It’s Time to Start Talking About the Connection Between Our Mental and Physical Health

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Simply existing in today’s society that values human life in dollar amounts can be traumatic. With mass shootings, the collective pandemic we are enduring, and the vitriolic rhetoric coming from extremist groups, trauma from outside sources can flood our minds with negative thoughts, triggering all kinds of responses in our minds and bodies.

This compiles on top of each individual’s personal burden, often exponentially compounding the weight of the world they must carry. For too long our society has decided to endure stress in silence. It has realized a collective as well as personal trauma that comes with the repressed feelings of anxiety, identity, and stress — feelings that are completely normal and valid, part of the human experience.

We seem to be turning a corner. Mental health is openly addressed. Going to therapy no longer carries the stigma it once did. In fact, many people now rightfully consider it admirable. “That’s the real beauty of the era that we’ve entered. People are a lot more willing to approach that topic, and to look within, and to start to work through those traumatic blockages,” Hana Miller, a women’s holistic health expert with experience in Western, Eastern, and indigenous medicine, explained to me.

Trauma and stress are not limited to our minds. Our bodies absorb and reflect back the emotions we experience. Our minds flood with chemicals that can alter our moods. The complex interaction between the mental experience of trauma and the physical reaction in our bodies is often misunderstood, ignored, and suppressed through unhealthy behaviors.

What exactly is trauma? Miller gave me a common definition helpful to start the conversation: “Essentially, trauma is anything that is beyond our capacity to cope with.”

Trauma exists on many levels. Stress can take many forms. It is not always a visible thing. In fact, the most insidious trauma can eat away at us without anyone knowing. It is a sad reality that nearly everyone we know today is dealing with some sort of crisis, pain, or loss. No one is immune to the intensity that trauma and stress can impact on our lives. National heroes like Anthony Bourdain and local legends like Andy Clark of Moxie Bread demonstrate that we need a conversation about reaching out for help.

Trauma is broad. It can be induced through physical violence, persistent pain, mental anguish, and financial distraught among many other sources. The signs are recognizable yet often ignored. Lack of sleep, unhealthy focus on work, substance abuse, withdrawal from social situations — these all signal something is amiss.

One night in spring 2020, I was awake, tossing in the night. Unable to sleep, like so many Americans. I was stressed beyond belief. Who wasn’t thinking about finances or the health of their loved ones or the threats of gun violence, or the thousands of other possibilities that can trigger a stress response? Plus, the pandemic had just hit, and I no longer had a job.

For me, stress manifests itself in my stomach. This complicates things because I also have several food allergies that can activate a similar feeling. Is this a wave of nausea or anxiety washing over me? When my chest tightens, is it from allergies or from mental tension? Is my stomach in knots from an accidental bite of wheat or because my mind is not at ease?

I spoke with Dr. Janine D’Anniballe, a nationally recognized psychologist based in Denver, about her specialty in dealing with trauma.

“We hold trauma in the body.” Dr. D’Anniballe lists the many ways the body can respond, “G.I. [gastrointestinal] upset for sure, migraines, and jaw clenching which also leads to headaches and can even lead to teeth sensitivity.”

More than just physical ailments, trauma and stress can lead to physiological effects like a lack of focus, trouble remembering details, or in my case, stomach pain and a difficulty falling asleep. Even when the pressures of trauma allow us to rest, “We just might fall asleep but don’t stay asleep. That comes with bad dreams or even nightmares. It’s common to wake up sweating [when] you’re anxious,” Dr. D’Anniballe explains the connection between mind and body.

The culmination of financial stress from losing my job during the pandemic paired with the physical pain of a yet unknown allergic reaction had me up at night for a week straight. I couldn’t sleep. The pain in my chest wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t keep any food down. This had happened before but never at this level and never for this long. It had been days since I had a full meal. I wasn’t even able to keep Pedialyte down. Something was deeply wrong.

I wound up in the back of an ambulance my wife called for me. The ER didn’t have room so I waited, writhing in discomfort. I tried to hide it, but my beleaguered breaths and clenched teeth betrayed my inner pain. Finally, a bed opened up. I was assessed by the nurses and a doctor. I had been coughing and vomiting so much that there appeared to be a tear in my esophagus. There was fear that liquid had leaked into my chest cavity. Emergency surgery was scheduled. Scans were ordered. I was given one dose of fentanyl. That helped some, but the second fentanyl dose completely erased the excruciating, gnawing pain. I saw how easily this feeling of ultimate relief could claw itself into introducing even more trauma if not properly monitored.

