How stress affects the body and what you can do about it

My family and I took a trip to Chiang Mai. We were THRILLED to have the opportunity to hang out with elephants. It was something that I had always wanted to do. I diligently seeked out a place that emphasized the health and happiness of their elephants. Little did I know, I was about to learn a lesson in how stress affects the body…from the elephants themselves.

I stood there with a wildly amused smirk spread across my face as the mahout (elephant handlers) ushered the baby elephants behind the wooden fence so that we, the park visitors at Elephant Rescue Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand could take in the wonder that was the youthful and spirited pachyderms.

Fully aware that they were on display, two of the elephants began to shift their weight from side to side. Their heads joined in the movement. As we continued watching, they began to sway even more vigorously.

“They’re dancing!” I breathlessly exclaimed.

That was when the tour guide chimed in.

“I know, we like to think that they are dancing for us. But the babies are moving like this because they are really nervous and scared.”

My dopey smile turned into a humbled chill that started at my face and rushed through my body, straight to my toes. This was when it hit me: Children do the same thing. This is exactly how stress affects the body for them.

WE do the same thing.

What made this park particularly unique was that all of the elephants in it had all been rescued from horrible situation. One of the babies had been removed from his mother to join the circus. Another had been rescued from a tourist park that used the elephants for riding (a horribly inhumane practice that elephants are not built for). They all had endured profound physical and emotional trauma, and none of them was a stranger to threat at the hands of these strange two-legged beings that were standing, gawking at them.

elephant crying
She was incredible! She had tears streaming out of her eyes!

What made this park particularly unique was that all of the elephants in it had all been rescued from horrible situation. One of the babies had been removed from his mother to join the circus. Another had been rescued from a tourist park that used the elephants for riding (a horribly inhumane practice that elephants are not built for). They all had endured profound physical and emotional trauma, and none of them was a stranger to threat at the hands of these strange two-legged beings that were standing, gawking at them.

How stress affects the body – my own experience

I thought about the last time my own body reacted in such a way to a perceived threat. I was in my Nia Bluebelt training and our task was to sit for two whole minutes and talk about ourselves.

Two whole minutes.

This was terrifying. Not only that, but I had to do this with a complete stranger. All she had to do was to listen.

This was freaking terrifying to me.

As I rambled on and on for what seemed like an eternity in one minute, our trainer, Ann, came over to me and said, “Toni. Look at your body. You’re all crumpled up. Relax.” 

I looked at her, puzzled. I had no idea what she was referring to…until I noticed that my knees were by my ears. My chest felt like it had one of those baby elephants sitting on it. My arms were wrapped around my legs and desperately pulling at my knees in an effort to somehow protect me from…God only knows what? Being hit in the face?

This was when I realized that my mind was playing a story that was causing me to physically react defensively…when, in fact, there was no threat around.

how stress affects the body

My prior “programming” from years of being taught not to speak up had me reacting, in fear, to a threat that wasn’t even there.

Usually when I notice experiences that speak to the mind-body connection so clearly, my mind shifts from focusing on myself and my immediate experience to the children that I work with.

I eventually began to wonder…

If this experience makes ME feel this way, then how does it make a sensitive child feel?

Okay…if my body clammed up at the thought of talking to another person that was totally non-threatening, and the elephant babies felt it necessary, in their bones to toss themselves, side-to-side in an effort to alleviate their nervousness, then how do our kids react to stressful stimulus in their lives?

Babies, by default, are in-tune with their bodies’ natural stirrings. For example, when they are hungry, hurt, or in pain, they cry. When they are startled, they jolt. They naturally fear falling, and when you place your finger in their hand, they will naturally grasp it. As they grow, they will explore and play. Ask questions. When they perceive danger, they will run and scream. They are adept to reacting to the stimulus of their environment.

The sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and physical sensations cue them in as to when things are a-ok, and when they need to bolt back home. When something doesn’t appeal to one of the senses, the child will react by wincing, crying, and jerking back.

But the reactions that have piqued my own interest the most are those of kids that have been identified as having some sort of conglomeration of “strange” behaviors (strange by adult standards, anyway). These are the kids that just don’t seem to follow the “codes” that have been established. You know what I mean by “the codes”, right? Here are a few examples.

  • It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the green beans. Eat them and pretend you like them.
  • So what if you can’t sit still. Do it anyway. It’s what’s expected of you.
  • Boys don’t play with dolls. Here are some toy cars. Learn to like it.

I once had a student that would begin telling a story with both feet on the ground. As she would continue to tell the story, she would shift and contort her body in various ways, and eventually would end up standing on her hands and doing flips.

“It just feels good,” she’d say.

Asking her to tell the same story with both feet placed firmly on the ground and NOT to move would result in her telling an abbreviated version of the story, with hands fidgeting and eyes shifting rapidly. Her breathing would quicken, and she would end the story by hopping away.

When I watched her and noticed what was happening with her body and mannerisms when she was asked to be still, even I felt uncomfortable. This kiddo needed to MOVE in order to communicate her message effectively. Asking her to stand still was like asking her to walk on a tightrope, blindfolded. It just wasn’t going to happen if I really wanted to get the full story.

To me, this was an excellent example of how physical movements truly are manifestations of emotional energy…in action. And it wasn’t just this kid…I’ve noticed this in SO very many kids that I’ve worked with. When things start to get a little uncomfortable, the wiggles begin.

How stress affects the body: Why does this happen?

This is where I tend to get super geeky. According to the most forward-thinkers in the mind-body space (think Peter Levine, Lissa Rankin, and Dr. Mario Martinez), if emotional energy has no way to escape the body through a physical response such as flight, fight, or freeze, the emotional energy basically gets trapped in the body. Cortisol, the stress hormone, floods the body, leading to illness. Stress becomes unmanageable. Anxiety becomes the default. Basically, we NEED to move our bodies in order to release the emotional energy that we are faced with every day. Ideally: at the very moment that we experience the events that set us off.

