal and external stress can mean we are on high alert all the time with high blood pressure and tension. While we go around doing our best to ignore it our bodies ache and suffer, unloved and punished.
To make matters worse many of us don’t like our bodies for how they look, or we don’t care what we put into them in terms of food, drugs and drink. The funny thing is that what we put into the body can lead to a numbing of the body temporarily. It can freeze the emotions or even give us a sense of fullness that we lacked.
Ultimately most of us are neglecting the body, especially those who need to care for it the most. The Anxious people out there.
Loving our bodies again:
Knowledge is power! Use the knowledge of this article to change the relationship with the body. It is not just a vehicle to move our brain around or some accessory we can either hide or show off. It is a map to our wellness and tells the story of our anxiety.
Our body will serve us, but they also warn us when things are not right. Getting back to listening to the body can be crucial in managing anxiety. Don’t wait until the body is screaming at us “no more” before heeding its messages and warnings. Check it for tensions: mindfulness body scans are amazing and can be found on YouTube.
If we know we suffer with anxiety related physical issues develop a good routine of stretching, yoga or exercise. Some people carry more stress than others, if we know that about ourselves do something about it! Take more care of the body!
The body is in some ways like a rope that can get knotted. If we let the knots build up the rope can’t be used. We need to check in with it and be kind to the body because it’s the only one we are going to get.
Having a proper relaxation routine is also key. Whether that is having a longer shower or all the way up to a luscious bath or massage: we can pamper the body and feel the tension fall away.
A proper bed time ritual giving ourselves enough time to relax properly is also important. Simple things like getting out in nature also help to destress the body.
Anxiety Help for the body:
While more relaxation or establishing more helpful patterns of behaviour will help with our tensions sometimes we need a little more help.
Unfortunately, stress, anxiety and repressed emotions are often personal patterns that we must change within ourselves. A bit like the way we do our accounts or manage our work day, sometimes we can make changes to how we process things internally. The little boy or girl who had to fear showing emotions doesn’t have to afraid anymore.
Distorted thinking or life long patterns of responding to stress often require a fresh approach to dealing with the feelings and the reactions. Talking through these concerns with a therapist is often a superb way to achieve balance.
I work from a holistic point of view and work with many clients on their physical concerns. Like anything worth doing facing difficult emotions will be hard. But the reward will be worth it! Believe me I know from personal experience!
Therapy is a great way to get to the bottom of these questions and at Anxiety Ireland, we have a team of accredited psychotherapists who work helping thousands of people with anxiety every year.
If curious about anxiety please feel free to visit our website, take our anxiety quiz or get anxiety help. On this page we will continue to write about Anxiety and related topics. We are always happy to answer messages to our page or I am happy to take calls/text to see how I can help: 087 063 0948.
Please like, comment and share if this was useful!
Team Anxiety Ireland
Anxiety is a merry-go-round, going nowhere fast, it’s ok to step off.