Why do we notice physical stress more than mental stress?

A psychologist shares three ways to deal with stress before things go too far. 

It’s not breaking news to say that we feel stress in the body – we know it’s no coincidence that our jaws feel tight or our stomachs feel off when things get busy. But often it creeps up on you, and you end up sick, injured or physically run down before you even realise that you are massively stressed out.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it impossible to notice when your busy days are starting to lead to mental burnout. It isn’t until I end up bent over in pain with a stomach issue, sucking in breath from the discomfort of a recurring ankle injury or, like in an extreme case earlier this year, sitting in A&E with a doctor telling me he couldn’t work out what was wrong with me. 

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And I didn’t know either until I took a step back and realised that it was most likely stemming from my hyper-stressed brain. The question I berated myself with was how on earth did I not notice just how overwhelmed I was before it started to take a toll on my body?

Why do we feel physical stress?

“We can often experience a disconnect when chronically stressed because humans are very adept at de-prioritising our mental and emotional states in favour of other focuses we deem to be more important like work, external commitments or child-rearing,” says health psychologist Dr Sula Windgassen.

“We stop noticing mental discomfort itself and the sensations in our body then become the warning sign that we need to put the foot on the break. In essence, we are very good at neglecting our feelings but it’s harder to ignore our physical, whole-body needs.” 

We are sometimes better able to notice a physical headache than mental stress

Dr Windgassen explains that this happens by a process called eustress. “It’s in those acute moments when the brain perceives a stressor and readies the body for action. It is evolutionarily hardwired in us for survival and eustress is very helpful to us. It provides us with the adrenaline to push through challenges and can give pain relief in moments when other needs trump needing to seek help for injury,” Dr Windgassen says.

But when stress becomes chronic, and the eustress response keeps being triggered or is never allowed to deactivate, our body can start to show physical burnout.

“This is because your body has been hyperaroused below the surface trying to keep you safe, which changes your chemistry, the landscape of hormones coursing through your blood and how your organ systems function. It also demands more of your metabolism, and the body can’t sustain this level of activity long term without some side effects. We often experience these as fatigue, pain, irritability, increased or decreased appetite and poor concentration.” 

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Does physical stress matter?

The question is, have our stress levels already gone too far if they’re materialising physically? “It is common that people begin to notice bodily signs of stress before recognising that we are psychologically stressed, and it does not matter whether your body or your mind alerts you first,” Dr Windgassen says.

What does matter is noticing your stress before it becomes chronic. “To prevent the accumulation of stress in body and mind, simply noticing and acknowledging it goes a long way. This also gives you the active choice about whether you need to act any further in tackling the stress,” she says. 

How to stop stress accumulating in the body or mind

Mindful body practices

“Developing practices that help you to drop in on your body can help to reduce the accumulation of physical and psychological stress,” Dr Windgassen says.

She recommends a body scan – closing your eyes and thinking of each physical part of your body from head to toe. “This also allows you to explore your mental landscape further. What is behind this tension? What thoughts feel heavy? How do these thoughts make you feel?” she says.

Name your feelings

Labelling emotions is a simple practice to help you regulate them. “FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) studies have shown that simply labelling how you feel helps the emotion centres of the brain decrease. You are communicating to your body that you are attending to its needs,” she says.

When you start noticing your breathing turn shallow, saying ‘I’m stressed’ might be as useful as re-regulating your breath to remind you that you are safe. 

Noticing your feelings and writing them down can help stress

Give all emotions weight

“If you only notice emotions when they are really strong, you miss important data to help orient the brain to safety as well as to threat,” Dr Windgassen says.

Only noticing stress when you are chronically overwhelmed is bad for you, but to counter that you also need to be able to understand small moments of happiness and relaxation, not just the big moments of pleasure.

“That feeling of mild contentment that you may get sitting watching a programme you like, when acknowledged, can recalibrate an overactive threat detection systems in the mind and body – especially when these moments are regularly acknowledged. Equally, noticing subtle signs of discomfort when you are starting to feel irritated by someone can help you to respond in a way that is not reactive and honours your needs,” she says.

It may not be intuitive if you have never been taught how, so a good place to start is by using resources such as the emotion wheel to gain a sense of familiarity over your own range of emotional experiences each day. 

Images: Getty

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