And the thing is, the event doesn’t even need to be a traumatic one for you to have an intense emotional reaction. All it needs to do is to connect to a thought that triggers a story, which then tells your brain that you are in DANGER, and you need to escape…quick.

This all may sound really strange, but think about it…our society has evolved so incredibly fast, and our brains simply have not caught up. At one point in history having your body flooded with stress hormone meant that you would be running from that angry woolly mammoth…far and fast. Today, our brains simply don’t know the difference between life and death threat such as, “Oh damn! That tiger is going to EAT ME!“, and “Whoops! I totally forgot to pay my electric bill!

The difference between these two events has to do with the amount of thought that you put into them. If you were standing face-to-face with a tiger, you better bet your amygdala your physical system would react to that emotional energy QUICK. Holy crap! That guy is going to EAT me! PANIC!

how stress affects the body

At the same time, if you realized that you hadn’t paid your electric bill, you might notice that your heart might start to race. Your breathing would intensify. You may even sweat a little. Is there any danger facing you in that moment? Not so much. But here’s the thing: the idea of not paying your electric bill may remind you of a time in your life when you had difficulty paying your bills. You remember how you went three months, in the winter, with no heat. The thought of this terrifies you, as you have pledged to yourself that you will never, ever go through anything like that again.

Your body may feel icky. Stomach queasy. Legs wobbly. Oh, boy…it’s the stress response doing it’s thang. You know that if you just sit there and fail to do anything about it, the problem will make you FEEL worse. You may even get a stomach ache. This is your body’s way of saying, “Hey! Get off your duff and go fix it! You don’t want to die.

And yes…reacting as if you’re going to die may seem a little drastic–and it is. It is your sympathetic system’s job to keep you alive, and if that means putting you on high alert when you see Grandma Jones’ false teeth fly out of her mouth toward your forehead, then it’s doing the right thing.

The thing is, it is not necessary for your sympathetic system to keep you on high-alert all the time. When I say this leads to illness, I’m talking about not only the common cold (as it lowers your resistance to viruses and bacteria floating around), but heavy-duty illness, such as cancer and autoimmune disease.

Think about it: disease = dis + ease. Moving through the world with peace and ease is going to lead to greater overall health. This is yet another example of how stress affects the body.

Releasing emotional energy through physical movement

The elephant was processing its emotions through physical movement. Without being able to carry out the physical movement to release the emotional energy, it would have resulted in the elephant’s body being flooded with cortisol, leading to excess stress and illness. Therefore, the elephant was doing the best thing that it could for it’s health.

When we force ourselves and our kids to disregard our natural instincts to release emotional energy through movement, we are flooded with cortisol and inundated with stress as well. When we feel as if we are being threatened in some way in our environment, it is not possible to do anything else. We are unable to function properly. Carrying out work and learning functions just isn’t possible.

So this is another example of how stress affects the body.

So what can you do to disarm your “inner lizard” (the little guy in your mind that freaks out every time you’re presented with something that isn’t life threatening…but it just needs your attention?

elephant and mahout
The mahout leading their elephants through the land.

How to reduce your stress so that your body can chill out

It is incredible how stress affects the body. I’ve got a nifty 5-step mind-body process that I use every time I notice that I want to jump out of my seat and take off heading for the hills. It takes a bit of introspection, but before long, you’ll be able to confront the stress in your life head-on without popping any Xanax. Start with yourself.

  1. Simply notice the sensations in your body. This is actually the trickiest part for most people since many folks don’t necessarily think to check in with what is going on with them, physically. If you start by practicing regular body scanning exercises, this will help you a ton. If you need help with that, you can get a free Body Scanning Meditation here. Notice what, in your body, might be causing you discomfort.
  2. Time to reverse-engineer what is going on. Once you have identified the sensations in your body that are causing you a bit of discomfort, sit with the sensation for a minute and notice any emotions that happen to come up. The good, the bad, and the ugly. All you need to do is notice them.
  3. Examine whatever is coming up for you. What thoughts arise when you feel whatever it is that you’re feeling? What do those thoughts and emotions make you want to do? Cry? Go to bed? Jump up and start cleaning the house (which is something I wish I had an issue with!). Examining your thoughts can provide great insight as to how stress affects the body.
  4. Time to do some thought work. Examine whether or not you’re actually in danger. Chances are, you’re not. Of course it is likely that a big, nasty story might have been dragged out. However, take a minute to notice what the story that is playing in your mind means to you. It is the MEANING behind the stories that wreak the most havoc in our lives, causing us tons of stress in the process. Byron Katie is a MASTER at this. If you’re ever stuck and not in a place to go seek help, check out her site. Magic.
  5. Use this mind trick to disarm any thoughts that are causing stress for you right now. After you finish with that, do one last body scan. How do you feel now?

It’s pretty crazy to think that our thoughts can impact our physical bodies so much. However, the “odd” things that you notice yourself (and even your kids and other loved ones) doing when a situation gets uncomfortable can be tremendously revealing. Your body processes intense emotions, and it is important that you pay attention to it in order to decrease stress. Yes, I might even dare to say that you actually have the power to write your own stress prescription. When you give yourself the time to really process the emotions that are linked to physical sensations, you may just notice that the little baby elephant within you suddenly feels cool, calm, and collected.

As for the elephants, they warmed up to us after some time. We needed to prove to them that we were okay. They began to feel a LOT more comfortable around us and before long, they were doing whatever it is that elephants do! Them and their mahout…a match made in heaven.

Don’t forget to check out the Body Scan Meditation download that I created just for you! You can get it right HERE.

The elephants washing themselves with their friends.

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