Understanding the Physical Impact of Extreme Stress

Woman sitting on bed rubbing her neckPeople who have been exposed to a traumatic experience know all too well that severe stress has a significant impact on the body. Unfortunately, many people do not know that this physical reaction is normal and to be expected, which leads many survivors to conclude that they are falling apart or permanently damaged. Therefore, increasing your understanding of the physical impact that extreme stress has is vital to one’s healing from a traumatic experience.

The brain receives information about the status of the world through your five senses and receives information about the status of your internal world i.e. what is going on inside your body through various nerves. All of this information travels through our spine into our brain. Once this information reaches the brain the first stop is a “danger detection center” which determines whether the incoming information indicates that there is a danger or threat. If the danger detection center perceives that there is a danger or threat then it sets off a series of alarms, which lead the body to begin preparations to protect itself.

When it comes to protection the body can fight, flee, or freeze. Key physical changes allow the body to engage in one of these protective moves. Some of these changes are: an increase in the rate of breathing, a faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, the funneling of blood to your running/fighting muscles, increased muscle tension, pupil dilation, an increase in sweat, increased pain tolerance, and finally a bolstering of your immune system.

Once the danger detection center receives information that the threat has departed or been sufficiently diminished, then the body’s relaxation processes kick into gear and halt or reverse the bodily changes that prepared for protection. This relaxation process takes roughly three minutes to return the body to a calmer, more balanced state of being.

So what goes wrong during a traumatic experience? Well, the answer is both nothing and everything. It is not that something goes awry with the stress response it is just that the stress response lasts for too long or is triggered too often. This prolonged or too intense exposure to the stress response is what causes damage. Specifically, damage occurs with the creation of memories, the formation of emotions and with the immune system.

With regard to memory, severe stress increases some and decreases other elements of memory. The creation of visual memories or mental images is increased, leading to a sense of re-watching the event over and over. This increase in visual memory also leads to flashbacks and dreams of the traumatic event. The emotional and sensory aspects of memory are also increased. All the while there is a decrease in the sense of time and the inclusion of words into the memory, meaning that it is common not to remember how long the traumatic event lasted but remember the terror that was felt during the event and logistical details as well – colors, makes, and models.

This absence of a sense of time leads to disorganized, non chronological, and fragmented memories which are often incomprehensible. Layered onto this is the fact that these memories lack accompanying words making it difficult or even impossible to talk or write about the experience leaving the survivor with a sense of “speechless terror”.

Not only are the emotional aspects of a memory strengthened during exposure to excessive stress but the management and formation of emotions in general is negatively impacted. This is because the brain chemicals which enable one to calm and regulate emotions become depleted. While these chemicals become depleted, the parts of the brain that create emotions become more active, meaning that one experiences more emotions more often and it is more difficult to reduce the emotion’s magnitude. This leads to an increased state of emotional distress, which the danger detection center interprets as a threat, thereby preventing the body’s stress response from fully turning off.

Finally, the severe stress response of a traumatic experience leads to a breaking down of the immune system. As discussed earlier, during a normal stress response, the body’s immune system becomes strengthened, however after a certain amount of exposure to stress the immune system begins to falter and break down.

Even though the impact of overexposure to the body’s stress response creates and causes significant as well as potentially long-lasting negative consequences, it is possible to recalibrate this response so that minor threats remain minor and do not trigger the body’s protection reaction.

© Copyright 2010 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Craig H.

    Craig H.

    March 4th, 2010 at 8:33 PM

    Very interesting, Susanne! And the million dollar question is, how do you “re-calibrate” as you put it?

  • Elizabeth R.

    Elizabeth R.

    March 4th, 2010 at 10:23 PM

    Susanne, you talked about remembering the feelings and say the color of the car that hit you rather than words or timeframes. When I read that I had a brief flashback to an accident I had when I was six. I was knocked down by a car when crossing the road. I wasn’t badly hurt but can remember clearly that it was a brown car and can see the grille on the front of it to this day (from the angle of a mechanic under it no less because I was lying on the road). I haven’t thought about that in nearly forty years and my heart skipped a beat as I did! I was more scared of the crowd that formed fast and the screaming I could hear than anything.

  • Mary Grace

    Mary Grace

    March 5th, 2010 at 10:16 AM

    Even small amounts of stress can send me into a tailspin- I know that if I faced a huge life crisis I would be all out of whack physically and emotionally.

  • Jonathan

    Jonathan

    March 5th, 2010 at 3:58 PM

    Very well explained, kudos!
    Many studies are now concluding that stress can lead to many other health problems. This must definitel mean that in addition to the fact that the nervous and defence system works differently under ‘threat’, or strees, then even the other parts of our body, due to inter-relation, also work differenlt in times of ‘threat’ or stress.

  • Gabriel

    Gabriel

    March 5th, 2010 at 11:24 PM

    It’s fascinating too how easily old memories and the physical reactions associated with them are triggered. Great article! Thanks for sharing, Susanne.

  • Cassie V,

    Cassie V,

    March 7th, 2010 at 7:35 PM

    That was an excellent article.

    Susanne, may I ask: is it common for your stress response to become hypersensitive if you’re stressed over a long period of time? I find myself getting uptight and feeling physical symptoms like a nervous stomach and sweating much faster than I used to when I get stressed. It’s over more and more trivial things that I can’t control too like the bus being late. My stress hasn’t been due to one single large event, more of an accumulation of small ones on top of each other.

  • Vivian

    Vivian

    March 14th, 2010 at 1:52 PM

    Knowledge is power. Thank you for explaining that, Susanne. When the physical experience is put into context of what’s happening and why like that, it will surely make it so much easier to bear.

  • Caroline

    Caroline

    July 21st, 2010 at 9:11 PM

    Go to you tube search engine: type in: “Behaviorally and Medically Challenging Cases in Autism” Now that is extreme stress and shows the amazing abilities of humans to cope with situations that defy human logic.

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