That experience haunted me, yet transformed me. I was previously living in chronic pain. I was never sure what would trigger a response in my system. Fortunately, the hospital staff recognized that my condition was a combination of undiagnosed food allergies and high stress. Emergency surgery was never needed, the tear in my esophagus was minor, and no liquid had escaped. I was able to make adjustments to my diet and took time to reflect on what I wanted in life. I am still scarred by the notion of the wrong meal landing me in the ER again. I always have to reflect on stomach and chest pain to identify what is causing it. Our bodies speak to us, and I had to learn how to listen the hard way.

Identifying the difference between stress and physical pain can be trickier than one would initially think. Dr. D’Anniballe empathized with the question, “Is this stress, or is this just what I just ate?” So little is understood about the relationship between our gut and our brain, our emotions, and our sense of self. Harvard University has noted the growing evidence that gut health plays a larger role in mental health and overall well-being than previously thought.

Regardless of the connection, it is human to feel emotion. Loss and trauma play an important, yet painful role in defining our existence as a species. Even though evidence compiled by Smithsonian Magazine posits that other living species also experience a sort of trauma, it is us humans who are acutely aware of the fragility of life. It is the curse of sentience.

Becoming overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, anxiety, or sadness are part of the human condition. Staying overwhelmed, becoming stuck in a dark place, and not having the coping mechanisms to emerge can be daunting. Dr. D’Anniballe elaborates, “It causes us to disconnect within, disconnect from ourselves, or disconnect from others.” That withdrawal from situations individuals once previously enjoyed can be a sign to reach out to them.

An important step in emerging from a dark period of trauma, stress, and generally being overwhelmed is reconnecting with things that make us feel safe. Using our time to be mindful. To be present. Importantly, Dr. D’Anniballe points out the differences between being mindful versus becoming numb, explaining “an opportunity to just kind of take stock, being present with what is happening — that is coping versus numbing out or just distracting ourselves all the time.”

Too often, the instinctive response to a traumatic event is to block the memories with substances or distracting experiences. According to Dr. Gabor Mate, a leading voice on the topic, this desire to forget, to not confront what mentally ails us, is what forces some to drugs, alcohol, and other addictive behaviors. This numbing behavior has short-term benefits, but running and hiding from the problem is not the answer. Dr. Mate runs a clinic in inner-city Vancouver, and his ideas of treating addiction appear to not only have success with drug abusers but are popular with new wave advocates as well.

Identifying stress and trauma is one thing, but finding the coping mechanisms for each of our own individual stress responses can be a completely new challenge. Luckily, Dr. D’Anniballe provides a starting point: “Connecting into yourself and then connecting with others. Feeling a sense of sharing and belonging. Communicating with other people, with other beings, I count animals as well.” Moving to End Sexual Assault, where Dr. D’Anniballe works, has a staff dog that provides comfort, cuddles, and unconditional love to those who need it most.

Being in the moment with your pet can help center your mind. When things get especially dark, connecting back to yourself by taking them for a walk, grooming them, or just petting and holding them can provide an important moment of relief. This physical connection and mindfulness in caring for another living being can release oxytocin, known as the bonding chemical that creates feelings of ease and contentment. Because trauma and stress act on the body physically, it is important to find what physical action is best for you to work through the feelings and emotions, to get to a point where you are in a mental space to heal.

MESA therapy dog. Courtesy of MESA

Because the human response to trauma is to hold it in the body, Dr. D’Anniballe suggests that “one of the best things you can do is literally move through it. So whether that is walking or exercise or dancing or even cleaning the house, try to connect with the natural world as much as possible.”

Miller elaborates, “When we meditate, when we receive acupuncture, when we take deep breaths — engaging in breathwork — that’s when things really heal.”

Placing yourself in a positive mindset that is centered around coping is a good start, but not everyone can get to that point without a therapist guiding them. Dr. Brene Brown is a leading researcher from the University of Houston and best-selling author on the topic. In her advice to people living with unaddressed trauma, she suggests evaluating the benefit that comes with carrying around the encompassing weight and heaviness. Being afraid to confront the emotional release that can accompany facing one’s trauma is a stumbling block on the road to recovery. Healing begins by wanting to move forward. Recognizing that not working on your trauma, stress, and all the physical ailments that follow is ultimately more regressive than opening up is an important first step. On an individual level, therapy is becoming commonplace and openly addressed in the media. As a society, it seems like the desire to address generational trauma has emerged as well. Part of the Black Lives Matter movement was addressing institutional trauma endured by communities in a public setting.

