95% of all illness is caused or worsened by stress. This statistic resonates with me on so many levels since my multiple autoimmune diseases were born out of what I now recognize to be PTSD from childhood and adolescent trauma. I didn’t have the tools in my toolbox at the time, to cope with stress, so I stuffed it – that didn’t really work out for me on any level!
There is a big difference between stress and having a “stress-related disorder,” where a specific, defined condition or disease develops following a distinct and intensely stressful event. A dramatic example is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is where a serious physical or psychological injury leads to a host of problems including difficult, intrusive memories of the traumatic event; memory problems; apathy; and irritability.
A common definition of “stress” is any experience that causes tension, whether physical, psychological, or emotional, especially if it sets off the “fight or flight” response (when the adrenal gland releases adrenaline, leading to rapid pulse and breathing, and increased blood pressure). This serves us well if chased by a lion, which doesn’t really happen on a daily basis, thank goodness, but it’s theorized that persistent stress (such as worry about finances, mental or physical health, or personal relationships) could lead to chronic disease such as high blood pressure or autoimmune disease. Levels of stress-related illnesses are on the rise, and stress, both emotionally and physically, have been shown to trigger and intensify autoimmune disorders. A Harvard study found that individuals diagnosed with a stress-related disorder were more likely to be diagnosed with multiple autoimmune diseases at some point later into adulthood.
What are autoimmune diseases? Well, your immune system is your defense against invaders. Imagine your immune system as an army that must clearly distinguish friend from foe. Autoimmunity occurs when your immune system gets confused and your own tissue get caught in friendly crossfire. Another way to think about is your body is always fighting something, whether it’s battling infections, toxins, allergens, or a response to stress. Sometimes, your immune army redirects its hostile attack against you. Your joints, brain, skin, and sometimes your whole body become casualties.
Unfortunately, not only does stress cause disease, but the disease itself also may cause significant stress, resulting in a vicious cycle that magnifies the problem. Stress by itself also may aggravate or cause pain. What we do know is that the areas for emotion and physical pain sit very close to each other in the brain and both areas may be triggered simultaneously during stress, resulting in a mutually enforcing cycle that leads to chronic pain.
In conventional medicine, the belief is that once you have an autoimmune condition, there’s nothing you can do to reverse it, only ways to manage the symptoms. Managing the symptoms typically involves harsh medications that are aimed at suppressing your immune system. While these medications can be effective at reducing some of the symptoms of the disease, since they suppress the entire immune system, they are not without many unwanted side effects such as fatigue, weight gain, depression, increased infection rates and even cancer. However, lifestyle medicine sees the body as a whole and works on the belief that the health of one system impacts the health and function of the others. Instead of focusing on disease symptom management, it focuses on supporting and strengthening the immune system by getting to the root of why the immune system went crazy in the first place.
So what can you do if you have an autoimmune disease triggered by stress? I can't emphasize enough to prioritize stress reduction. Take care of yourself by adopting some stress-relieving strategies, such as exercise, meditation or some form of an art or craft. Journaling is a big one or writing a letter to your 5-year-old self, forgiving yourself of what you didn’t know and addressing any offenders in your life - these give your emotions an exit route instead of keeping it in. If you’re having trouble relaxing, try a restorative or yin yoga class or a guided meditation. As a Heartmath coach, I often coach people using a heart rhythm pacer called Inner Balance, an app that teaches you to breathe in line with your heartbeat. Even giving yourself five minutes to sit quietly with a fragrant cup of caffeine-free herbal tea can help tremendously.
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