We all know that a little bit of stress can be good. Positive stresses are typically short-lived and are your body’s way of getting you through a potentially difficult situation. The pesky study or work deadline that activates us to get things done, for example, or the nerves associated with an interview or exam.
But what about when you're stressed about a health issue? Maybe you're spending a lot time looking up symptoms or trying to find out more information about an illness that is worrying you. Perhaps you once had an illness and feel fearful of it returning, even though you've had medical reassurance? Or perhaps you are worried about a major illness or disease affecting your life and are not sure of your symptoms or are too anxious to seek help?
A good place to start is generally speaking with your GP or specialist. This could be to discuss any symptoms you might have, or to let them know about the worry you're experiencing. It's important to have a medical consultation so that any tests or investigations which may or may not be indicated can be talked through. It could also help to understand if your health anxiety is part of a very common issue such as depression or different types of anxiety which may benefit from medical or specialist treatment.
If after this, you're still finding that you are struggling to gain reassurance, it could be worth looking at other options such as CBT and/or hypnotherapy. It's important to deal with worries such as this, and not allow them to take hold as they can cause chronic stress which really can start to wear you down.
In chronic stress, worrying thoughts can be sent as messages from the brain to the adrenal glands to activate extra chemicals such as cortisol, a steroid hormone, to keep the stress process going. This release of hormones works on the body (or nervous system) in a sort of traffic light system: red for stop and green for go.
The sympathetic nervous system is the green light. This releases adrenaline when we need to react to stress to give our muscles and heart extra energy. It is useful for short-term stress.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the red light. It slows the release of adrenaline when it’s no longer needed, and releases different chemicals and hormones such as acetylcholine to slow the heart down, making us feel relaxed and calm.
This traffic light system is actually run by your mind. And in fact, there’s very little difference between imagined stress and real stress when it comes to how the traffic light system reacts. Have you caught yourself reflecting on a stressful event at work over the weekend? Or re-playing a situation that didn't go to your liking with a friend or colleague over and over? Thinking about a stressful situation can lead us to experience or re-experience that stress in a very real and physical way. This is the mind-body connection at work.
The mind-body connection
The mind-body connection broadly describes the link between our mind (thoughts, feelings and beliefs) and the body (biological functioning, physiological symptoms and sensations).
Some examples are easy to identify; when we feel embarrassed, we may blush. When we feel excited, we describe getting ‘butterflies’ in our stomach. At other times it can be more subtle. It is believed that teeth grinding, for instance, may be linked with an inability to communicate assertively, whilst worry can have an effect on the ability to get to sleep, or sleep well.
Once you have been able to address the thoughts behind your health anxiety and perhaps settle on some more adaptable, suitable thoughts that serve your situation, you can begin to set off a new cycle that limits that sympathetic feedback system, and gives you greater control and well-being.
By using techniques like hypnotherapy, we can learn to be more aware and gain greater control of ‘traffic light’ system thoughts within us, and develop ways to access calm and control, to keep our stress levels just where we want them.
Over time, and with support and repetition, strengthening these new ways of thinking becomes a new conscious habits, or new ways of being. Some of the techniques I may use include looking at the cycle of thoughts, feelings and behaviours, using relaxing imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, connecting with your wise self and self-hypnosis that all promote calmness, self-confidence and optimism.
Once our mind establishes a more empowering way of thinking, it can lead to a different interpretation of the things we find stressful and how we respond to them. Over a period of time, and with some practice, we can then learn how to live life from a calm, positive and optimistic mental state more easily and more often which benefits our overall health and well-being.