Psychological Stress & Physical Tensions
How does stress affect the body? We basically have three main stress factors that are within our circle of influence: our psychology, our nutrition, and our environment, in that order.
We tend to reduce the factors leading up to a physical symptom. If we “slip” our back we place the cause for that misstep on a sports session, or associate a headache or upset stomach with something we have ingested. Often, we fail to see that we lost our optimum resilience somewhere along the line and a pain that shows up is just the last drop in the bucket; but how do disease, discomfort and pain symptoms set in? Is it possible to lay out a basic functioning of well-being and what mechanisms are involved when we deviate from it?
Various pains are often felt in the musculoskeletal system. When symptoms start appearing in the digestive, nervous and/or endocrine system it generally means they have become chronic and are, therefore, all the more dangerous. Pain doesn’t just appear in the musculoskeletal system– think of back, neck, hip, wrist and shoulder pains. There tends to already be a toxic build-up, through emotional stress, nutrition, or environment, which has put things off balance.
Any toxic build-up will most likely collect first in the digestive system and the nervous system. As our organs are for the most part sensory innervated (afferent nerves), pain isn’t usually felt unless things are really wrong. What does happen is that organs under stress lose their movement in relation to surrounding structures; this puts strain and tension on the nerves that innervate them and inhibits their own inherent movement. This, in turn, creates tension patterns which result in referred pains appearing somewhere else in the body.
To illustrate this with an example: When the liver becomes congested and its mobility is inhibited, it puts strain on the nerves that innervate the liver, the vagus nerve and indirectly the phrenic nerve, resulting in pain in the middle and upper neck and possibly spreading towards the shoulder or wrist on the right side. This causes strain on the connective tissue ligaments towards the stomach, right kidney and diaphragm, reduce optimal functioning of these structures and most likely, in the first stages, show up as pain between the lower end of the should blades.
The liver has innervations also through the hepatic plexus connecting to the thoracic vertebrae 7 to 10, again the region between the shoulder blades.
So pain is reported in the mid-back and mid-neck, but we can see from this example that there are other factors at play. Psychologically and energetically a congested liver relates to unresolved issues of anger, irritability and/or indecisiveness.
When we happen to feel emotionally “low” we also tend to eat food which resonates with our state, thereby furthering toxic build up through nutrition. As the liver and kidneys are main organs in cleansing and detoxing the body, they are most likely to be the first in line to be affected by multiple pathological symptoms ensuing from them.
The kidneys are supported by two core muscles, the psoas and quadratus lumborum, that are concerned with posture, pelvic and back stability, and which indirectly affect breathing.
Energetically and psychologically kidneys relate to deep energy storage: sexuality and deeper fear issues. Tension build-up in the kidneys would result in tension build-up in these core muscles, the psoas and quadratus lumborum, which in turn would result in lower back pains, constriction in breathing, and change in overall posture. If one kidney is more affected then the other, this would show up as pain on one side of the lower back, unequal hips, and one leg that “appears” to be shorter.
The body will try to compensate and give support as much as it can by tensing various muscles till the system is required to compromise too much. When pains start to show, it is our wake-up call to take action.
Pain that is felt in the musculoskeletal system is often referred pain coming from congestion of an organ which in turn is directly related to lifestyle; your psychology, nutrition, and environment. From a nutritional point of view, I would say the liver and kidneys are the first to be affected by a toxic build up. From there, symptoms could divert to other organs. You can’t, however, really separate nutrition from two other main factors; your psychology and environment. That’s where it becomes a bit more complicated as there can be multiple factors at play. For example, someone can have a healthy diet, exercise regime and live in good circumstances, but holds on to a past trauma which affects the large intestine, resulting in chronic back aches. Psychologically the large intestine is related to either letting go or holding on to something.
Or one is fairly emotionally stable, eats healthily but happens to live close to a waste-processing plant and develops skin and lung problems.
More often, however, especially in our current society, we are affected on all three levels. We are exposed to food that is toxic or has little nutritional value, our environment is not natural and exposes us to high levels of stress and radiation, and psychologically we tend to avoid issues rather than deal with them.
All this can lead to a complex build up of pathological symptoms. If we would assume though that a somewhat intelligent human being can see that nutrition and environment directly affects his well-being and would do his utmost to take care of these areas in his life, we are still left with taking care of our mental-emotional well-being.
Is it possible to find a pattern or a red line indicating how your psychology and psychological stress affects the body? And what would that look like?
It seems like our troubles start on a heart-felt level. Literally! The heart is vital as an organ, pumping oxygen rich blood throughout the system, but it has more functions than just that. Every mental-emotional state reflects and impacts on the heart and the heart area. An emotionally dysfunctional heart is a lonely heart.
A vibrant, live, energized heart is compassionate and caring. Sorrow and grief are directly felt in the area but relate intrinsically to the lungs. The heart takes the first impact of any psychological stress or imbalance and from there passes it on to the respective organ that deals best with it.
It leads us to question firstly; what do we consider as imbalance – from a psychological point of view? And secondly what effect has it on the physical organ, the heart, and surrounding structures. In Chinese medicine the meridian called the heart protector relates in western medicine to the pericardium – a connective tissue structure that surrounds the heart. The pericardium rests on the central tendon of the diaphragm, connects to the spine and ribcage, and on through the mediastinum to the lungs.
The thymus gland, a highly important gland of the immune system, rests on the upper portion of the heart. A continued mental-emotional imbalance would put a strain on the heart-protector, the pericardium, and impact the functioning of the heart. Continuous stress could thicken and tense up the pericardium and put strain on the surrounding structures. It would affect the diaphragm and lungs and is often felt as a weight on the chest as well as negatively affecting the immune system through the thymus.
Tension which builds up in the heart and the pericardium would also transfer to the spine and can displace one or several vertebrae in the mid-thoracic area. Any vertebrae that is out of alignment will have a knock on effect on the whole spine but especially on the first and last vertebrae, lumbar five and cervical one (atlas), as they will try to compensate for tensions elsewhere. This would explain why headaches and lower-back problems are not just local phenomena!
I would even go as far as to say that anatomically our heart ought to be more to the centre from where it is habitually – which is slightly towards the left. This in turn brings us back to our first question: what do we consider as imbalance? Leaving aside that we go through cycles of emotional upheaval – is our constant internal dialogue a normal state of mind just because it is a common affliction of mankind? And what are the repercussions of having a ‘monkey mind’ which appears to be pre-dominantly left brain hemisphere orientated?
Can we from here connect psychology, brain functioning and the impact it has on the heart? From neuro-science research it is clear that we do not have full conscious access to the whole capacity of our brain. It is only at certain times that we have ‘little’ breakthroughs and we feel that we have much more capacity than our general mode of functioning. It is also quite apparent that fear and the pain/pleasure reflex are ‘programs’ we seem to be running on for most of the time. Fear, control, setting boundaries and the pain/pleasure reflex are attributes of the brain structures the medulla and pons, also referred to as the brain-stem, and lies just within the skull.
Could it be that we are wired in such a way, for whatever reason, that we bypass large chunks of functional brain tissue?
Instead we dominantly connect from more primal brain structures, the pons, medulla, midbrain and thalamus to the left-hemisphere, only reverting to the ‘more’ of us in times of crisis.
Somewhere along the line of our development we must have deviated from a more integrated psychological and neurological functioning. What we can conclude though is that our current state is not sustainable, which is apparent when we look at society, as it negatively affects full expression of our brain capacity which would be intelligence.
Furthermore a dysfunctional brain ‘hijacks’ the full expression of the heart, which is compassion, creating repercussions within the whole system, as described earlier.