As a Physiotherapist, coming across the concept that chronic pain and other persistent conditions were psychophysiological, or stress-induced, was not as big a surprise as you would expect because I had been questioning things for so long. In fact it was an epiphany as the ‘pieces of the jigsaw’ finally fitted together and I could understand why physical treatment for chronic pain rarely did more than just help people manage their pain.
One of the main causes of stress-induced health problems is past unresolved emotional turmoil. This could be due to stress or trauma in adulthood, but often also includes adverse childhood experiences, which numerous studies since the late 1990s have shown to increase the risk of ill health in later life.
Another significant cause is the stress we experience in our current lives. Interestingly though, only 10% of the stress we perceive is believed to be due to what’s happening and 90% how we deal with it! One study showed that it’s possible to predict with approximately 90% accuracy who would develop whiplash after a placebo (pretend crash which could not cause any tissue damage) by their personality profile! This makes sense if you consider how much self-induced stress can be caused by being a people-pleaser, worried what others think of you, overly analytical, perfectionist, self-critical etc.
Thankfully though, self-awareness and using self-empowering strategies can really help reduce self-induced stress. Also as this TED talk explains. studies have shown that by reappraising our body’s response to stress and seeing it as healthy and just our body preparing us for ‘action’, this can actually result in positive changes in the body, including improved cardiac efficiency and lower blood pressure.
One aspect of the SIRPA recovery programme suggest people consider what areas of their lives are causing them stress or creating resistance in their daily lives. Understanding how current issues are affecting us can help us consider what we could do to not just improve the situation or make it easier, but adapt and deal with it better emotionally. Often resisting a difficult situation or person can cause huge amounts of stress.
In fact if we cannot change a situation or someone else, then all we can do is look at what we can do ourselves to reduce our perceived stress. In other words, accepting we cannot change the other person or the situation and learning to adapt to it/them, can actually help reduce the stress we ourselves perceive.
This is something that is very relevant in my own life at the moment, which is why I decided to write this blog now. I am writing this while sitting in the garden with my Mother in Law who was recently diagnosed with Altzheimers/dementia which has been deteriorating significantly over the past few weeks and months. My Mother in Law has always been a very proud lady and kept a spotless house and she was always immaculately dressed, so watching her lose the ability to look after herself is very sad, especially for her children.
The reason I mention this particular situation is that apart from certain things that can be done to help, this is a situation that will only get worse, no matter what we do. It has been very hard to see her like this, but resisting the fact that she is deteriorating and expecting everything to be as usual when we visited was initially causing more stress to my husband. Once he accepted that a lot of his stress was not just due to the situation but his response to it, he was more able to accept things as they are and immediately found the situation easier to deal with, no matter what condition he finds his Mother and the house when he visits.
This not only helped him, but their relationship and his Mother’s peace of mind. Now when he can he makes a real effort to spend time with her to just be with her in the moment. Watching her eyes light up as he knelt next to her the other night while they chatted was wonderful and I know he will treasure these moments for a long time. Accepting the situation and learning to adapt to it and the ongoing changes is helping my husband deal with what is still a very distressing situation for all of us, but it is helping him reduce the additional stress that not accepting it was causing.
Any change in our lives, as well as a difficult situation or person, can cause stress but it is how we react to it that affects whether it is perceived to be a threat or not and how much stress we perceive. Being able to cope better with the day to day stressors in our lives could well mean the difference between being able to improve or maintain our mental, physical and emotional health and wellbeing or the unresolved emotional turmoil building up and manifesting as symptoms.
Acknowledging how we feel is important, but then focusing on the solution rather than the problem will help us as we face, and learn from, the challenges that inevitably come our way. This is not always easy and I have lots of occasions when I personally have had to remind myself of this lesson again!
Georgie Oldfield MCSP
Physiotherapist & Founder of SIRPA
If you feel you could do with some guidance in your recovery, I offer some free 15 minute telephone consultations which you can book via this link.