In many cultures and throughout huge periods of time, physical and mental ailments were not separated as they are today. Part of our conception of self, and therefore the lens in which we view medicine, is that of duality between human and nature, between mind and body, when in actuality there may not be quite that firm a distinction. Peruvian cultures have used ayahuasca to connect the mind and body, to erase this divide, and begin to open up to healing.

Dr. Mate has publicly stated that “the mind is a social construct.” During his appearance on the Being Well podcast hosted by Forrest Hanson, Dr. Mate stated, “Relationships and interactions with other humans throughout our lives, from the earliest stages of development all the way through the end of our lives, has an effect on our development.”

His ideas focus heavily on the mind and body relationship and on eliminating this duality. Dr. Mate draws from the well of ancient wisdom, specifically Buddhist philosophy. Peering past the dividing line we so often perceive between the psychological and physical parts of ourselves is part of the research that makes Dr. Mate’s ideas so appealing.

Does trauma lead to addiction? Mate says so. He equates addiction to hard drugs with things like shopping addiction and believes they have similar roots if expressed very differently. Addiction isn’t the problem in his view, but the attempt to solve the problem, minimize feelings of loss, ease the sting of pain, and give in to the numbness of dealing with it all. Addiction is a “normal response to abnormal circumstances,” Mate also stated on the podcast.

Widespread high blood pressure, heart problems, and obesity are indications of high stress and are all prevalent in the American population. Anthropology, the study of humans, may offer some insight as to why modern life is so stressful.

Our ancestors evolved in groups of 20-100 individuals. This number allows a personal connection with every individual in your group. The likelihood of social isolation and loneliness is much lower. Maintaining hundreds of contacts across the entire globe without physical contact is not something we evolved to do.

There is strong indication that many indigenous cultures do not see trauma like Western medicine does. Nearby Pueblo, Native Americans have strong traditions of shamans who travel between the physical and spirit world. They appear to bridge the gap between the mental and physical. Indeed, it is a growing trend to seek out indigenous knowledge to help heal. More and more people take trips each year to Peru to experience an ayahuasca journey, ideally with an experienced shaman. Miller is one such person, but she rightfully cautions, “People think that they can go and drink these like massive cups of the medicine and trip balls and that everything will be fine. There’s so much more to it like the preparation and sharing, that you’ve set intentions, that you’re in the right headspace, and you’re working with someone who can facilitate your experience.”

The use of non-traditional medicines such as hallucinogens can be part of the healing process, but as Dr. D’Anniballe rightly noted and Miller touched on, you need to use these as a part of the healing experience, not the entire experience itself. With the recent decriminalization of psilocybin in Colorado and Oregon, the opportunity to experiment with new treatments will grow, but it is important to use these methods intentionally as a way of healing, not to numb and hide from the pain.

The different examples may seem random but they highlight the incredibly important connection between our emotions and our physical well-being. Some form or another of reconciling this separation has been present in society for as long as anthropologists can identify.

It seems like the desire to address generational trauma has recently emerged as well. Part of the Black Lives Matter movement was addressing institutional trauma endured by communities in a public setting. On an individual level, therapy is becoming commonplace and openly addressed in the media. But we have far to go.

Statistics from Everytown for Gun Safety show that mass shootings, defined as events in which four or more people are shot and killed excluding the killer, have consistently occurred over the past decade. This violence coupled with near non-stop media coverage of such events not only reminds us of the dangers of guns but also reopens wounds that are simply never allowed to heal. Just passing by a loud television can accidentally remind someone of their tragic loss. Talking with mental health and trauma experts, maybe we should turn our TVs off. We should at least turn them down and limit our consumption of media. Controlling what we consume by reading articles we choose, not having images of traumatic events and world calamities beamed into our homes, is a glaringly obvious way to reduce stress.

Everyone is bearing an unknown burden. It is impossible to see the mental scars on a person’s mind like we can see their physical scars. That may play some role in the stigmatization of seeking mental help.

American culture values ruggedness, toughness, and individuality. These traits clash with the concept of seeking help for mental health. Recently, this stigma has started to fade, but there is still a shroud around the idea of telling someone you see a therapist. For decades the old response was to “suck it up” or forget about your troubles with a drink or something stronger.

The American response to the need for mental support has shifted in recent years. It has become increasingly acceptable to talk about mental health in a public setting. Exploring the collective and individual trauma that has been inflicted over time will be a painful but necessary experience to grow as a nation.


National Suicide Hotline: 988

Colorado Crisis Services: 1-844-493-8255
coloradocrisisservices.org
3180 Airport Road, Boulder, 80301

Moving to End Sexual Assault: 303-443-7300
movingtoendsexualassault.org
1455 Dixon Ave. Suite #210, Lafayette 80026