Undeniably the mind and body are connected and are more and more being understood as one bidirectional system. Therefore when anxiety, stress and trauma impact the mind they also directly influence a cascade of biological systems within the body.
Our bodies are adaptive and responsive to the messages that we receive, interpret and respond to. The sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) is responsible for causing most of the physical symptoms associated with anxiety. It is key to survival from threats of danger. Once this system of our body is activated, it often stays active until some sort of influence from the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to calm us down. If this does not happen then this “alarm” system stays active and can have a dramatic influence on hormones (cortisol), adrenaline, anxiety and depression.
There is a multitude of literature and research on the many biological systems of the body that respond to stress. One significant example is the observations of the nervous systems of children who have been abused. Children who have experienced abuse tend to be in a state of hyper-arousal. Their bodies are charged with fight-or-flight hormones (Cozolino, 2002).
Not surprisingly, it is more common that adults from traumatic backgrounds suffer from anxiety disorders, depression and relational issues. A study by Joyce et al. (2007) found that childhood abuse was associated with high cortisol levels in depressed adult survivors. The sense of danger, even if it is not current, lives on in the biological and emotional body.
It is clear that the caregiver shapes the development of the infants coping responses to stress and sets patterns for future relationships. Children who experience “glitches” in healthy early caregiver attachment often struggle with future relational challenges. Often this disrupted early attachment, even without overt trauma, can influence relational patterns (love addiction, love avoidance, co-dependency). This supports why it becomes crucial to work on the psychological and emotional levels to recognize and address “triggers” or as Eckhart Tolle coined “pain body”. Research supports that cognitive-behavioral type approaches and experiential therapy can positively interrupt these patterns.
Beyond talk therapy, experiential approaches can yield dramatic results. These approaches foster a sense of “the here and now”. Experiential therapy is considered a significant tool for emotional trauma. This approach goes beyond words and accesses parts of stored memory that are not linked to the left-brain language centers of the brain. Since trauma “memory” roots in the brains nonverbal regions, not easily accessible to the frontal lobe (executive functioning, reasoning, etc.), it makes good sense that experiential type approaches can have profound effects on anxiety, depression and attachment wounds in people with a history of trauma.
It is important to also understand that perceived threats can cause biological reactions similar to the literal bear-chasing-us-in-the-woods type event. Our adrenaline response kicks in when our body thinks it needs to run from that proverbial bear in the woods. Therefore, a therapeutic approaches that help individuals identify and repair skewed perceptions as well as those creating a “felt” sense of safety can have profound impact on a mis-wired “alarm system”.
Lifestyle changes can also have a profound effect on the stress response. Breathing techniques, having community, being creative, walking, nature, noticing your senses (smell, sound, color), and healthy eating, at regular intervals, are some examples of positive messages/re-enforcement to our mind-bodies. When we run on caffeine and no food we are telling our body to kick up adrenaline to keep us going. This is an example of a biological stressor that can have long term affects on our level of anxiety and ability to handle stress.
Managing our response to perceived stressors has been shown to have a more profound impact on our bodies then the actual hardships we may encounter. This concept is supported by a study published in The Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine that reported that perceived stress is more destructive to your immune system response than actual stress. Another reminder that while we may not have control over what stressors come our way in life, we do have a level of influence on our psychological resiliency, which is the ability to stay calm (mind-body) in the face of stress and maintain healthy relationships.
Couples can easily become stuck in cycles of unhealthy communication. Often if we continue in a relationship where there are unresolved issues, we find ways to numb out the problems and hurts. Oftentimes, we turn to television, food, alcohol or the Internet. These avoidance tools may reduce the fighting but do not encourage intimacy.
Past physical and emotional trauma can set us up to react, sometimes automatically, to any emotional situation that has a touch of a threat. In this “danger-sensing” mode, we are primed to defend ourselves. Often we react to an implied danger based on implicit memory or conditioned responses.
Real or perceived threats produce stress and activate a “fight or flight” response in our bodies. If you have a history of trauma or high conflict in your past relationships, most likely your sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) is calibrated for a “defend and protect” mode.
The good news is that there are simple tools that you can begin to apply that can shift the perceived threat response into something more positive, collaborative and current.
Below are four suggestions that can support more neutral and collaborative couples’ communication:
1) Calm yourself before introducing your tough topic. This means getting clear on your own goals. It could mean taking time for some deep breaths, self-talk, journaling, etc.
2) Stay in the present versus the past. Eliminate words like always and never.
3) Use “headlines.” Headlines are neutral, collaborative, present tense and solution focused conversation starters. Headlines offer an opportunity to calm down those automatic internal reactions when we sense something negative is being directed at us. This helps to neutralize the environment both internally and externally. When the use of positive signals increases, defenses decrease! Headlines create communication “road maps” that can help a couple feel more open and collaborative.
Here are two simple examples:
Common Conversation Starter:
“The house is constantly a mess and I need to get more help.”
“Do you have time to brainstorm a cleaning schedule for the house?”
(Present focused, collaborative)
Common Conversation Starter:
“I feel like we never go out anymore…”
“I have a new goal of getting out once a month and would like to talk about some ideas for how to do that.”
(Present focused, collaborative)
4) Discuss a problem NOT person as problem. Name the issue not the partner as the issue.
Communication can develop, over time, into patterns that create emotional distress. With the use of simple tools, new opportunities can emerge that can help to create positive shifts in a relationship.
Second Stage Recovery and Biological Considerations
By lori | Published: October 21, 2011
Christina Cowger, M.A., M.F.T.
For years the treatment of addiction relied heavily on behavior modification, abstinence and changing old behaviors to begin to live an addiction-free life. Second Stage Recovery is an opportunity to find deeper meaning and purpose in life and in the recovery process. It offers tools and support that enhances one’s ability to face the future with optimism, better life skills and serenity. As new tools and insights continually develop, Five Sisters Ranch has embraced the biological piece of recovery within its Second Stage Recovery program. Five Sisters Ranch meets each person exactly where they are at and offers them an innovative, comprehensive healing environment. Included in the program is neurotransmitter testing, which offers a “snapshot” of a person’s unique biochemistry.
Research is being conducted each day that softens the line between biology, emotions and behavior. Applied to addiction and recovery this information can support the importance of Second Stage Recovery that includes an individual’s biological awareness. Nervous system/neurotransmitter research and testing as well as exciting developments by Nobel Prize winner Prof. Elizabeth Blackbum on telomere length (protective ends of our chromosomes) reveal how biopsychosocialspritual elements of life are intertwined and have much to do with one’s quality of life. It appears that mental/emotional stress may produce a more rapid shortening of the telomeres – leading to faster biological aging.
So what do neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) and telomere length have to do with Second Stage Recovery?
There is debate within the academic community regarding the brain of addicts but one thing is agreed upon; addiction represents a different state of brain function. What comes first with addiction- the genetically predisposed brain or the trauma and addictive behavior that re-patterned the brain, fueling more addictive behavior?
It seems everywhere we turn these days there is new research on the brain. Our nervous system/brain communicates through chemical messengers call neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine etc). Assessing these biomarkers can be a useful tool for customizing support for each person throughout the recovery process and beyond.
In Gabor Mate’s book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Close Encounters with Addiction, he dedicates a chapter to the neurotransmitter dopamine (very active with drug use). Mate states that “On a cellular level addiction is all about neurotransmitters and their receptor”.
When a person has lived with addictive behavior for many years the brain’s communication and structure shifts to support the goal of gaining and using the substance of choice. The brain will reorganize its hierarchy to seek out the substance and begins to view it as necessary for survival.
Can we shift neural pathways that have been reinforced from years of addiction? The research supports that we can build strong, new pathways throughout our lifetime.
Neuroplasticity has been clearly supported through research. Therapy, mindfulness and supporting our biology can all change our brains (and DNA) further supporting us to seek out behaviors that can best serve us in having a rich and satisfying life.
The new research on telomeres highlights that our perception of trauma, stress and life events can actually shift and change our biology/DNA. How we “view” trauma and life circumstances can actually impact our biology (and recovery). Viewing recovery as a positive opportunity for personal growth and exploration verses restraint is the underpinning of a Second Stage Recovery model.
Second stage recovery viewed through the lens of spiritual/life meaning, emotional expression, integration, honesty, biology and as an opportunity for growth may offer sustained mental, emotional and spiritual health and give our DNA a boost to boot!
Five Sisters Ranch is committed to providing a safe, healing and non toxic environment. Five Sisters Ranch serves women who are looking to strengthen their spirit and deepen healthy relationships with self and others.